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Ken Hines

The Stories They Could Tell

Toes worming through river muck

south bank of the James.

January water widens the eyes, binds the calves

with a drowning man’s grip.

Granite boulders glisten in the rapids like

hippos gone astray.

On their backs, in bowls scooped out by current, reflections

of the firmament.

Clouds the shape of giant gulls brood

above the north bank,

pursuing their destined paths. Tomorrow they’ll be riffles

in a muddy creek downstream.

What stories they could tell us about

that transformation—

if only we could hear. We were water creatures once you know,

but none the wiser for it.

Behind me, ranks of sycamores line the bank

shoulder to shoulder

against the wind. Through secret webs sunk deep in the sod

they feed each other.

Who among us has the vocabulary for such

a gift? There are no words

for all we fail to see. Silence, in the end, may be as close

to godliness as we ever get.

Learning to Snorkel in Lahaina

The placid surf slaps our knees. My granddaughter

plucks a clump of hair from beneath my mask—

a mother’s touch from a pre-teen. She tells me

to sniff hard, and the mask clenches my face

like an octopus. Just lie down in the water, I hear

her say, a voice as gentle as the sea.

I push out into the waves, the snorkel reminding

me of intubation. Below, a bed of coral bristles

with Butterfly Fish wearing their mini bandito masks.

They flap across the reef like solitary wings,

a shower of sunlight bouncing off their scales

as they move in mysterious synchrony.

The ocean floor drops away. It’s colder now.

My breaths shiver up the plastic tube. Masks hide

or disguise, but this one marks me for what I am:

an alien, an intruder. Treading water, I strain to see

past rolling crests sloshing against my face.

But she glides on ahead of me, stroke after

measured stroke like a dancer swaying in rhythm

to her song. No longer the child I remember

she stretches her arms toward some other world,

wondrous and fraught, beyond the one I see.

Now Playing

Alone in an empty theater

you wait for light to gather before your eyes

when Panavision and Dolby grab you

by the collar and slam you into the trunk

of an unmarked sedan, your hands zip cuffed,

mouth duct taped, nostrils twingeing from the

reek of a 9mm warning shot.

You ease back in the faux leather seat,

your body snuggled by the rough hug

of counterfeit fear, enjoying a response you owe

to the 10,000 generations that came before.

Generations who knew death as intimately

as you know Facebook, who honed this

physiological knack facing down landslides,

spitting cobras and broadswords. The amygdala

igniting a hidden marvel of synapse and hormone

that jolts the bored metronome of your heart

into frenzy and turns your lungs into

gazelles eluding lions.

This is the body their brief lives

forged for you, creatures who survived

on the border between terror and rage. You

wouldn’t be here without this gift, without

this vestigial power you depend on for

amusement. How long would you even last

in their world, you wonder, as you drop

your popcorn tub in the recycling bin.


Poems by Ken Hines have appeared in a number of literary magazines. A couple of them were recently nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net Anthology. He lives in Virginia with his wife, the painter Fran Hines.

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