Marvin Shackelford

Drawback

When the waters receded we saw the statuary of those who came before. Their rounded helms and long hair appeared ahead of square stone shoulders, robes and armor, the pedestals bearing names in half-recognizable script. They stared grimly at us. The deep bay had swallowed them, grown murky with years of commerce, and kept them hidden. We didn’t swim there, didn’t fish unless we had to, grew ill if we ate our catch. We crossed the hills to other, quieter waters, knew the surrounding lands better than the sea. We weren’t the warrior sons and priestesses’ daughters who took this place by force and sealed it in stone. We were a disappointment. Among the paving stones and marble fixtures our fathers preached of gods forgotten, debts owed and paid, and our mothers wept for children to keep them in their dotage. To throw oneself unknowing into the void, they promised, held the greatest riches. They began to step down from their plinths and pillars, knees stiff and breaking, and fell into their own shadow. Sometimes it takes starting over, they whispered. Storms bring fresh water, and blood runs freely over old roots. Disaster presages glory. All about us the world rose and darkened. We wanted to believe them.

The Deep Threatened

In room seven of the ER a teenage girl screamed red-faced at a man—too old, scruffily bearded, to be a boyfriend but too young to be her father—who showed no signs of wakefulness. In six a man in tribal regalia stood alone, face painted, and the overhead lamp, that elbowed device in place for surgeons or nurses or whoever worked mightily in times of need, threw his shadow across the wall in the shape of a bird, a phoenix or dragon or something else built of smoke and fire, of hope and loss.

The door to five was closed, locked, but someone the other side bleated like a sheep. In four a woman lay snoring loudly, a rhythm to her breath suggesting the tremulous ringtone of an older phone. The boy in room three sat bare-chested and ate slices of pear, apple, grapes and cherries, from a white-lidded container. The nurses spoke quietly of an infestation, roaches or spiders, something legged and unseen in cluttered space.

In two the curtain was pulled tightly around the bed. A woman sat just outside it, a large book that might have been a Bible spread-eagled on her lap, and reapplied her lipstick. She blotted her mouth on the rim of a coffee cup and turned to stare into the hallway. She didn’t speak.

One lay empty. A custodian worked to remove a broken clock from the wall, its glass blackened and smoky as though it had suffered a sudden surge of power, or been struck by lightning.

And there at the entrance you shucked rainwater from your pink umbrella. The fountains of the deep threatened to swallow you. The parking lot filled with men beating at the side of our ark, all the sinners of every life I’ve lived seeking shelter from the night. I asked if you were sure we were doing the right thing, if it was necessary, if in the morning we’d look back and say, Well done, well done. You didn’t answer. You handed me your coat and walked into the far-away lights of the emergency-room hallway. You walked against the arrows painted up and down the shiny linoleum. You walked until you disappeared in a storm of scrubs and cords, carbon forms and diagnoses and promises, wise men and laughter, and I waited.

The Gates of Hell Shall Not Prevail

The third living pope declares himself without smoke or ceremony in Palestine, Texas. Enough is enough, he says. Suffer the little ones no more. He was a Baptist coming in, but no one minds. He begins to bind on earth what he expects of Heaven: Communion drops to every fifth Sunday and baptisms to confessions of faith, but the line on divorce stays about the same. The Sunday-school teachers and ladies in the nursery keep a very neat signup sheet and travel in pairs. He ordains deacons and elders with wives and families, and they all carry guns. They pray without repetitions around a folding table on Wednesday nights and on Thursday go to the stockyard. Fridays they eat catfish and attend high-school football games. They watch from deep in the stands. We’re looking good, they say. Awful good.

The third living pope drawls out Hebrew names, and his prayers carry a twang. Occasionally he wonders aloud what the keys he’s taken hold from Saint Peter are actually supposed to start. He pictures Heaven like a cherry-red Mustang and Hell its fuel tank, launched into the backseat when it’s struck just right. He carries quite a few thoughts about that false white horse that’s coming, its rider and overall towing power. He reinstitutes excommunication and inquisitions the flock, the church discipline let slide so long. He puts his foot on down, but not everyone’s convinced. A few folks try out the Lutherans, some give the Methodists or Presbyterians a look, but mostly they just quit church altogether.

The third living pope promises all will be well. He preaches on Sundays, morning and night, at volumes alternating between calm and angry. He says who needs Latin when you’ve got the King’s good English. He says to watch anybody with a crystal cathedral or a Cadillac or too crooked a smile, but he likes to lay on hands and anoint with oil. There’s a time and a place for the washing of feet. He starts growing a beard. Once the cameras fall away and the letters of rebuke, the calls to cease and desist, peter out, he spends more time at home. His wife bakes cornbread and beans and says maybe tomorrow a roast. He wears out his Bible, fills it with fresh ink drawing the line leading from him back to Christ. It’s shorter than anybody thinks. At night he calls his children and tells those that answer to watch the blood, follow it close. Perilous creatures unnumbered roam this earth, he says. The lion and thief come. At least we’re better than that, he tells them. We’re better than that.

Marvin Shackelford is the author of a collection of poems, Endless Building, and a couple volumes of stories and flash forthcoming from Alternating Current Press and Red Bird Chapbooks. His work has, or soon will have, appeared in The Kenyon Review, West Branch, MoonPark Review, New Ohio Review, and elsewhere. He resides, quietly, in Southern Middle Tennessee.
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About Posit Editor

Susan Lewis (susanlewis.net) is the editor of Posit (positjournal.com) and the author of ten books and chapbooks, including Zoom, winner of the 2017 Washington Prize, Heisenberg's Salon, This Visit, and State of the Union. Her poetry has appeared in such places as The Awl, Berkeley Poetry Review, Boston Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Cimarron, Gargoyle, The Journal, New American Writing, The New Orleans Review, Prelude, Raritan, Seneca Review, So to Speak, Verse, Verse Daily, and VOLT.