Pastoral in Which a Deer’s Thirst is the Tragic Hero
Years ago, I walked just like this, from a town’s one end
to the other under a church’s bouquet of fire. It sang
through its steeple, of the deer’s longing for the stream and mine
for something I couldn’t name, something like a throat
of white silk, like the gown my mother bought for me
from a secondhand store hours before she gave the doctors
permission to unhook my father from the machines.
The walk I’m thinking of is not that final one
toward the worry lines of the hospital, though cars passed by
just like this, with shadows inside wrapped tightly around
their own plots; the metal and glass pretending to protect them
from the wind’s agendas and the deer seeking water
on the other side of the road. I’ve learned through
sheer repetition to go in a specific direction without a plan
for how to survive. Now, as then, warnings in the periphery:
a rake’s waxed tines by the hardware store’s entrance,
a field throbbing with boy-pride and sweat, the white dashes
of a broken road. A deer put in motion by desperation defies
all these orders. Come here. Cease and desist. Do not. Pieces
of the sky fall like leaves on a dry streambed. The church
begins to hiss and fall away. Underneath, an abandoned cinema,
shiny black bones, rows of seats packed so tightly
even as a child I had to hug my knees to fit in. I wish I could tell
this story like someone who believes in anything, for instance,
that the journey ends with a room of blue ribbons.
He said, “Kneel,” and I did. My mind a white gown
caught in his antlers. From this distance, you could read it
as a sign of surrender to the plotlines authored by
poverty and dead grass. I couldn’t turn away. Metal on metal,
metal on flesh, flesh in flesh. His cinematic rage, reels of it,
in the clicking brightness. When it was spent, I walked back, hiding
my wounds from the church my father had built with his hands
and placed over my head with love, with what I must believe
was love. I wish I could have named the riches I passed
on my way – the human doubts, the red in a cemetery of apples.
“Kneel,” he said, and pushed my head into the ashes.
The sun on my back was my audience, though I couldn’t
hear it, what I felt, behind the water scrubbing cold
over my thighs. What could have been language appeared
as a gown ripped from my arms mid-bloom. My mother lying
on her side, turned toward the empty half of the bed.
You understand – I had to save the life I was ashamed to live.
Now here I am, walking with a deer’s instinct for water,
one drought to the next, sorrow’s repeating center
cut out of its premise, its aftermath.
* * *
Cynthia Dewi Oka is the author of Salvage: Poems (Northwestern University Press, 2017) and Nomad of Salt and Hard Water (Thread Makes Blanket, 2016). A 2017 Leeway Foundation Transformation Award recipient, her poetry has appeared in American Poetry Review, Poets.org, Kenyon Review, Guernica, Painted Bride Quarterly, Black Renaissance Noire, Scoundrel Time, Women of Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism (OR Books, 2018), and elsewhere. Originally from Indonesia, she is currently based in the Greater Philadelphia Area. Visit her at www.cynthiadewioka.com