If Buddha had a cold
would the eight-spoked wheel
still start to turn?
Would the diamond vehicle
convey learned saints
above the summit of Mount Meru?
Would chanting monks
set ancient columns
vibrating with wordless songs?
Would meditation cushions
stay empty, even unmade?
Would zendos be storerooms?
Could there be saffron-robed,
shaved-headed teachers wandering
Lhasa, Paris or Enid, Oklahoma?
Where would the loose
compassion find a home?
Who would discover Metta?
Perhaps another could find
a holy tree, could create
a completely other Bodhgaya?
If Buddha had a cold
would we be left with
“Life is sniffling?”
He held her. She came so briefly to bed.
His fingers found her quick, his misplaced grail.
She sighed. He rose. His dull hand stroked the head
he held. Then she came, so briefly. Her bed
was narrow as a garden gate. She said
it kept her safe. He set down the tall tales
he held. She came, briefly, to her own bed.
His fingers almost missed her, his ghost grail.
Two Dead Boys
…seems they are fain to carry the dead to be buried by day-light, the nights not sufficing to do it in. — Samuel Pepys
On an asphalt playground we see two boys:
They’re uniformed, united by a taste
for lost seawater. Their words are decoys
to fool nuns’ hidden ears. Time will translate
for us. Not now. A bell rings. They return
to a class they’ll ignore. Often the last
to sit in their last row. They do not learn.
Math problems on a blackboard. One hand turns
to drop a note. The boy with glasses kicks
it to hiding. A nun scowls. Undeterred
he inches it back. Gets called on. He talks—
forty-two. The right answer. “I don’t know
your name” he scribbles, folds, drops and flicks
another right answer—Call me Zeno.
The nun’s laser eyes look fierce down their row.
Both boys sit straight up. Look right at the board.
Hands folded. Angels pure, missing haloes.
The dark sister blesses both boys. Ignored
again. A second message—Talk after school.
A nod. They turn back to the unexplored
numbers. A lesson drags. The clock is cruel.
Eight and half.—I’m nine years already.
Tomorrow’s my mother—Zeno unasked,
Her birthday?—Her name. Balanced, unsteady
on one leg, his tongue bit tight so he’ll last.
He slips. Yeah? My dad, says glasses, is Death.
For real? Yup, making his face a hard mask.
Zeno kicks at weeds that trap his breath.
Two boys walk quiet—not counting their steps
but knowing how each foot falls. She always
knows what’s coming, my mom.—Make any bets?
asks glasses, rubbing a freckle.—She says
the news before the TV, that’s all. She
can’t be fooled. I’ve tried. You haven’t yet met
my dad. I want to show you. Come with me.
His house was small and one old, leafless tree
ruled the hard-packed dirt yard.—This is something
I’m not supposed to know or let you see.
Don’t tell. The sun hits his glasses, bouncing
at Zeno’s eyes. He never saw the hole.
He heard a rough sound, like a dog scratching.
There was a thing in his hands. It was gold.
Those are old letters. They spell strange words.
That’s what my dad says—Can you read
any of it?—No, but one night I heard
someone—not Dad—chanting. I mean,
that seemed like what was going on.
Think it was this. He nods. I need
to go inside. Can you meet me at dawn?
Zeno dreamed seawater, heard the songs
oceans used to sing to him. He still missed
Grandma Yesterday. The beach house. The sounds
of breakers and their riders. He dreamed mist.
Fog. Mermaids. He dreamed of broken glasses
in rain. It brushed his forehead, a damp kiss.
Let the boy sleep. Let’s say, the night passes.
Perhaps there’s music with dawn on grasses—
Brown lawns, black asphalt and concrete. Cool light
might dance across Zeno’s jumpy eyelashes.
He’s up before Tomorrow ends her night.
Out the door. Runs off with his untied shoes
in hand. Turns a corner. Nothing is right.
There’s no house. Just a tree, dead as old news.
He nearly missed the note, tucked neat beneath
a cracked root. Xeno—it said. Here are the words.
We had to go. Dad—my father—decreed
that. I was to talk only to the birds
of this tree. Not to you. It’s my sorrow
to leave. Go somewhere you will not be heard.
Say these words clearly, First kiss Tomorrow.
He sounded out the words he didn’t know:
You find a tree in the halls of death. Left,
there’s a spring. It’s important not to go
near it. Another spring—where the bereft
sip—that’s fresh. Do not be afraid. The guards
will watch you but they obey. You can rest
but quickly, Pace one thousand soldier’s yards—
I am of Earth and Heaven, you must say. Stars
will dance for me. I play a perfect tune.
But let me drink. I am parched. I’ll reward
you with memory of my misplaced moon.
Zeno stops. The bottom of the page is torn.
He’s stuck. Tomorrow will find him at noon.
Struck dumb. He lives on, mute as a newborn.
Mark J. Mitchell’s latest novel, The Magic War, just appeared from Loose Leaves Publishing. He studied writing at UC Santa Cruz under Raymond Carver and George Hitchcock. His work has appeared in several anthologies and hundreds of periodicals. Three of his chapbooks—Three Visitors, Lent, 1999, and Artifacts and Relics—and his novel Knight Prisoner are available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. He lives with his wife, activist and documentarian Joan Juster, and makes a living pointing out pretty things in San Francisco. A meager online presence can be found at his Facebook page.