February 07

The Hidden Ones

Steve Tarlow

In those years the best disguised
Themselves and went into exile.
They wandered from village
To village, looking for degradation.

Exile was their answer to any question,
Any need ― to be hidden, to sleep
In root cellars, to mingle
Their great learning with straw.

Who knew? Maybe the straw
Would catch fire, like the dry field
An ancient one glanced at when he left
His cave, after weeks of fasting.

Even the animals were wary.
Who could say a crow
Was a crow, a cow a cow?
No one told his own story.

But that was the whole point,
To hold back, to sleep on straw.
And of course, somehow the stories
Would all be known ― how this hidden one

Fell off a radish cart into a ditch,
Beaten by the driver, how humility
Cushioned the blows, how another,
With happy tears, accepted grave accusations,

How a great wedding party danced
Around him, with his hands bound,
His face in the dirt, how they mocked
And kicked up stones even as he exulted ―

For at last he brought happiness.
At last the bridegroom turned to smile
At the bride. And when he was unmasked,
Wouldn't that too be happiness?

Hadn't he rehearsed it all, even
The shame, especially the shame?
Didn't he know, as all the hidden ones did,
That a candle burned for him still

In a windowless room, sucking
At the air, almost choking on it?
How could he help but smile
As the villagers hoisted him up

By a tree branch over the river,
Pelted him with apple cores.
He was hungry, thank God, and the apple
Smell would fill his head.

He'd think of that closed room
And its smell of wax, how he'd steal
Back one night, full of shame,
Sit down beside his books, take

His meals again through a slot
In the door. No one would ever know.
They wouldn't need to.
And wasn't that the whole point?

But, of course, somehow they would know.
They would see it when he rubbed
His hands together and the soft veins
Stood out, or when he shook his head

Suddenly, for no reason.
They would know he'd fallen
From a great height, that he'd slept
On straw, on dry bales of straw,

That he'd starved for days,
Covering his face with soot
And candle wax. They would know
The straw had not caught fire.


Images: Yasmine Soiffer's Temple series.


Steve Tarlow works in software development; he's published original and translated poetry in several journals.