Cathartes Aura Part Three
The entire 500-line rough draft, which will be completely wrecked and rebuilt. Enjoy it while you can.
Cathartes Aura Part Three
On glazed asphalt, the tank sits cored: slack treads
And scorched armor frame a funnel of earth
Shined like glass from the kiln. On wheels and doors,
Hoods and trunks, cars lie scattered with spent shells,
A humvee and jeep, pools of gummy blood
With clouds of fresh flies. Walls pocked from bullets.
In a meadow up the hill, six fresh graves
Hold wrapped bodies while seventeen stand stooped.
A robed man scans them with hickory eyes.
“Stand straight. You look half in the ground yourselves.”
Hands clasped on his worn leather book, James breathes,
Lifts his voice to the trees. “I see Satan
On your shoulders, hissing doom in your ears:
'You will die quick deaths, live meaningless lives,
Accomplish naught but fertilize the ground.'”
Three farm women weep together, arms hooked
And faces stern. The old woman wails, hangs
On the round man in overalls. “Forked tongues
Caress your skin, tempt you to sin. Who cares?
Live loose. This world is gone. But I see God.”
Focussed, Max watches James' brightening face
And uplifted palms. “I feel His love glow
In the comfort you offer each other.”
Al picks grease from his nails. Sam stares glossy
At shifting clouds while Val does toe-raises.
Bodhi sits close. “I see Him where strangers
Stand stalwart against intruders.” By Val
The bright-eyed girl lifts her heels in time, beams
At James, his shoulders now hunched, whispering:
“I sense Him so close I can feel his breath.”
Two teen girls stand blank, faces tired and streaked
With mascara, skirts and blouses rumpled.
“Now is the time of tests. Satan will tug.
Our Lord will pull.” Dixie shuffles her feet,
Wrings her hands, looks to the weeping women,
At the black-haired girl: grim, flexed arms folded,
Face clenched. “Venom will taste sweet on your tongues.”
James licks his lips. “But we shall stay the path.
Parry strikes from snakes. Rechristen this land.
Rebuild His church from the bricks that remain.”
The teen boy pumps his fist while Buck scratches
His beard, shakes his head. “The devil will snap
His fangs and thrust his fork. Hearts will stumble
From their rhythm.” The teen pales. “But I know
By the fire within me, by those poisoned
At Isidore, by the world-wide billions
Dropped by war and disease, by the triumph...”
James gestures over the crowd and the graves.
“Of these souls against invasion, I know
Our Lord will grind our foes beneath his heel.”
Joe paces while the others bow their heads
For one more prayer. He's been watching faces
And feet, still trees, empty windows, bare skies,
Squinting, fingers twitching for a trigger.
He lifts a spade, joins the men piling dirt
On the graves while they all sing: “On that bright
Cloudless morning, when dead in Christ shall rise,
The glory of His resurrection share.”
Gritty men nudge each other, pass a flask.
“When roll is called up yonder, I'll be there.”
A few more silent moments and the men
Splash soil from hands and faces, share liquor,
Roll some smokes, change out of funeral clothes.
“Time for the dirty work,” Buck says. They split.
Half take axes and saws into the woods,
Return with sticks and logs. The other half
Hitch horses to wagons and load corpses
From the pile under the tarp. This morning
I peeled back one corner and stole breakfast
While they dug graves and did their best to wash.
They pile soldiers and lumber together
In the median between highway lanes
Half a mile south of the mall and add gas.
James makes a cross in the air, wishes them
Safe passage to their judgement. The teen stares
With fish eyes. Buck sips from his jar. “Nice try,
Little kids,” he says. Max covers his grin,
Stifles a giggle. “Should have brought more tanks,”
Sam replies. Al looks down and shakes his head.
Joe flicks his cigar butt onto the pyre.
With a whoosh, the fuel ignites, then the hair,
The clothes and twigs in a rapid crackle.
Greasy smoke curls as sap and fat sizzle.
Green logs hiss, froth and pop. Skin and bark peel.
