Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Smile

In response to this writing challenge on lkjslain's site, I wrote this poem. I had no idea where I was going with it, I just started it and kept writing down what came to me. Then I liked it so much that I recorded myself reading it:


The Smile

I walked alone at night, through streets of gray,
Content to be alone, chasing tales
Hidden, obscure, in corners of crooked paths.
Secrets of those who passed that way before.
The walls and stones see all, and plain as day
Reveal the stories to me, their long lost friend.
For years I wandered thus, full well content
To slip unnoticed around the edge of life
Untouched by the swirling blizzard of human flakes,
I watched, and listened; marveled and passed on.

Then one day a new tale came to me,
Borne on a breeze of ice from the blackest heart
Of the shadowy ways of the City of Dreadful Night
The darkness at the center of that tangled wild.
Somewhere in the labyrinth a woman walks,
Or so the black breeze whispered in my ear,
Pale and tall, fragile and great of heart,
Mighty in soul, shrouded in hood of black,
Walking the city, weeping for her child,
And then, with tears used up, she still walks on
Through dark, dry, hopeless aching night.

I loved her then. It is not too strong a word.
Her grief scored deep my heart, my spirit shrank
At the deadening weight of pain that crushed her soul.
I shrank away in fear, but could not run
For awesome fascination at her strength,
For even yet, (the breezes sighed) she hopes.
The candle is all but snuffed, and yet one spark
One pitiful, stubborn, glorious, relentless spark,
Will not be quenched. She will not fade away.
She loves. There it is. Even still she dares to love.

Just a tale, passed on the fickle wind, and yet,
The weight of its fantasy shocked my sleeping soul
All my actions, pale, transparent and flimsy
Vanished in the shadow of such a love,
Such pain. I slowly turned my trembling steps
Into the night. The darksome labyrinth
Loomed before me, moaned and sucked me in
Into the whirl of pain, despair and hate
Harpies like a pack of howling wolves
Tore at my ears and shivered my resolve,
But yet it held. By ever so little, it held.
I sought her. Through narrow, devious ways I searched
Peeked through cracks in walls and peered through bars
In cellar windows. I kept an eye for her,
And the other looking back, always aware
Of the way out. For I purposed when she was found
That I would take her hand, and gently lead the way
Back, through treacherous paths and hateful looks
And clutching, clawing keepers, to freer air
To a place where light and music, silence and peace
Can still exist, and stories all end well.
Once in those early days I saw a glimpse
Of her face across a crowded, sullen street.
She stepped through a sickly yellow pool of light
From the streetlamp, but she never even paused.
When I crossed and looked again, she was long gone.
I redoubled my efforts, and vowed oneday to bring
A smile to those fair, set, determined lips.

Then one day I saw a fallen child,
With broken wings and tangled dirty hair
Caught in a pit, thrown in an abandoned crypt.
Worn out dreams lay wasted ‘round her feet,
Scornfully plucked in the bud, never to bloom.
Dirty hands tossed cold hard cash her way
To make her dance, or sing, or play to please her crowd.
So ugly, she was. Not the Lady’s child.
That child was long since dead, I know, but still
Once that child had suffered, as now this girl
Suffers. “It won’t take long,” I thought.
“I’ll show her out, and then return to the search.”
I did. I returned to her late at night and broke the lock
And guided her through the well-known maze of streets
To the tangle’s edge, and set her free. She ran
And never once looked back. I turned back in.

I went back to my quest, but once again,
I came upon a child, and once more paused
My dogged search long enough to get him out.
Another glimpse of her, but when I arrived,
Not her, instead two more of these pitiable urchins.
By now the keepers had learned I knew the way.
This time I had to fight to make it through
To the edge, and then frantic I rushed back in.
These distractions had to stop, or I would never find
The Lady; but now whichever way I turned
Were pitiful faces, children, women, the old
The lame, the sick, the hungry and the weak.
I walked with them. One or two at a time I got them out.
I couldn’t turn them away. They told their tales
And I listened, and wept and fought to clear the way.
Every time was harder than the last,
These middle years were years of many scars.
The Keepers scarred my body, the children my heart
And both bled freely, but each time I went back.

And now I am old and tired, and winding down.
My back is bent, my beard is gray and wild
And my hands are crooked, gnarled and lined with scars.
My heart looks much the same, or so I’d guess,
Inscribed as it is with so many tales of pain.
I have not seen the Lady these many years,
Perhaps she lives no more, perhaps never did.
I might have made her up, a silly dream
That will not go away, but holds more firm
Than the rocks I hide behind. Pitiless is hope!
Weariness covers my soul like a hood of black.
I am dying. That’s how it is. I’m glad to go.
Even though there are still so many more,
But I am full of other people’s pains.
I’ve drained to the dregs that goblet of human sorrow.
From the first to the last the stories stay with me,
Of kept and keeper alike, and scars of both.
And now I’m done. Right now, this trip, my last.

I know this one is my last, because I fell,
Just like that, my face hits the city street.
I cannot rise to my feet, my breath is short,
My chest sinks like an anvil on my heart,
As it finally breaks.
                               I have never seen her smile.

But what is this? The falling darkness breaks
The sky goes gray, then teal, then blue, then gold
And light falls on my head with searing heat
And all the weight of gold, poured liquid hot.
Intolerable for one brief hellish breath, far worse
Than life itself, and then a gasp of air;
Only not air. Or rather, this is at last is air.
Before this moment I’ve never tasted air.
I’ve never yet known light before this day.
The brightest day of life was shades of gray,
And air before a vacuum next to this.
This air could make a meal, this light a bath,
A shower, an ocean of curling waves of gold
Washing over and through my broken frame
‘Til Every scar shines out with borrowed light
A gift, a jewel, a royal diadem.
I draw this joy up from the very grass
And a laugh rings from my chest, the very first
I ever truly laughed. Mirth pours out,
Sounding a mad, triumphant organ fugue,
Answered in kind, in brave bright jubilee
In the Lady’s eyes; for there, at last, she stands.

Beautiful as the glowing moon, radiant with light
Over, around, with and by and through
The Light is pleased to shine, and even thus
Lovingly tempered still it is too much.
She smiles.

                   Too much!

                                        I could almost die again.

She stands amid a joyful throng, a Queen
A Mother. Her children, whose stories now are mine
Keeper and kept alike, now whole and free.

Thus I lived and all my life was this.
Was bliss, for I have made my Lady smile.


  1. My goodness, don't you have a wonderful reading voice! Wonderfully written, Ryan.

    1. Thanks. When I was a kid I could read in the car without getting carsick so I got hundreds of hours of practice reading aloud to younger siblings. I still enjoy reading aloud, but I don't do it so often anymore. Glad you liked this.