Woe is Man

Romance, meanwhile, began to develop

more profoundly after the fall of Tula

and continued till the fall of Mexico.

On a day in the realm of Salamanca

a bull was to be killed in public sporting.

A rowdy occasion with raucous feasting

would follow, as was customary of old.

This fiesta de toros honored the Baptist,

and followed up the feast of Corpus Christi

when fun rustic plays and farces filled the streets.

Kings for centuries consecrated weddings

with face-to-face combats between man and bull;

sometimes one, sometimes the other prevailed,

with one thing always the same: a bull must fall.

And just lately Pope Alexander the Sixth

had reintroduced the bullfight into Rome

and stamped on his Papal Bull a rampant bull.

Before Castilian Christians and Moors there were

Visigoth warlords and, before their conquest,

Roman governors of Hispania’s plains

held circuses where bulls fell in arenas

and legionnaires were baptized in Mithra’s blood,

the lord of light who slew the bull of blessings.

Of old the bull was honored for its power:

in Athens as Dionysos and in Crete 25

the court of Minos raised altars of his horns;

Italic tribes derived their name from taurus

and wore horned war-helmets like their foes the Celts;

the Hittites called him Teshub, to Hurrians

he was Huni and Seni, the Canaanites

and Phoenicians called on Sandas and Baal,

Hadad and Ramman, the Hebrews had the Bull

of Jacob. Our alphabet begins with ‘ox’.

In Egypt you were Mnevis, Buchis, Apis,

Kamutef, the great black bull of your mother;

you were Marduk, steer of day, in Babylon,

in Sumeria, Nannar and Gutanna,

in India you’re Nandi, bull of Shiva,

and Rudra the destroyer, and Parjaña.

At Çatal Hüyük your horns fill cryptic shrines

and pictures of you adorn its cave-like walls.

In Tuc d’Audoubert and Les Trois Frères and in

Old Stone Age caves in northern Iberia

huge aurochs are depicted in red and black,

fierce contenders of man, the haunted hunter

whose life depends on facing dreadful forces.

Bulls were elemental to community,

a great catch for the tribe, a spur to courage,

and then the remarkable head of the herd

in the wattle corral with his white cattle, 50

then the plow steer, the key to fertility,

the king’s double who yearly died in his stead;

all these signs subsist in Salamanca’s feast.

But in such rabble-arousing merriment

a duke’s three daughters are not allowed to take.

They are kept cloistered at court, haply knitting,

hearing from afar the masses surge and roar.

While weaving, the girls rehearse romances

spinning the oldest themes in storytelling:

tales of love between females and males.

And as they often are, the stories are sad,

and mix love’s joy with melancholy passions,

doubt and shame, thwarted desire and despair—

light fare with many a moral interlaced;

with such tales the girls while the hours.

The first, her name was Lilah, fond of word play,

matched her nimble fingers with an agile tongue

and spun out a lay the peer of her loom’s web:

“Isabel and Don Muzí dwelt in a land

between two rivers beyond old Babylon

before Semiramis raised high its brick walls.

Both were young and fair and born with gentle hearts.

Hannah was a princess, her Don a shepherd,

and she first saw him from her tower window

when her heart was struck by blind cupid’s arrow. 75

Hannah Isabel fell sick for Don Muzí,

and since she saw him pined to see him again,

to come to know him better than she knew him,

and let him come to know her better also.

The maid sat by her window waiting for day

to follow her sleepless nights aching in love.

As the dawn sky blushed, Hanna prays to heaven:

‘Don Muzí, how fortunate my father’s herds!

Oh how I long to watch you milk our milk cows,

oh to behold you plowing deep rich furrows,

to see your dark brow glistening with your dew!’

Word spreads to a servant girl, his sister,

who tells her brother how her mistress suffers

pangs of heartache for him; he pities Hannah

and vows to mend the cleft he’s daftly caused her.

His sister arranges a clandestine tryst

where they meet in secret and learn each other’s

minds and make new plans to later meet again.

Don Muzí has been smitten and can’t wait to

know her, but she wants to wait and marry him,

but how could he a shepherd, she a princess?

He pleads with her, bears his wound to her in words,

‘My lady, your wish is all I want to serve;

it’s fair I suffer, you’ve justly conquered me.