A deep roar grows from sharp snaps. The blaze feasts,
Vacuums oxygen, jerks leaves and feathers.
Now a cone of flame thunders, ringed by men
Leering drunk, faces flickered, shadowed, gaunt.
A pit of orange embers, skulls, and ribs
Tugs like tar, drags me to its molten heart.
I flee. Flap manic for clean air. I get
Out. It's coming again: the purge, the cleanse.
They know not what they do. They can't control
This voracious heat. Like serpents and apes,
Felines, canines, and beasts, they'll all be ash,
Steam and smoke from the forge. This is no game.
I fly for the sun, safety from this torch,
This cauldron, this crucible of reckless
Random wreckage of hammer and anvil
Until dizzy from the thinness of air.
Up where the air is free of roasted sap,
Burnt meat, melted blacktop, where dust won't cloud
My sight or clot my lungs, where shouts, cackles
And bad breath don't crush at me, I can soar.
I can see and breathe. The pyre's just a spark
Low on fuel, framed by pavement and live trees.
It cannot roam. It soon starves. The men load
Each other into carts and roll back north
Toward smells of lunch while James remains, head bowed,
Kneeling before the embers for an hour.
He rises, face deeply scowled, looks skyward
From the pit of ash and skulls, hands open.
He sinks his fingers in his beard, tugs fierce
Before stomping up the road with a grunt,
Leaning forward, eyebrows clenched, gaining speed,
Starting to snarl when he trips on a stone,
Whirls for balance and laughs at the clouds.
He approaches Woodcrest, straightens his robe,
Smoothes his hair, scratches the smirk from his face
And pastes on his best placid angel smile.
After a lunch of scrounged ramen, fig bars,
Jerky with warm soda, they swivel chairs,
Adjust benches, encircling the soldier
Chained to a picnic table. James hangs back.
“Private Lance Cartwright. Army First Armored.”
Joe shifts his panama hat. “Assignment?”
“To guard the interstate corridor, sir.”
“To protect the highway?” Joe asks. “From whom?”
“Looters. Rebels. Diseased. Keep the lines clear.”
Buck leaps to his feet. “And which one were we?”
Buck's red as a brick. “You came to loot us.”
The bright-eyed girl stands, rubs her chin. “May I?”
Joe nods, waves with his hat. She puts a hand
On Buck's arm. Both men sit. “My name is Emme.
You may call me Inspector Emme. I'm twelve.”
James hides his grin with both hands. “Who ordered
The strike on our camp?” She climbs the table
To stare down at Lance, arms crossed. “I...” he glubs.
“We...” Clears his throat. “Sergeant Gord, Inspector.”
“I see.” She smiles, nods. “And his middle name?”
Lance looks at every face but Emme's. “'Scuse me?”
From her tippy-toes, she shouts: “Middle name.
Sergeant Gord's middle name. That clear, soldier?”
He lifts his hands high as the chains allow,
Pales and shrugs. “His first name was Bill, I think.
I don't know.” Emme climbs down, paces and smiles.
“So, you and the Sergeant were not close friends.”
She returns to her chair, sits halfway, stops,
Turns with a finger raised. “Just one more thing:
What came first, Private Lance, chicken or egg?”
Lance tugs at the chains, fingers the padlock.
“What questions are these? You can't have chickens
Without eggs. Eggs with no chickens.” She snorts.
“No smart boys in the army. Dinosaurs
Came from eggs eons before the first bird.”
He stares into a space between the clouds.
“I suppose you're right.” She turns to the crowd,
Arms spread. “He supposes I'm right.” She bows.
She sits. Al looks at her queer, walks by wide
Before addressing Lance: “So, why Army?”
Emme hops into a leather high-back, twirls
A few circles while Lance gawks. Cherubic,
She returns a grin. He shakes his head. “Huh?
Oh, army?” He tells Al: “Daddy was broke
His whole life. My friends all slave at some dump
To bring pennies home to girls they knocked up.
I want more. Be all I can be, you know.”
