by Carol A. Stephen

There’s something elemental in the odour of death,
each myth dissected, the way boys dissect frogs,
then wash hands in the pond’s fog. Each remembers
the veined legs, the death-croak, wonders
what to tell mother when she asks
What possessed you?

It’s a boy thing, a tradition, this call down to the river.
Answers mothers have forgotten:
how to balance on a log, counting to thirteen.
Things children know:
The call of the desert, summer wind, dancing silent.
Sacrifice at the oasis, the offering of young bulls.
Their death songs recede into sand, drift into
each mouth, the labour of their last breath.

Children burn through days believing nine religious things.
Whisper secrets. Escape from prayers, their auras
clear and hollow, drawn always to water, to riverbed.
Every child learns to walk at an angle, to memorize
the mysteries of ancestors kept in a yellow box
buried in a pit under the oldest tree. Each year
they grow away from fairy tales, forget how the sky sounded.
Its old echo twists through rock as they climb to the edge.

Boys speak the language of nowhere,
rough and guttural, tell of visions seen when they
hunted on the edges of their days. They strut round the fire,
muscles sinuous, hard, youth slipping off with the flames.

In the midst of the dance, one trips over a stray bone,
nothing else remains, no word to name the spirit of the dead.
Grit rises in his belly. He writhes to music from the pipe
of a red-haired boy. Drum falls silent. They begin to circle.

Euphoric faces lift. They remember
the struggle to clear ground for their fire. They remember
how their leader held the amulet close to the amber flame,
then placed it around his neck.

They remember the scent of burning.

Painting by Odilon Redon (1840-1916).


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Carol A. Stephen is a Canadian poet. Her poetry has appeared in Bywords Quarterly Journal and two Tree Press/phaphours press collaborative chapbooks. You can also find Carol’s poems on-line at The Light Ekphrastic and in videos. Twice shortlisted, in 2012 Carol won third place in Canadian Authors Association National Capital Writing Contest. She’s the author of two chapbooks, Above the Hum of Yellow Jackets, and Architectural Variations. Visit her blog at