The Manhattan Review
The Manhattan Review
Established 1980

Archive > Vol. 15 no. 1


D. Nurkse



Not the village we stayed in, but the next small town
along the chalky river, that we always wanted to visit,
intrigued by its vaguely Arabic name, though the locals said
there is nothing there. No museum, no waterfall.

Tall narrow limestone houses with eyebrow cornices
on both sides of a river whose surface was glossy
but whose bubbles moved so fast they were threads.

Shade of those courtyards. Old men played chess
at a stone table. One bent and pursed his lips
to blow away the maple keys. One hummed to himself,
so lost was he in thought, and fingered the green baize pads
under the serried pawns, replacing them absently.

In a gateway, soldiers in wheelchairs
played dominoes with a strange vehemence,
slapping the tiles, rubbing their chapped hands.

Dovecotes on the roofs. Gray-faced keepers in leather aprons
maneuvered poles with canvas flags, perhaps signaling the flock?
And never looked down except once one waved to you
and I felt a pang: this cannot be.

Obsessive hum
of beehives in gardens, even at the center, that dusty plaza
like all the other squares, but a little more self-important, 
the template of the hive chiseled in a stone plinth.

I wanted to drink the yellow Fendant that region was known for
but you declined. You were different in that town.
More authoritative. When you fingered a peach at a stall
I watched how long the bruise took to fade and meld
into the downy sheen. I bought it myself
and nibbled that spot first. I felt you knew me

too well; in our usual streets I was less predictable. 
In our dooryard I would have no fear of touching you
but here I longed to and the air hardened
around the nape of your neck. I bought you a flower.
Scared to pick a columbine from a stone pot,
I paid a clump of bills for what seemed a parched daisy.
You accepted it solemnly and tucked it in your purse.

Music, I thought. Perhaps we could both listen.
Harmony is insidious, the mind has no defense.
It can form no image until afterward.

And you agreed. On a stony lane to the pastures—
the smell of the acacia was sickly, almost charnal—
we found a café that was just an open air booth.
An old woman rinsed two of her four glasses
and poured us something like water, clear,
with a strong familiar smell and no taste.
I felt my head fall, though it was only evening.

An old man strapped on a zither and began strumming.
The words wheezed perhaps at random in a high thin voice.
Then I knew it was long ago. We would never be free.
Our cottage would have been razed, replaced by condos.

It was dusk and I had to make peace with you
for once you are caught in this story it moves backwards,
slowly but unwavering, by the cadences of minor key harmony,
dorian to dominant to diminished, until it is night
and the windows light like a swarm of golden bees.