Listen to Eliot Khalil Wilson reading this poem.
I. You too might step into a puddle of fire,
or splash through a stream of glowing lava
where only moments before you were barefoot
in your kitchen after a late night of too much wine
and, nearly naked, frying bacon at the stove.
A burn like this is a different thing the doctor said
and I can believe it. I was a different thing.
I was a man with an unquenchable oil well fire on his feet
that would blaze up as the medicine ebbed.
And the skin curled over, brown-red,
too much like the meat I was cooking in the pan that I dropped
—an irony not lost on even the youngest of nurses
drinking and bacon don’t mix
she kidded as I healed.
Yet had my wounds burned like Vulcan’s forge
they’d be a distant fire in light of the child
behind the glass in the opposite bed.
II. Where were you saints when the fire first licked his hands?
Hadn’t he in living prayed to you?
I want the saint of ice cream trucks
to turn off the carnival, climb down, and explain it all—
account for all the betrayers—
The saints of reachable branches and bank envelope lollipops,
The saints of tree forts, pocket knives, and stadium food.
The saints of waffles and eyebrows and box turtles.
The saint of jam.
The saint of his own bed.
Where were you saints of wheelies and rodeo clowns and rockets?
III. I was at home when the sepsis took him
and they wheeled him to that all-light room
and when they covered his face.
Yet I had seen his grafts and debridements,
the twice daily baths and dressings,
and the shock at that last turn of gauze
—how the fire bit at his summer legs and arms—
black skin, blacker still, and red.
I was there to see the lost mother
who would live in fire for the child she had known.
There to see all who entered shake their heads
as if wondering as I wondered
how so small a thing can carry such pain
—pain that pushed through the morphine push—
—pain that conquered even those numbing Nordic gods—
Vicodin, Ativan, and Tylox.
It is not my place.
He was not my child,
and I could never speak to him,
but hold him out of the fire.
I would not have him burned again.
Give him back to rocking water,
to pendulum down through the fingers of the sun.
Let the ocean run his veins and heart—
full, then empty, then full again.
Or return him to the folding ground,
face up to the sky.
A boon for dreamlessness,
this petty thief of time.