For a Libyan Militia Member
1 Once I cleared the chopper’s wapwapwap the airstrip opened up into a treeless drift of sand where I heard a distant hammer tap against the wind and smelled scorched concrete wafting from shellholes in the runway. Then, we were speeding along in the back of an open truck, its axles shuddering over hardpan as I rubbernecked at burned-out tanks, turrets blown to the roadside seeming somehow sadder than the men who died. 2 Just a boy who played soccer until the revolution, he learned, with a bad shoulder, to fire an AK-47, shoot off a mortar so he didn’t burn his hands, talk away fear— the radio broadcasting endless hero/victim chatter sent him racing behind a wall, hiding from the sniper’s crosshairs— pinwheeling shrapnel sent him to the hospital— where he suffered as much from boredom as his wound. Playing with a lizard he holds by the tail, the panting ribs pulse as he dangles it head down, his bandaged cheek, crisscrossed with tape, looking like it aches. The hot breeze dries sweat from his face as the lizard whiplashes loose, scrambling across the sheet to disappear under the bed, one wounded foot leaving pinpricks of blood— not a trail or code, just the tail left dangling in the boy’s fingers as he laughs and, swinging it around, shows it to his mother frowning, What’s that? and snatches it away. 3 Each time the boy, grown-up now, is forced to flash ID, his scar tissue’s calligraphy writes on his body the history of his own scalloped, twisted flesh shrugging off my pose of objectivity: shrinking, puckering, the skin grafts on his burns shine white as phosphorus in the sun: and whatever I write down, the counter-text scrawled on his cheek revises itself each time his mouth flexes into a grin or frown, as year by year whatever’s written there gets that much harder to decipher, that much further from the war, until in the mirror he’ll see and won’t see his own scars. 4 In the shade and sunlight the lizard grows a new tail that writes in dust over a broken cobble its slithering trail until it stops short, heart pulsing in its throat, red eyes fixed on that foreign shape which takes out a notebook, scribbles green and brown skin, broken black diamonds arranged in vertical stripes, claws that look like hands of a fever victim. And then scribbled notes in neutral tones about mortar fire, flak jackets, the strap on the helmet that’s always too loose or too tight, the boy’s bombed house, shockwaves blowing out the windows to let in riot gas, an adrenaline rush, the smell of tears chemical as ammonia, and as harsh. 5 All around me the sound of men sleeping, their bodies shifting slightly in their dreaming, the engines of the trucks still cooling giving off little ticks and pings. And then I was climbing out of my blankets to slip under the tent’s canopy, stumbling away from mumbling and snores, the desert cold making the dew-damped sand stiffen so it crunched underfoot as I crept beyond the watchman to take a piss: and at the edge of the camp, near the chickens in their coop, heads tucked under wings, was a fox staring back, or what I though was a fox ducking down into the shadows and disappearing behind the trucks that in the morning would obliterate its precise, four-clawed tracks that the next night and the next would keep on coming back, until the chickens got eaten, or the fox was filled. Then pattering of my own piss brought me back into the cold, the sky overhead dark and bright, bundled bodies in the dawn beginning to levitate— whose elbows dreamed up the chokehold? Who pushes back the boundaries so that no-man’s-land is the only heimat, homeland, patrie? Who strips us of our shadows so that our histories turn to glass? And then it was time for breakfast, to sip tea, smoke, and take my place beside the others in the truck.
Originally published in House of Fact, House of Ruin (Graywolf Press, 2018). Copyright © 2018 by Thomas Sleigh. Used with the permission of the poet.