I’ll wear your ring as long as you hold the key 100

to my battered heart, as brittle as a glass.

‘Hannah Isabel, why should your heart deny

itself the satisfaction it so longs for?

Am I so base that I don’t deserve at least

a single something small like one simple kiss?’

His words pierce deep into her heart, and conceive

more fervent passion welling up in her eyes

where he reads a change that wounds his own heart too.

It’s night, out by the sheepfolds, and Hannah says:

‘Don Muzí, come into my sheepfold, come in

and take a seat beside me and drink some milk,

and make a bed beside me, my wild bull,

lay your body down, lean back your walking stick

to prop your head, then lie asleep, take your rest.’

They went inside and lay down by each other

in a nest of hay and kissed so gently, and

as an unyoked plow ox come from the furrows

stoops his neck and laps cool water from a ditch

dug beside his pasture for irrigation

so were Don Muzí’s languishing spirits renewed

when first his mistress’ sweet lips kissed his own.

For thirty nights they lost themselves together

and prayed their dungeon of secrecy become

—through some miracle—an open paradise.

In the middle of their courtship the reigning 125

king fell sick and died; and since he had no sons

Hannah Isabel is crowned the kingdom’s queen

and raises as her consort to the throne her

newly-wed husband Don Muzí who holds

her scepter and sits in court as her shepherd-king.

Their court was grand and full of caballeros,

lusty donzels and many lissome maidens,

decent ladies all, who watched the tilting lists

to pick out champions deserving of their kiss.

And the overflowing feasts beyond compare,

prepared from the pick of full coops and pastures

and granaries heaped with golden mounds of wheat,

and fleshy grapevines gave blushing red and white wines.

Every joust they held broke a thousand lances

and every jester’s jokes provoked light scandal;

every evening showed off ball gowns and dances,

after sundown, glowed by the light of candles.

Then one fall the Queen was called away to go

tour her southwest borderlands and meet the king

of a neighboring country. She went alone,

leaving Don Muzí to rule in her stead.

When she arrives, the barbarous king betrays

his dignity and takes her captive, keeping

Queen Hannah locked up in a deep dark dungeon,

then sends back word that she had never arrived. 150

For three long months the Queen pined in that prison,

but each time she could she paid a servant girl

with some piece of jewelry and bid her get word

to her kingdom that she was alive and well.

Seven servant girls kept the priceless gift

but broke their word; Hannah had no jewelry left.

Finally she found pity and, broken, hungry,

she escaped by night and made her way back home.

There she found Don Muzí seated on her throne,

holding her scepter, with a sword by his side,

surrounded by servants and flattering maids.

He had almost forgotten her and hardly

could see his love in the woman before him.

She had changed, yes, but so had her Don Muzí.

He feigned pleasure to see her but she could tell

his false heart had not missed her; so she called on

her father’s brothers to drive him from her throne.

‘You thankless! You didn’t even think of me!

And after all I did for you, and all we

had together! Be gone! I can’t stand your sight!’

Stripped of every insignia of power

soldiers escort him to the distant marches;

he wanders until he comes to a sheepfold

where he asks its lord to let him herd his flocks.

Don Muzí died serving that master of flocks 175

and Hannah Isabel lived on without love;

her fields suffered drought and she left no heir

to rule when she went to meet her Lord above.”

Lilah’s sisters and the girls waiting on them

laud her delightful lay; then Magdalen lays

aside her loom and dons her silver thimble

to protect, while she’s sewing, her pretty thumb

and begins to draw out her own turn to tell.

“List well sisters, my turn is sure to list you

just as Lilah’s pleased us, I’ll tease a tight knot

out of rough threads, then braid them into story.

My song is of the son of a shepherd-king,

Giovanni, strong hidalgo of Ludovig,

and how he slew the mighty bull of Astrah,

daughter of Esther, priestess of holy Ænna.

Hidalgo, the lusty young king of Gilgal,

took all its brides by right; all the young men moaned

that he abused them, so they called on heaven

and heaven heard them; afar in Aroer

ran wild one who would match the flagrant king.