Al scratches his whiskers. “Been in that boat.
Got sent to war. All my live friends are nuts.
I fix cars. Did it work for you?” He sits.
Again Buck stands. His round friend shoves him down.
“I know how you feel. I'll handle this boy.”
He waddles toward Lance, thumbs his overalls.
“I'm Gus. You'd best call me 'Sir'.” Licks his lips.
“You're poor trash, son of poor trash. Picked up guns
For the country to get some G.I. Bill?
'Emptive strikes on some bad guys before they
Before they become enemies? Whole world
Hates us, wants us stomped, stopped.” With a quick lunge
He pokes Lance in the sternum. Chains jingle.
“Take these off.” Gus shakes shackles, looks around
And back to Lance. “You think I'm old. I'm fat.”
He lifts a gristled fist. “Was whuppin' ass
Before your pa lost his first job. Don't think
I won't crush you-” Claps his palms together
And grinds them. “Like a clod.” Max captures Gus
By the straps and tugs him backward. “Cool it,
All of you.” He straightens his spectacles.
“Plenty of unspent rage, for good reason,
But let's sleep on this. Way too much today.”
Joe unlocks Lance, bolts him back in the shed
While Sam grips the glock. The tribunal turns
Toward smells of rice and meat. Joe lights a joint,
Passes it with Sam. They all stroll inside.
Alone, James rolls a chair before the shed.
Through a slot cut for food, he whispers: “Son?
Are you Christian?” Lance replies: “Yes, Father.
A wayward one.” Puts his hands through the slot.
James holds them. “Our Lord will welcome you back.
Release your sins and they shall be absolved.”
Picking his teeth, Sam rolls out of the mall
With Joe behind, who belches like a boar,
Sparks and passes a joint. “One day,” Sam says,
“When I find some seeds I'll grow you a grove.”
Joe exhales, shrugs in his cloud. “I got seeds.”
Sam grins. “Then it's on, brah. Can't face this thing
Clear-eyed and minded.” They pile twigs and sticks,
Flick the zippo as Buck pours out the door
Sideways, jar in hand, arm-in-arm with Gus,
Both belting: “I got friends in low places...”
Buck sips, holds his jar high. Two fingers left.
Hands it to Joe saying: “Gottagetta
Get us a still workin'. Armageddon
Gone hurt bad sober.” He sits in the dirt
Before the infant fire. “I got a still.”
Joe hands down his flask, gold in the flame-light,
“In my '62 Jag E-Type Roadster
Where the V-12 used to be.” Buck goggles
At his concave face in the flask
Then mentions: “Your cart's fancier than mine.”
Joe pops a smoke-ring. “Wanted that E-Type
At first sight. Retire and drive that thing south.”
He glides his hand like a winding coast road.
“Find a place in the sun. House on the beach.
Peel some cash and buy that thing. Government
Paid plenty. Was set by forty.” Gives Buck
The roach. He inspects it, every angle.
“But that pension is digital dust now,
Don't hope to find gas stations, but land,
Prime waterfront land, just became dirt cheap.”
The doors open again, held politely
By Max and Al. Ladies exit, drag chairs
Around the sprouting fire. The black-haired girl
Grips the sleeves of a pale, aproned maid: “Sit.
Tell me your name. What's wrecked you? Your terror?”
She smoothes her skirt, reties her curls. “I'm Anne,
Wife of Jacob, mother of Gail, Caleb,
Ellen and Gabe.” She looks at her fingers.
Can't still them. “All dead now. We're a good town.
Father James said Satan's pawns were afoot.”
Anne looks up, forehead asweat, eyes firelit.
“We met them. From Disease Control. Lab-coats
And ties with a flu vaccine. News outside
Of pestulent death. We took our doses.”
She curls into an offered XL coat.
Still shivers. “We thanked them. They left, but soon
Came the spotted man. Splotched, really, red sores
Where he wasn't sheet white.” She laughs, brittle
Like crystal shattered. “We were taught never
To turn back the sick. Jesus loves the sick.”
