Speak, beast.

            Curled suburban cuddle in front of the fireplace,
            possum-dreaming and paw-kicking, your fur
            a tumbleweed down the waxed hallway, your ears
            cropped and your tail docked,

            Or how about you? Yes, you: spotted neck stretched
            towards what’s left of your acacia trees, neck as long as
            a man’s grave is deep, I need you to fire that impossible
            distance between your heart and tongue and
                         speak. Speak,

            you barred owls with the pink tip of a poisoned
            mouse dangling from your beak, all your many neck bones
            hinged in one spot so you can pivot your blinking
            face to me. I am watching; I am waiting;
                         look at me and
                         speak. Speak,

            you black snake drowsing on the hot blacktop,
            your forked tongue remembering the long kiss
            of voles in tall grass, a memory gone when the woman
            runs over you—then twice again, just to be sure. I need you
                         to speak. Speak,

            you jittering squirrels, you murder of crows, you quarrel
            of sparrows, you pitying of turtledoves, you everyday
            outside flick of life at the mercy of these coming winds, these rising
            waters filthy and licking with flames.

                         Speak, sing to me, caw and fuss
                         among what brittle branches
                         left, I have opened my windows;

                         I am listening.

            you hellbender—giant salamander you are—a rarity
            now put on educational display, you eel-looking
            haint once pulled up by fisherman in these mountains.
                         Speak, because no one knows who you are
            anymore; you must make us remember. Turn your
            slack maw to my tapping on the bent plexiglass
                         and speak.
                         Say what it is you need to say.

            Oh, and you. You with your thick skull blown apart
            with a high-caliber swagger, your memory long
            and your once trumpeting
                         gone, speak to me
                         from beyond.
                         Tell me
            what it was to have those ears of yours in fury,
            raised like giant gray flags, how hard you fought,
            and even once shot how you just stood there
            confused, already dead but refusing to fall
            until your knees buckled, the rest of you slumped,
            and the great pillars of your tusks were
            chain-sawed from your face.
                                                I need to hear especially
            from you: I have a photo here of a man
            grinning with your lopped-off tail in his fist.
            I need you
                         to speak, dammit,
                         Say what it is you need to say.

            Or how about you: kin but safe
            in a cage, I’ve heard your placid
            chewing at the zoo—you took a sweet potato
            from my hand with the wet, breathing end
            of your trunk, slid it into the deep
            socket of your mouth.
                         I know that sound—
            I smiled at your keeper, fed you another treat, but now,
                         now, I need to you to speak.
                         Try it—swallow down
                         that food and flex
                         your tongue, push out the
                         grassy air from those
                         miraculous lungs.
                         I am waiting;
                         we are all waiting.                          
                         I am begging. Please, beast.

                         We are running out of
                         time; there are so many us, and what’s left

of you are
swaying in pens, rocking from side to side, sleeping and aching
and craving and thinking—I know you are thinking—
but not saying a damn word.

            No, not one, not one,
            which I all we need,
            I swear—all of you,

you birds and cicadas, all you flying, leaping, vine-grabbing
canopy beings, all you furred and quilled things too,
or you chittering in your burrows and hiding the dark—
step from the mouth of your dens and speak.

            Listen to me,
            you belong here,

you with a mouth full of milk, with dirt under your claws, all of you
rooting and panting and hibernating and ruminating and standing
by the fence, watching us speed past in our cars.

            Listen to me.
            I need you to try,
            try to say
            just one word.

We can start slow with the low pleasure
sound, the delicious mmmm that closes the door to home,

then growl out that middle vowel and what comes after,
let the back of your throat issue forth a warning
and mean it, get angry with me,
because you’ve had enough, because if you don’t find these sounds

there will be nothing left.

Now, you’re almost there—

pull back your lips if you have them, show your teeth
if you have them, hiss, let out all the air, whatever air is left
and in doing so take us back to all our beginnings
with the sound of waves, with that final syllable—sea.

            Now try again.
            Try again.
            Try, please try.

            All at once.
            It’s such a small
            word on which
            your lives depend.

            I’ll do anything.
            Please, beast. Speak.
            Say it, with me, now:

            MERcy, merCY, mERcy, meeercy, merrrrcy, mercy, mercy, mercy.

            Now, please. Try. Try again.

            Repeat after me

From To Those Who Were Our First Gods (Rattle, 2018) by Nickole Brown. Used with permission of the author.