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Anne Caston


Anatomy 101

What I remember now are the animals: pithed
frogs, fetal pigs, and cats - so many cats - rubbery and reeking
of formaldehyde. Slowly they dissolved, under our hands,
one system at a time, until just stiff carcasses remained,
their formal animal eloquence stripped down to rank
bone and sinew. God, how the place stank.

Only one was otherwise: a Shepherd pup
who entered the lab on a long leash, wagging and drooling,
fresh-sprung from the local pound.
We made a circle around him; we ran our hands
over his rough head and ears. We said, Good boy!
and What's his name? and Is he pure-blooded?

Our instructor commanded the dog, Sit! - and he did.
And he went, just like that, still slobbering,
still panting for joy, into those hands. The needle went in
clean; the dog slumped and fell, sidewise, onto the steel
dissecting table where we were circled still around the dead
beast, like Stonehenge, our shamed and secret faces turning inward.

Judah's Lion

Irony is beyond a boy like mine. As is symbolism.
Allegory. Metaphor. All is literal with him
though that doesn't rule out a wildebeest,
the one he meets each morning in the fallow field
beyond our yard, the one who lies beside him
each night now in the dark.

Some mornings the boy stands a long time, one hand
shading his eyes, looking sunward, scanning the wide
sky for that fiery wheel - Ezekiel's wheel - way up
in de middle ob de air. He says he'd like to see that
himself. Just once. If the sun would
get out of the way.

God has a lamb, he tells me one night after prayers,
who followed Jesus to school just like Mary's
lamb in the Mother Goose book.
And God? God, for him, is just one giant eye roaming to and fro
over the dark earth, peering through windows at night
like some neighborhood peeping Tom.

To him, a fiery wheel is a wheel in flames, a lamb a lamb, an eye
an eye, and as of this morning's sermon, the Lion
of Judah - coming again, and the unholy
shall be judged and torn - is an orange cat that belongs to Judah
Michaels, a boy who lives two doors down.
"I will kill that lion if he comes near," he mutters,

pocketing stones and pebbles as he walks all afternoon the gravel
drive between our house and Judah's, the young tom pouncing
bugs in the weed-riddled grass of the Michaels' front yard.
But now the Sunday sun is almost spent and we settle
together on the splintered back stoop while shadows
creep forward from the field where his wildebeest waits.

While fireflies sputter on and off and crickets
call out across the twilit lawn, he is telling me now
about Zion, that beautiful city of God, which is
somewhere, he says, near Stone Mountain
except everything there - streets, people, trees - has gone
gold as Christmas glitter. God's people, he says,

are marching, marching. upward to Zion, and he tilts
the stick he's holding to show me how steep is the climb.
He's going there too one day, he says, when he is big,
when he is old, when he must leave me. I stare at the darkening
field, considering again the lilies, the wildebeest I cannot see,
the whole thorn-torn mess a world can sometimes be.

Who wouldn't long for a Zion like his: the sky gone fiery, bright
overhead as Ezekiel's wheel, Gabriel singing us home
to Georgia again, this boy and me and his wildebeest,
all of us marching up, up God's glittering mountain
where the Lamb of God and the Lion of Judah
lie down together and wait for us

there, somewhere in the polished hard and shining future.

The Good We Do

To loosen, a little the girdle
in which death had cinched a man I knew,
I left my midnight charting and stole from the nurses' station.
Nothing strange in that, nothing
anyone would question.

Everything about my long walk down that darkened hall
seemed right and, at the same time, wrong.
Sterile walls shone in the half-light; fresh
wax gleamed and squealed under my soles.
On the door to the man's room

tonight, a new sign: No CPR.
Well, then.
So be it.

I stepped past the sleeping wife.
Such things are easy enough to do.
I turned the oxygen off and loosed the mask
that had strapped him to the flow.
Beside the bed, a Gomco gurgled noisily.

He gurgled too in the sludge of lungs gone bad.
I shook him and he would've cried out,
but I held the forbidden thing close enough
he could make out what it was
in the dulled streetlight from the window.

I placed it on the bedside tray.
Back in five, I whispered, and stepped outside
to wait. I didn't want to watch.

It's strange, don't you think, how the good we do
we do loudly. But our sins?
Those we ease into in secret, and quietly.
And quietly was how I waited in that dim hallway.
Not for five, but for ten full minutes.

I eased back the woman who was bruised with exhaustion
and watching over him. I thought he, too, had drifted off.
But when I turned to leave, he sat up, took my hands in his,
and blessed me hard for what I'd done. My hands
stung from the fervor of his blessing.

He rested well that night
and died some days
later, as we'd expected.

One cigarette. It was the singular kindness I could give,
though even that was wrong. I know that; I knew it then.
But the needle he'd begged for - "to end the pain" -
I couldn't give him that. Not that. Not
coward that I was.

I tell you this today, not to confess, not to
clear my conscience. I say it so it's clear to you
I believe I might be living yet
because of the furious blessing
he bequeathed to me that night.

I say it so you'll know
how it is that I have come to live
deeply in the shadow of my own guilt

and an old misplaced sense of mercy
which - despite anything
I might once have told you otherwise -
has at its center for me still
an odd, fierce comfort.

                                 -from Judah's Lion

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