She holds her chilled hands to the fire, too close.
Flames lick them. She won't blink. “Saint Marianne
Lived eighty years among the lepers
By the Lord's grace. We received no such shield.”
A woman brings steaming tea, pulls Anne's hands
From the heat. “He drowned in phlegm, the splotched man,
As we fell like leaves. He called us a test
With his dying gargles and said we failed.
They'd soon come with fire to keep us quiet.
We waited, praying with rifles ready.”
“They didn't come, did they?” Anne shakes her head.
“But we had to leave. Too much loss and pain.”
The black-haired girl, arms folded, strikes a grin
Wide as the sky. “You're safe. My name is Kaye
And you've made it. You're one of the Billion.”
She intercepts the flask. “We all made it.”
Kaye swigs and winces, stifles her reflux,
Pets Anne's cheek. “Thought it was a gag, at first.
A thing for morbid tattooed goths like me.”
Shows her palm: a weeping skull. “But it worked.
“They never burned your town. They got derailed
By the Night of One Billion Bombs.” Curses.
Dropped jaws. “'On the night we reach nine billion,'
The fanatics said, 'hide a bomb somewhere
In your city. Gather to watch, rejoice,
Detonate at midnight. Set the world straight.'”
Buck holds the roach under his nose, sniffs deep.
“Our clique chose First Beer Hill. First Kiss. First Joint.
Whatever. It's the same hill. With a quart
Of Mom's whipped vodka, I showed up at ten.”
Joe takes back the roach. Buck is paralyzed.
Fingers before his face. Eyes like marbles.
“A few kids there with a cooler and a bong.
'You Billion?' one asked. I said yes and claimed
To have a pipe-bomb in the school dumpster.
'Me too,' he says. I'm relieved 'cause I lied.
D in Science. I don't build explosives.
But I had to be there. It kept growing:
Mostly loners but some rowdy vanfuls.
They all claimed bombs and everyone had drugs.
“A few hundred. I hoped they lied like me.
One kid claimed C4 in the nursing home.
One said her grandma lived there, threw a drink
In his face. First bomb popped at eleven.
Some clowned but he cheered. Midnight was mayhem.
Thunder. Cones of flame. Then the web went dark.
A party full of teens with no cell-phones,
Stoned, blowing up each other's favorite spots.
I swiped a car, drove like hell as someone
Blew the crowd and the whole hill into dust.”
The fire burns down. Drugs and fatigue kick in.
They drag themselves off to sleep. Gus and Buck
Crash in the dirt. Joe snores with his camels
And his magnum. I roost in the tower,
Dream of ants marching, mandibles clicking
Chasing their leader, stamping all six legs,
Tracking a trail of pungent pheromones
Toward the horizon. Bright whiteness. Clean light.
Solar power focussed by the buffed lens
Of a detective's magnifying glass.
The sun rises gold in a sapphire sky.
Parvati and Shiva snuffle and shove
Until Joe wakes, unties them, gives treats.
They trot into the woods. He coughs, shuffles
Toward the sound of new fire. Rubbing his eyes
He spots Lance unchained seated with James. Swift
Joe draws the magnum on Lance, center mass.
Oatmeal, cups of tea, a bag of dried fruit
On their table. Joe tips his gun and head
Sideways, looks back and forth, saying: “James? What.”
“The Private is a Christian man,” James states.
“Raised by strong stock, pulled to violence
By a need to survive, drawn to attack
By a man drugged with power, drunk on fear.
His sins he has confessed. Placed in our flock
By God's hand, only Satan would bind him.”
Joe takes a long breath in and out, holsters
His gun, takes a step back. “Okay, padre.”
He lifts two fingers, crossed. “Your fates are twined.
He's yours. He hurts us, you go down with him.”
Val is boxing ghosts, eyes closed. Feints, dodges,
Sweeps and hooks. She's knocked back, rolls to her feet,
Returns with combo punches, an axe kick.
