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
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.
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.