Enríque, an Amorite of the mountains,

second in strength only to King Giovanni,

ran with beasts of the field, lapped with lions,

swift as wind he ran and knew no ways of man.

He claimed no clan. He sprang the traps of hunters 200

then slipped around their sight into the starlight.

An angry hunter sent for help to Ænna.

Enríque was as hairy as old Esau

and as wild a child as Ishmael

until a handmaid of Sharon seduced him

and taught him the ways of love in the vineyards

of Engedi, she opened herself to him

for seven full nights of play, seven full days

they dallied in the shadow of goat fountain.

When she was done with him the wild beasts

no longer came near him, they fled his presence

once she’d let him see what force a woman has,

once she’d washed his body, melted his hard heart.

She taught his tongue to mouth words of human speech

and made him reach deeper in himself until

he learned new depths of breath between lung and lips.

She told him of King Hidalgo and Gilgal

and taught him how city people eat and drink

and how to maneuver weapons and sharp tools,

and so they moved along the ways to Gilgal

hearing from country folk King Giovanni’s fame.

He heard how he was strong, too strong, a tyrant,

how he took sons and daughters from their fathers,

sons to die in war, daughters to serve his bed.

They reach the city; people crowd Enríque 225

and praise his mighty form, as strong as an ox,

out of nowhere comes an equal to their king;

they prepare to feast him in Astrah’s temple.

Giovanni comes to revel in the temple

but at the gate comes up against Enríque

refusing entry; the king became enraged

and clashed with his dark double throughout the night

they fought face-to-face, wrestling fierce for hours.

Finally rage gave way to weariness and rise

to mutual regard for equal vigor,

the basis for friendship to grow a stable

rivalry vital to their riverine land;

so two became as one, and King Giovanni

called his friend Segundo, so great was his love;

two brothers sealed with sacred bonds of trust.

They never part. Both openly share their heart.

They hunt and eat and sleep as one. Then one day,

following dreams, they set out for adventure.

Once they had leveled the everlasting hills

of Nebo of its cedars, slain its spirit,

they marched triumphantly back into Gilgal

hailed by companions as great champions.

Astrah met Giovanni come clean from a bath,

gleaming skin and glistening sable curls,

robed in royal splendor, bearing high his crown, 250

hugged him round the knees and said:

‘Come now, my king,

great hidalgo of queen Leah, be my groom,

let me show you to my room and shower gifts

upon you and your people will applaud you

and kings and queens around will pay you tribute

so that all you touch, through me, shall turn to gold.’

Under a shadowed brow Giovanni answered:

‘Astrah, you speak of love, but I know the strife

you cause in every life that yields to your

lustful venom stealing like a shooting star—

fair to see but boding ill to come—through eyes

down into heart, then coursing through the blood and

finally sears the very core of my soul—

no, I’d rather be dead than mount your foul bed!

Let’s recall some names you drove to their ruin.

In the mask of your trade Thamar met her shame

when she gave birth to her father Judah’s seed.

Reuben sinned when he gave into his passions

and slept with Bilhah, his father’s concubine.

Your charms seduced the sons of Eli the priest

and harmed Tamar whom Amnon violated

driving a wedge between two royal brothers.

David desired and fell for Bathsheba

and Solomon gave his all to Sheba’s queen.

Everywhere and always you kindle fires 275

blazing so hot and fast no one can quench them.

No, I won’t have you. Go find another fool!’

Astrah was red with rage and stormed to heaven

to scheme her revenge on he who spurned her love.

She persuades her father to unleash his bull.

The heavens crack and thunder over Gilgal

and the earth quakes and trembles beneath their feet

then gapes open and swallows four hundred souls;

every spot that bull stomps the earth cracks open.

Giovanni and Segundo prepare to face

the enemy of man; they wait till they hear

the bellow of the bull before the horn thrust

then one leaps on his back, the other grabs hold

of those mighty horns and stabs him through the neck.

They bleed and butcher that huge bull of heaven

offering portions to please the sun on high.

Astrah was outraged; she stood high on the walls

raining curses on the two who slew her bull.

Segundo hurled the scrotum up at her

and Astrah’s choir of girls and eunuchs

circled this sacrum lamenting its demise.

