Sherod Santos

1948 / Greenville, South Carolina

Stranger at the Ashwood Threshold

I.

Did he think that disguise would fool me? Gathering about
His balding head those filthy rags, poor-mouthing
His way beside my fire, then gazing into the looking glass
Of my bride's-mind to summon up the legend
I'd seen last at the ashwood threshold twenty years ago,
The husband who'd upped and sailed away on a black,
Oar-swept ship of war to a place he called. . . I call Destroy.

"Your son will vouch for me," he claimed, "I saw your king
On foreign soil. He wore a wine-dark, woolen cape
Fastened by a brooch inlaid with gold, a brooch on which
A great hound clenched and throttled to death a dappled fawn."
He knew, of course, I'd given Odysseus that very cape,
Had dyed its wool that royal red, had buckled its folds
With that same brooch. And so, I suppose, I passed his test.

The salt tears soaked my cheek. A fact he took in silently
Beneath his rags, though how could I not have recognized him
With his poet's words, his poet's unfazed self-concern
So skillfully playing my emotions? The truth is,
However much I loved that man in the wine-dark cape,
However much I'd longed for him, I'd have settled
For the man with thinning hair, the beggar-king of Ithaca.
II.

Having slept alone year after year in the upper story
Of our high-roofed home, having awakened nightly
In that rooted, rightly far-famed bed he'd built by hand
Around the bole of a thickset olive tree, I soon
Discovered there are two known gates through which
All dreams must come to pass. The first is made
Of ivory, cleanly carved, the second of polished horn;

Through ivory our dreams are will-o'-the-wisps, scant
Tracings on the air, through horn they're star-signs
We'd be wise to chart our futures by. It was through horn
It came that night he questioned me beside the fire,
The contest of twelve axes, one for each month
Of the year I'd lived through twenty times for him,
Housebound to the labor of my hardwood loom.

The thwarted suitors watched agog, he watched them watch,
Though no one saw (how could they?) how the hand
That strung his bow recalled my own hand spooling out
New wool, that drew on strength enough to strike
An arrow through a dozen axe-helve socket rings
Recalled the heart it took each night to climb back
Into the vaulted tomb of our empty, tree-housed bed.
III.

Waiting at the doorway while I was brushing back my hair,
Odysseus stood and stared across the unraked terrace
Gardens trashed from last night's welcome home.
One guttering pine-pitch torch still burned, its pool
Of light apotheosized to a ringing lyre—the singer's
Who had begged him calm his bloodlust, spare
One pauper soul among that heavy haul of slaughtered men.

He'd been every inch the hero then, spattered with gore,
His forehead glistening, dripping red. But this morning,
He looked to me just as he had looked before: his thin
Shirt clung like onion skin to his boxer's ropy
Shoulders, his young man's muscled chest and arms;
And as before, those faraway, slightly moonstruck eyes
Seemed focused on a flyspeck at the world's end.

It struck me then that, even as he stood there, steeped
In the memory of all this place brought home to him,
He labored at the anchor of whatever in me
Refused that death his heart most longed to master.
And as before, I could see it coming, his going away,
Those maddened gulls scavenging after the trim black ship
My harbored longings had driven out of reach.
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