Emme watches, jabs the air, kicks best she can
In a long dress. Ears lifted, bodhi guards.
Val stops, wipes her face, scratches her dog's chin.
They walk off toward breakfast. Emme bounces behind.
“When do we start?” Val and bodhi turn, squint.
“I'm not a teacher.” Emme corrects: “You were
Not a teacher. This is a different world.”
Anne puts eggs in water, discards floaters,
Cracks sinkers in the wok over the fire.
Sam whisks them with vigor, serves scrambled scoops
Over rice to the line, one at a time.
They add shakes of pepper, dashes of soy,
Drink coffee from an urn with powdered cream.
“With luck and a lake,” Sam says, “I'll put trout
In the pan tomorrow.” Dixie points west.
“Three miles of switchbacks and you'll find fat browns
And cut-throats. Craw-dads, too. And a rope-swing.”
James gestures Emme beneath a tree to eat.
“Did you know of this One Billion Movement?”
She pats her lips with a paper napkin,
Folds it in her lap. “Pure poison, Father.”
She nods. “Open license for planned breeding,
Infanticide, euthanasia, hate crimes.
'We Billion would be better without you.'
Click, bang. A curious college debate
Carried way too far by the oppressed, crazed
And radical who wanted an excuse.”
“How did you learn this?” She's blowing bubbles
In her Kool-Aid. “The web, Father. Knowledge
Exists not just in old books.” Plates are cleared
For the hounds to lick. Formal at Val's feet,
Bodhi watches their slopping jowls, dragging
Floppy ears. Val gives him her last spoonful.
The old woman shoos Sam with a towel.
“No men in Baba's kitchen. I clean up.”
They put a pot in the fire filled with soap
And water. Dishes revolve like clockwork.
Joe and Max snip a lock, swing wide the gate
To the power-plant. Max says: “Not sure Dale
Knew they had back-up.” Joe taps tanks, sniffs lines,
Checks gauges before going to the switch.
“Fire in the hole?” Max shrugs: “Fire in the hole.”
Joe flips the switch. Revving. Chitty-bang-click.
Cough of black smoke. It lives. Lights, fans, Muzak.
Joe's radio squawks with yesses and nos.
Max takes notes while Joe looks it all over.
He nods and shuts it down. The mall goes dark.
Baba guides as Anne and Kaye restructure
The glass-front mattress store. Some beds they drag
Outside, where Gus and Al relocate them.
They circle ten beds, nightstands and one crib,
Bring plush toys, blankets, mobiles, thick books,
A nurse bag. Show it to a plumping girl.
“We'll all keep watch,” Anne tells her. “Will it do,
Darling May?” One hand on her spine: “Yes, dear.”
“My money's on five months,” Kaye whispers. “Four,”
Baba croaks, “In these times, be set for two.”
The other men turn soil, churn picnic ground
Into farmland. “Tired already, Timmy?”
Buck takes a fork from the sweating teen. Lance
Gives his to James. He peels his robe. T-shirt,
Trousers, knotty arms. He tests the fork's weight,
Twists the grip, swings it like a baseball bat.
He and Buck lock eyes, drive boots and tines, till
Turf under, worms over, yard by square yard,
Spit soil like tractors. James sniffs, twists his face,
Tells Buck: “You're burning putrid fuel, Buford.”
After a lunch of pasta with canned sauce
Buck brings seeds from his cart, sows them in rows.
Joe and Sam spread their own, marking the spot
With a tie-died scarecrow. Al searches cars,
Makes notes, extracts batteries, wire and fans.
Tim loads them in a cart, drags it bumping
To the garage where the Jag's parked in shade.
Shiva snorts, lifts a sneering lip at mares
And stallions tethered, grazing just too close
To his regally reclined Parvati.
Until the pounce, I don't see the cat, black
Splotched grey and tan, lurking under the hedge.
A feather-cloud. Thrashing bird in her jaws.
Tail high, she trots to the women's quarters,
Plops the corpse at Anne's feet. “Oh, my Zephyr,
Thank you. This little robin all for me?”
