Three Seasons of Fighting

by Hugh Coyle

i

Last night, between skirmishes, we crept
away from our lakeside camp
and carved lines of love on the ice
with knives and the tips of bayonets.
Dawn came; the warm sun rose
and read our poems, its critical eye
erasing the rhymes.  When we returned
the next night, the lake bore scars,
our day old scribblings welted over.
The youngest of us, a drunken
infantryman, cursed such abject
spurning and stamped his foot,
triggering the lake’s reply: a whooping
boom followed by a fissure and a split.

Each night that followed, you
set out across the ice, wordless
and lost to us.  You slept on opaque
surfaces, distrusting transparency,
yet returned in time for morning
line ups, questioned but never daring
to explain your blackened, frostbitten lips.

ii

The corporal ordered
the heaviest private to sit
on the insurgent’s chest
and listened for the outrush
of breath, the crush of ribs
and collarbone, the soft surrender
of lungs and heart,
while another soldier
stopped up the nostrils
and plugged the windpipe
with clods of mud and stones
wedged in back of the teeth.

“The bodies,” he explained,
his shoulders drooping
to mimic the weight
of deep water, “Stay down longer;
don’t float up or dance
about in the current.”

I paused like a foreigner
confused by arcane custom.

He mimicked a breast stroke
for clarity.  “Surface.  Swim
back up,” again as if spirits
could push and part water.

I listened to his explanation
and now can’t repress it.
The story fills with air and rises
of its own accord, bloated
as it is with the stolen
breath of its own retelling.

iii

The chaplain dead, you addressed
the troops with pennants pulled
from your mouth, silk and felted
cashmere.  Crafted as prayer
flags, some later unfurled
as banners in battle, royal blues
and saffron yellows stained
by the luxury of blood that war
affords.  On your return, you held them
out like tortured comrades, laid them
on the bed of the empty page.
You resurrected alphabets
from the broken bones of their letters;
stitched together first words, then
sentences that raced to the margins,
unapologetically.
You made of your body a character
meaning one thing and one thing only: love.
You stood before us, arms open, all of us
suspect that each wink was an instance
of blindness, each smile a fracture passing.