“The Taking of Lead” by Michael Lee

Michael Lee


There are more color receptors in the human eye than are used,
thus the colors of the world as they are seen are not the true colors.
The true colors have no names, and so they are impossible to imagine.
The failure of language is not that something can only be described
with a limited number of words, but that it can only be perceived using those words.

Holding his fingers to the light the man said to his son,
“this is a hand,” it is good for breaking, for building,
the hand is a machine, and like language, a machine is a means to an end.
Now, imagine you do not know the hand’s name, tell me then
what is it not capable of?

The occurrence of war outside the boy’s window
was as frequent as the birds. Each night
he watched from behind the blinds
as soldiers emerged from the thicket
smooth and quiet as apparitions or memories
climbing down from the skull and into the tall grass.
The starving steel rods they carried burst with sparks,
and tore each other down at knees and necks.
His father told him these were the inventions of lesser minds
demented by baseness and old magic. These burning branches
could swallow the stare of a man, and drive him
straight into the ground.
It was a time when, amongst the villagers,
there was not such familiarity with guns
that they were discussed by name, or even during day,
only by description, and behind doors where it was believed
they could not enter. To the boy and his father
the nameless guns were capable of anything.
They did not know why they were only used to kill.

The boy knew nothing but the bodies next to the garden,
the crows discussing the rites of flesh. In the morning
he would wade through the pints of men
wandering dizzily about them as if he too were bloodless,
drifting off into the smells of carnage.
One by one with a silver spoon he would remove the lead
musket balls from the skulls and chests and legs of the dead men,
and carry them to his father to be melted down and turned to gold.
When the man was finished he would bring a vat of burning gold
back to the field and pour a spoonful of the molten metal
into each of the wounds from which the lead was taken.
Time and time again the boy watched the eyes roll back
from the depths of the skull, shine in the waning light of day
like lanterns along a river and then the soldiers would rise
as fog does. They would empty the grass and return to the forest.
Come nightfall they would re-emerge to kill each other again.
And again. Like blood thirsty hounds of fire and gore.
Automatons clad in blood.
Every day the boy asked his father why
he would reawake the soldiers, and each time he said,
“These instruments of war are doors to an end.
After a war the side with the most land and least dead
always dances and makes love inside the sound of drums.
It seems to me this is all the body has ever wanted.
“I wish to see if there will ever come a time where upon reawakening
they will each forget their language,
and not know the name for the those terrible burning snouts
they carry, and thus not know what they are used for.
These are dangerous men not because they carry a weapon,
but because what they carry is named,
and so it has only one imaginable purpose.
“Imagine, the whole field of soldiers forgetting their language,
and being possessed only with what their bodies want most in the end:
to dance, and to love. I wonder then, if we would see the field break
into a brilliant cavorting where the branches fire upward,
and those steel rods peel back the dark cowl of night. Oh,
how they would all be illuminated like cathedrals, empty
of language, and teeming with sound.”

from Rattle #38, Winter 2012
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