She strokes her fur, coos, scratches her belly.
Zephyr turns the corner, becomes shadow.
Face screwed, Anne takes one wing in two fingers,
Flings it far as she can then looks for soap.
I snatch the bird, swoop to the tower roof,
Past Gus on watch duty, cigarette butt
Stuck to his lip, snoring, ash on his shirt.
Just a three-bite bird. Need to find more fuel
For my furnace, get some air, some distance,
Some space and a view. Too much time near dirt
Dulls my edges, erodes my fear of death.
Never saw that cat. Slipping. Hurt is dead.
Must stay sharp. Back in altitude the air
Flows clear in my lungs, blood clean through my heart.
I taste the sky for fresh dead. These dirt-foots
Scorch their meat, stew it all to mush with plants.
Where's a road-killed deer? A fat goat's back half
The bear couldn't finish? I swirl and float
Until the mall's a spot in the forest,
Skate north on the wind over striped black-top.
I find just a thin man in a big coat.
Gas can in one hand. Crow-bar in the next.
Gun on his hip. He shakes the bar at me.
“You can have me last, you flying maggot.”
He sneers at the trees, walks south, stiff but quick
In scuffed leather shoes. He looks back often
Touching his pistol. He's not dropping dead
So I fly back. Baba works a wood spoon
With power through a bowl of dough. “You girls,
Grew up with electric stoves. My nana,
She baked with iron and fire.” Dried berries
And raisins. She keeps stirring. Max and Tim
Heft the dutch oven, hang it over coals.
“Go now, boys.” She shakes the spoon, flings pastry.
Joe and Sam roll shopping carts, sagging full
Of solar panes, turbines and inverters
To the garage floor, start laying stuff out.
Sam asks: “Power a walk-in with these toys?
We ever get food, I'd like it to last.”
Joe frowns, looks over calculator parts,
Shakes his head at micro-copters, chuckles
At child-size wind mills and coils of copper.
Rubs his face, groans, peeks out through his fingers
At the oil-stained concrete. “Absolutely.”
Unarmed, James escorts Lance across rooftops.
Lance sketches buildings and terrain, inspects
Cameras, piles of spent shells. Kneels squinting
With a ghost rifle, taking aim below.
Buck shadows them both, nostrils curled like stink.
“What's he doin'?” he asks James. Lance responds
But Buck lifts a palm. “Didn't talk to you.”
They climb to the tower. Gus jerks awake.
Cigarette rolls down his gut, sears his thigh.
“Your boyfriend,” Lance says, “is one sharp marble.”
Val exits the mall with a box of books,
Bodhi at her heel with Emme trailing, dress
Abandoned for new track pants and jacket.
They sit beneath a tree flipping pages,
Val pointing at pictures before standing
Feet shoulder-wide, pressing hands together
And sinking into stance. Emme tries the same,
Grits her teeth. “Lower.” She hisses. “Lower.”
She tips. Val touches her head. She crashes.
Still crouched, Val says: “Easier in ten years.”
Dixie and Kaye wrestle picnic tables
Into a ring around the fire. Baba
Stirs garlic, onions and more in a pot
While ladies drape linen, unpack china
And polish silver. From plastic lemons
My squirts juice into a crystal punch-bowl,
Tastes the crimson liquid and adds sugar.
Anne builds a fragile tower of glass cups.
Baba rings a bell. They all come running.
Lance says: “Who's getting married? Is it me?”
They line up, grab bowls and spoons. Hunks of bread.
Ladles of stew. Buck steps ahead of Lance.
“Inmates to the back.” He stabs a finger.
Lance looks at his feet. “Naw. I like it here.
Go shove that finger someplace warm and dark.”
Val and Emme arrive, stepping gingerly.
“But the polite thing would be: ladies first.”
Palms up, Lance steps backward, eyes drilling Buck.
Baba grips her spoon like a club. “Besides,
You'd best not get too close,” Lance grins, “Buford.”