Giovanni cut the horn and had it gilded

then filled with chrism for use in sacraments

when oil is poured to discharge family rites,

and all day long the city feasts the king’s bull. 300

But poor Enríque, the king’s dear Segundo,

has incurred the wrath of Astrah’s priestesses,

and soon falls sick, his body wasting away

with some inward fire, boils, lesions, sores—

no glorious strokes of war—cut him to death.

The city and the king lament Enríque

with loud and tearful ululations down by

the banks of the Ulay river where the two

friends use to lay and rest their weary bodies,

so long the ladies labor their lips in grief

until deep sobs sigh in bittersweet relief

and they lay him in a tomb of fine-cut stone

his name inscribed: ENRÍQUE, KING’S SEGUNDO.”

Magdalen turns to her sister and is still

since her song had nearly exhausted daylight;

Lilith had to tell hers before darkness fell:

“Soft, though hard to follow, and fallow your ears

where may my flood of words be fertile as

the seven mouths of Nile’s muddy delta

where my story has its setting long ago.

When Ham seduced Beth with a bowl of almonds,

Ramon saw them from his barge high in the sky,

nets them in their sin and calls the gods to see.

All the gods saw was a knot of naked limbs

fraught in the web that caught their adultery 325

and Thot himself swelled with passion at the sight

and swore he’d lie with Beth if she’d give him leave.

She did and when the first days of Abib set

Beth gave birth to Abel, Sarah, his sister,

(the first born to Reuben, the second to Thot),

and Seth, begotten of Ham, dark as a Moor,

and Nefesha, her sister Sarah’s near twin.

When once Sir Abel had grown his first green beard

he was taken with his sister Sarah’s grace

and took her to his breast to make her his wife.

She was his sole mate, his all, his very life.

Abel found a way to harvest grain for food,

how to measure ground and set stone boundaries,

and built canals to wet the fields and dams

up and down the Nile, then set out for home.

But Seth the Saracen, with seventy-two

picked knights, set upon his brother Sir Abel

and tricked him into a beautiful casket,

locked it and set it adrift on the Nile.

It passed San Hagar and drifted out to sea

and moored on Syria’s shores where it lodged in

an arbutus. There, out of breath, Abel died,

his twenty-eighth year, seventeenth of Elul.

Sarah searched everywhere for Abel, then found

him at Byblos and brought him back to Egypt; 350

she hid his corpse in the delta’s bulrushes,

she sowed her brother’s life-germ in a meadow.

A falcon lit upon a planted pillar

and Sarah soon gave birth to Horacio,

son of Abel, gone to rule souls below,

faithful son of his father in the meadow.

But Seth found the body and with a sickle

chopped it in fourteen pieces and scattered them

up and down the Nile. When Sarah found out,

she sailed the marshes gathering his limbs.

She found them all but one: his male member

a fish had swallowed down, so she made a new

one to take its place, of wood, and raised it up,

a monument to remember her love by.

But Seth was set to retake the kingdom’s throne,

reinstitute brute human sacrifices.

Horacio comes to challenge his mother’s

brother, asserts his right as his father’s heir.

Horacio calls for a trial, but Seth

says ‘No, you must first conquer a wild boar,

then return and match me in single combat.’

Horacio accepts. Seth thinks death is sure.

Abel’s son slays Seth’s boar, then rides in high up

on his fierce warhorse and calls Seth to the lists

on which hangs all, the throne, the realm, the future. 375

They arm, they mount, they gallop out to the lists

and pass once, then twice, but on the third pass Seth

is struck full force by his nephew’s sturdy lance

and down he falls, spitting blood and eating dust.

So Abel’s gallant son Horacio wins

the joust and right to rule his father’s realm.

Sarah cedes the crown and dons a cow’s white horns.

Seth is sent to sea to head the prow and helm

of old Sir Abel’s ship that sails east to west.

That is how I heard it from the rabbi’s wife

who sells us linens. Then she told me: ‘Take note,

for veiled in the garment of the fable

lives a body most worthy and beautiful

and blessed is the soul who mends her mind to sense

the brilliance of the body through the veil.’”

Her story and the day were done. Her sisters

are pleased for both, for words give way to hunger

and patient ears grow deaf when bellies rumble;

so, once the day’s finishing stitches are made,

the girls get dressed to dine in father’s court.

The crowds in the arena have died down now.

The body of the bull has been broken and

portioned out to participants and eaten.

Shadowed by the slow, gradual eclipsing of

the candid western sky by the east’s deep blue, 400

the bordellos have now hung out their shingles

and the young men from the university,

full of meat and wine, revel through their city.

Out of the waning twilight a cloud of bats,

roused by church bells enjoining vesper service,

screeches through the city and into the night

to sweep the sleeping pastures and the fields

around Ávila, Toro and Zamora,

where quick-witted zagales tend nobles’ flocks

eyes peeled wide for fleeced wolves and rabid dogs,

kindly like David, good shepherd and great king.

And still the head of the herd draws awe today:

from Galicia’s hills to dark Galla herdsmen

to everywhere they placate Mother Kali

the bull’s force and fertility is revered.

Meanwhile abroad, the first germs of contact

have passed from hand to hand on West Indies’ shores,

and the Turks have settled in behind the walls

of the glorious city of Constantine,

and Jews and Moors have begun to flee Seville

by night, exiles to a new Babylon

upon the muddy Tiber teeming with whores

until another Karl out of the north

storms with his horsemen crying ‘She is fallen!’

And Jews remember in the month of Tammuz 425

the day Jerusalem fell to Babylon

and Solomon’s temple walls were battered down

and captive women laid in ashes wailing.

One banishment recalls another early

fall from a paradise of eternal spring,

when our life’s mother took the mortal bite

of fruit from the tree of knowledge of our fate

seduced by the serpent’s coils and quick tongue

to doubt the one decree, so declared the judge

death by sweat and toil east of Eden’s gates.

Tell from someplace, once Lucifer had fallen,

the old comedie of eating of the fruit.

A cormorant perched atop the Tree of Life

descries the garden below, his oily eyes

burn his envious core to see such delight

as fills these novel creatures of flesh and blood

composed and in sharp limits, though kind, enclosed;

man’s foe sat devising death and dire woe:

“I know, for what will be the rest of time, deep

misery and despair, a hell of hollow

emptiness unfolds, through me, down to that pit

below, dug for our late but failed attempt

on heaven’s adamant walls—and how now more

fuel on our flames pours this new sight of bliss

so like our lost empyreal dominion! 450

And what is this, this creature like these brute forms

so frail and yet like angels in their gaze

and gait, both upright, and so strangely dual,

faces divided opposite for discourse

and intercourse, so paired for pleasant concord?

Woe is me! What low beings take our high place!

But why whine? I’ll turn these newest toys of mine

eternal enemy to serve my designs;

make them somehow defy their maker, and meet

our pangs of void and death, propagate this pain

down their generations, populate my realm

with pawns to mark good progress of my evils

against his righteous rule, and thereby twist

his chess board’s white to black—and my black to white.”

So said on whirring wings the fiend descended

to the herds below the tree and took their forms

to follow the father and mother of men

and women to spy, and so, unwitting learn

some inside secret on which to hatch his plan.

He heard the woman tell of one forbidden

tree of which the fruit would spawn evil unknown—

“Evil to know? So knowledge will be their woe!”

So thought the serpent shrewdly as he listened.

Night fallen, all the beasts retire to their lairs

and the human couple to their green bower 475

where they in love’s embrace dissolve their day’s cares

and fall to sleep and dreams. Night’s sounds will play tricks

on the dozing mind turned in, tuned to, itself

where fancy picks a strand and weaves a figment

for amusement or for some premonition,

to sound the possibilities before hand

plucks its object of unexpressed desire;

so Eve in dream beholds the fairest tree, more

fair in dream, interdicted yet appealing

in the full moon’s glow she longs to know, but no,

appalling that its appearance should entice,

yet no sooner touched and tasted than she soars

above the tree on wings where she sees new things

so dizzyingly spread below her vision—

when she loses sight and wakes with racing heart

in the early hour before the morning.

Adam still slept on; Eve nudges him, then coughs,

to wake him carefully. At last he opens

his sleepy eyes and she tells him her vision.

Adam did not like it. He tells her not to

think such things and tells her to stay close to him

that day while they worked in their pleasure garden.

But later Eve, claiming she wants to find some

amaranth for dinner, wanders off until

she happens by the tree, and on the trunk, wrapped 500

round, a serpent hisses lisping praises for

the glorious fruit of knowledge he has tried.

Eve goes pale amazed, fearful but intrigued

that another beast should utter human speech.

“Why so stunned?” it asks, “many wonders wait you

should you stretch your hand and for yourself see how

sweet this sweet tree’s fruit is should you taste and eat.”

“Has fruit the power to make the serpent speak?

Then what for us, already endowed with words?

But our Maker has told us we may not eat

of this tree in all the garden lest we die.”

“Fair Eve, your words, now that I have sense to hear,

are near as sweet upon your voice as this fruit

of which should you partake would never harm you;

for what made by our Maker could ever harm?

I hardly know the meaning of this word, harm,

for words for what does not exist are empty.”

And as he spoke his coiling words the serpent

stretched out toward Eve and wound himself around her

neck, across her shoulders, and over her breasts

then down her arm tingling to her fingertips

beguiling till she reached and plucked a golden

apple, with a shiver she smelled the peel,

then looked around, then took a bite and smiled.

“No peach has ever reached such peaks of sweetness! 525

No mango I’ve known has grown such luscious juice!

The pineapple’s tang, the pomegranate’s blood,

the coconut’s milk, none of these so pleases

as the liquor of these forbidden apples!”

She licks her lips, eating apples to the core,

then heads back to her husband with a present.

He eats her present and his eyes are opened

for the first time, and a flood of passions well

up from the darkness, burst the dam of his heart

and overflow his mind with lusts to possess

his wife in unknown ways, to know whatever

might be known, and he was equal to the task

with a mind as capable as the divine,

and as he watched his wife eating apples too

he envied that she first had braved the trespass

and began to feel anger at her nerve

to dare offend the one mandate of heaven,

and he took her, feigning love, and she gave in

willingly to sate her unbridled passions

until they both, exhausted, fell asleep, as

Satan looked on, delighted with his guile,

how the seven children of his daughter Sin,

pride, gluttony, lust, greed, envy, anger, sloth,

all the deadly passions had possessed their hearts.

When they recover from their torpid stupor 550

a veil falls from their eyes and they behold

for the first time new edges of existence;

the garden’s haze of innocence had vanished

and they saw nature’s law, eat or be eaten:

lions and wolves preying on the sick and young,

falcons killing doves, vultures hover above;

feeling exposed in these harsh new environs

they covered their naked selves with thick fig leaves.

Then they heard the voice of God, come to visit,

and they run and hide. He calls out, “Where are you?”

and they slink before him with their heads bowed low.

“Adam, what have you done?” the Lord God demands.

Adam feigns offense, and points accusingly:

“The woman and her serpent made me do it.”

Then God cursed the serpent and the woman whom

he had deceived, putting hate between her seed

and his brood, cursed him to ever lick the dust

and prophesied a once and future battle

when the virgin’s son would crush the serpent’s head.

Then on both the couple he passed this sentence:

“You are of dust, de humo, and back to dust

you shall return, o human, from which you rose.”

And so, as it’s told in the religion of

our fathers, the woman tempted by the words

of the serpent’s lie, “You shall not surely die,” 575

tasted of the fruit and found it good and gave

it to her husband who also ate his fill,

and brought down on themselves the fateful curse of

knowledge of good and evil and its twin fruits:

shame at life’s conditions, and an end of death.

Then God grew fearful lest his human creatures

should also eat from the Tree of Life and live

forever, so he posted great Cherubim

to guard with a flaming sword the eastern gate

of Paradise, from which our parents wandered

east to live, till they met their death in exile.

In the course of time the source of progeny

put forth a tree though pruned down by the deluge

to a stout stump of triple branching cousins

who wandered far in tribes settling wide the globe,

and in the long fortieth generation

a strong son was born in the line of Japheth

who led a sleepless assault from dusk to dawn

to draw the whole world under one horizon.

After Philip’s son had plundered Babylon

and countless Asian cities in his conquest,

having followed the oracle of Ammon

and cut the Gordian knot to fix his fate,

after inspecting the groves of India

and quizzing its naked sages, and after 600

Alexander raped the Queen of Andaluz

away to Berber country—he left her there

among the mountains of Atlas, son of an

Earthborn Titan, the hated god Iapetos

who’d assisted the assault on Olympus

and was cast down to suffer endless torment—

the Horned One went in search of the Fount of Life

for he had a wound that just would not heal.

Kid Ur, in green, riding a great white charger,

was leading the king, because he knew the way.

Aliksander rode his sleek black battle steed

galloping alongside his doctor and guide.

They are passing over dry deserted plains,

nothing but loose rocks in a barren field

under the enigma of a deep blue sky.

At intervals they toss thoughts into the air.

The weary king blinks and glimpses a mirage:

“Is it my mind’s or a city’s walls I see

collapsing? I can’t tell anymore, for all

the rubble of cities I have wandered through,

all the wet bones of soldiers I have slipped on.”

Kid Ur says, “This desert was once a forest,

and then a grass savanna where tribes pursued

the game that constituted their livelihoods.

When the rains ceased, it became a sea of sand.” 625

Says Aliskander, “I wish I could slice through

the obnoxious clarity of this blue sky

as easy as I solved the Gordian knot….

Where are we going?”

“To find the Spring of Life.”

“Do you know the way?”

“I told you that I did.”

“We’re heading south. How far until the earth ends?”

Kid Ur addressed Al Iskandar saying:

“There is a place, and I have often been there,

where the sun’s orb blazes brightest at the time

when Boreal blasts batter your Macedon

with rain and snow, while there the summer parches

the riverbeds and herds are at their driest.”

“Herds? Of sheep, of cattle, what?” Iskandr asks.

“Cattle white and black, like yours, with horns and humps.

There’s little difference. They also have great kings.”

“But are their fates emblazoned in the night sky?

Tell me of their stars—do they defer to ours?”

“One place seems blessed above every spot on earth.

There the heaven’s slanting circle turns upright

and throughout the night the Northern Bear lies hid.

Some men have called it the Mountains of the Moon.

From there mighty rivers flow both east and west

and one can see stars there as far north as south.

I consider it a center of the world.”

“A center? Is there more than one?”

“Yes, countless.” 650

“Once, they say, at Athens’ Dionysia

two hundred and forty bulls fell for his feast,

that summer I fell ill defending Tarsus.”

“Illness is your weakness. Does death frighten you?”

“Only death by illness. The sword holds no fear.”

“The Well will cure your wound and this fear of death.

Once healed you’ll have no need for fear.”

“But I

don’t want to live forever, only to die

without this pain.”

“I can only give you life.”

“Why are you called Kid Ur?”

“I’m called many names.

In Palestine I’m called Prophet Elijah,

the one who could cause drought and call forth the rain.

Some call me George and say that I slay dragons.”

“I could not exist by any other name,”

Sekandar replies. “I am my monuments

in the cities I have fathered cross the globe.”

“These too are less enduring than you suppose.

Persepolis—of Perseus or Persia?—

where is it now? Are your Alexandriae

more solid, of stronger stone, than towns you sacked?

A name is not an essence. I always die.

I vanish and return. Green grows right between

white bones and black flesh. Leaves and livid corpses.”

“Don’t talk of corpses. My putrid wound sickens

my senses and I can see my crimes return, 675

livid souls that burn to avenge their murders.”

“Your fever is growing worse. We should hurry.”

“I thought you knew the way. Why aren’t we there yet?”

“The Fount of Life is where it has always been.”

So they rode all day, and it was getting dark,

and still no sign of the well of endless life

to heal the king Sikandr of his wound.

Finally they reach, and cross, the White Nile

and press on east to the Blue and follow it

south up into its Ethiopian source.

On the eastern edge of heaven a full moon’s

liquid orb gleams as dew begins to dampen

the thirsty grass savanna of the valley

they’re riding in, following a wadi’s path.

Up a hill, in a wash of this dry creek bed,

they happen upon a fair young lady chained

by her arms to the rocks above the wadi

and all of a sudden the black sky thunders,

lightning cracks and heavy rain begins to pour.

Skandr cries, “Don’t fear, my lady, I’ll save you!”

but then a huge python appears from beneath

the rock to which she is chained and wraps around

her ankles and begins to constrict her legs,

but the hero draws his saber and slashes

at the head of the beast and off it tumbles 700

down into the flash flood’s waves and flows away.

The dark maid thanks her savior and leads him home

to receive the reward her father shall give

for saving his daughter’s life from the snake god.

They travel all night till the bright moon goes down

and dawn is flowering like a maiden train

leading the sun into heaven like a bride.

So the young lady leads her young hero through

her father’s courtyard gate and in before him

seated on a cushioned chair where he holds state.

The Queen her mother weeps to see her daughter

come back from the dead, and the King begins:

“Stranger, you have won my daughter as your bride

and the right to sit beside her as the king

on this my ancestral chair when I should go

to join my ancestors’ spirits underground.

I am Azima, Priest-King of Abyssin,

and for slaying the divine serpent Tinnin,

who willed to flood our land with too much water,

the princess and a feast are yours this evening.”

A cheer goes up among the folk and runners

set out with messages for preparations.

Herdsmen lead in red cattle from the fields.

They heave massive bronze, double-bladed axes

force skillful strokes down on the necks of oxen 725

and the immense beasts groan, topple on the earth.

Then the King is seated on a big black bull

lying on its side, and to the beat of drums

in regal rhythm he recounts his descent

from King Solomon by the Queen of Sheba

whose tent poles stood here, then he asks the stranger

to tell him and his people his lineage.

“My name is Sekandari, your Majesty.

I’m son of Nectanebo, the last Pharoah,

some say, who came to my mother as a snake;

others, that I’m son of Darius the Third,

poisoned by his sons, he then died in my arms.

I am also Amon Ra, the great Horned Ram

whose fateful words fill Siwah’s lush oasis.

I’ve been all around the bounds of this world

on the back of my black horse Bucephalos

from Atlas to the shores of river Ocean.

Once I received from the high island tower

of Gog and Magog, somewhere nearby I think,

a precious jewel, round like a human eye,

that weighed more than everything in the world

and at the same time less than a grain of sand.

That riddle nearly cured me of ambition.

Another time, in India, I spoke with

the two prophetic trees of the sun and moon, 750

one silver, the other gold, and both told me

ill omens of my chances of reaching home.

I have flown across the great expanse of space

on a chariot carried by four griffins

and I have probed the wondrous depths of the sea

in a strange underwater diving machine.

On the western edge of this your Africa

there is a marvelous waterworks device

with twelve angelic beings as its engine

who pump water in from the sea into pipes

where it’s filtered of its salt and sent out to

the sources of great rivers like the Nile.”

Just then Queen Candika interrupted him

and said: “O stranger and king of many lands

in Europe, Africa and furthest Asia,

you won’t believe it, but we have heard of you

already, because your fame spreads far and wide,

and with the passage of merchants through our land

come images and coins stamped with your likeness.

I’d know you anywhere from your different eyes.

They always say one’s grey, the other darker.

But wait—”

The queen then turns and enters the house

and soon returns with something covered in cloth

which she hands him. With a quizzical look, he

slowly unwraps the linen to find a face 775

sheered from its statue base—his face in marble

staring back at him with eternal vigor.

“Is that you, king Sikandri, son of Amma?”

Alexander stares fixedly at his face,

stunned by his image, just waiting for him here,

now touched by deep sorrow for how he has aged,

now wounded in pride to see his face broken

from its original monument somewhere,

from who knows where across the whole wide world.

“Yes, your Highness, I recognize my likeness.

How did you get it?”

“By trade, for ivory.”

“Ah yes, the final tribunal of justice.”

“What?” asks the queen.

“Nothing, your Highness, nothing.

Why yes, it looks like the local stone I saw

in Bactria, along the Oxus river.”

“Really?” says the queen. “So far away from here!”

“Yes, that was before our Indian conquests.”

“Tell us, please, about the wonders of those lands.”

“Many prodigious, many marvelous things

our companies experienced in those lands

where strange beasts—hippogriffs and rhinokerots—

roam at large. Many perilous ways we faced

after I pacified the Indians when

I slew their king in single-handed combat;

perhaps you’ve heard of him, his name was Porus.” 800


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