Sitting on a yam-house platform
in his village on an island,
Molilakwa answered questions.
The white man he called Man of Songs,
the anthropologist Malinowski,
often asked about his magic,
and Molilakwa had many spells
stored in his stomach which he could explain.
They might discuss the magic
used against dangers of shipwreck,
to sink sharks, close the gaping depth,
fill the flying witches’ eyes with mist—
or they might discuss witchcraft.
The flying witches could become
invisible, or change their shape.
Certain fireflies were witches,
as were the bats perched in the mangroves
where Malinowski liked to watch
sunset over the muddy lagoon.
Molilakwa and others tried
to warn him that the witches made
that place dangerous at night,
and when soon after he was sick,
the Melanesians all agreed
he had been kicked by a flying witch.
But since his insides were not removed,
no one had to hire a witch
to leave her body to bring them back.
His illness was mild, and Molilakwa’s
magic was enough to cure him.
When I asked about his sketch
of freeway ramp and mountain forests
drawn in moments between passing cars,
his mumbled evasions told me
his art was something private.
When our conversation stopped,
I glanced with only my eyes to see
what landscape he could be drawing
from a moving car, and recognized
my own profile taking shape.
If he knew I was watching,
he pretended not to notice.
I held my head in position,
surprised by the pointed ear
he added to my tousled hair.
Soon I was portrayed as an elf
wearing a medieval tunic
with laced-up neck and puffy sleeves,
a short sword in my belt,
and I was ready for adventures.
“Did you string the necklace?” Karen asked,
and little Shanti answered, “Yeah.”
Peter laughed and said, “Sure she did.”
He’d heard her telling me which wooden beads
she wanted strung together.
I told him, “Shanti was the architect.”
He laughed again, saying,
“Architects get credit, never builders.”
Reminded of how the Parthenon was built,
I told him about some inscriptions
found on the Acropolis, listing names
of thousands of citizens paid for their work.
While Karen was cooking rice and tofu,
Peter talked about visiting Athens,
getting off the bus with two friends
at three in the morning and wandering the streets
until they caught a view of the Acropolis,
saw the Parthenon gleaming in the full moon,
and knew where they wanted to spend the night.
They woke up at dawn on the marble floor,
rolled up their bedrolls and stumbled around
while sunrise tinted the statues with gold.
They left when the first guided tour arrived.
We discussed my surprise that no one stopped them,
the efforts to preserve the Parthenon
from tourist damage and air pollution,
whether trying to preserve things is futile,
and the gunpowder explosion
which made it a ruin three hundred years ago.
Peter called it too beautiful for a ruin.
I compared its openness to a remark
he made to a neighbor building her house,
that houses looked best with just their framing.
“The Parthenon has some framing,” Peter said.
“What’s he reading?” asked a man
drinking beer at the next table,
interrupting the debate
between Socrates and Protagoras
about whether virtue can be taught.
“Plato,” replied the other man.
“I know a story about Plato
and Aristotle,” the first man said,
too loudly for me to ignore him.
“Aristotle committed an act
Do you know what that is?—
And when Plato learned about it,
what did he do? He wrote that book!”
One of the women they were with
whispered something to made them stop.
“Enjoy your pizza,” the first man said.
It arrived as they were leaving.
“I will,” I replied, wondering what
could be wrong with reading Plato
while waiting for a pizza.
Sitting on a log
over creek, I hear
upstream trickle and
downstream over roots
and into a pool.
Sunlight’s spring angle
sparkles some ripples
and makes others glow,
rainbows an orb web.
A gnat’s wings shimmer
for soundless instants,
others in and out
of light. A sorrel bloom
purples the ground.
Ravens soar and scream,
chasing each other
between redwood tops,
eyes and beaks outlined
by sunstruck feathers.
Given time enough, a streamlet’s water
can dissolve the lime in a sandstone outcrop,
and the grit of its seasonal floods
can polish deep bowls— this I knew from seeing
the rock in summer when the stream was dry.
What I could not appreciate before
was the balance of the water flowing
over its stone sculpture, each freeform bowl
spilling smoothly into the next, and then
a transparent waterfall into a pool.
Only for a week after the rains stop
is it like this, a strong clear flow
patterned like the twisting redwood roots
which form one bank. Surprised at how easily
it fills my cupped hands, I sample its taste.
Admiring its power,
I watched its slinky muscles move
beneath its rough wet fur and whiskers,
while fishlings slipping through the flow
around its claws held its attention.
It became cautious the moment
it looked up, though I did not move.
Slipping into the pool without splashing,
it swam underwater past me,
then surfaced to look back.
But I had run ahead, knowing
the tricks of otters from my books;
this time it saw me and panicked,
and like a ten-year-old I chased it
until it galloped up the bank.
After wave-sounds bring awareness
of sleeping bag on sand,
starry sky and tide returning,
I sit up in a bundle watching
colors separate from blue.
The gibbous moon is piercing white,
cliffs show brown, close hills show green,
clouds change from white to purple.
Waves are ice-green around rocks
no longer black but shadowed brown.
As I watch the seagulls flying
back and forth, joined by a raven,
I notice songbirds have been singing.
The colors are no those of day
though distant hills now hide the sun.
A Brazilian man in a broken-down shack
looked in the mirror at his bare chest,
then back up at what had once been his face.
He had been a barber before falling
down a staircase; hospitals in Rio
refused him treatment because he could not pay,
and he could earn nothing looking like this.
As he laid out local anesthetic,
alcohol, tweezers, needle, thread, and half
a razor blade, could he have known of a time
when surgery had been done by barbers?
He was sculptor modeling his own flesh,
cutting painless but not-quite-senseless skin
from his chest and sewing it on his face.
Hours later the pain returned, but he
had to sleep carefully in position.
His face was easier to look at when
the first skin graft healed; he could picture it
fully restored, as he pulled the stitches.
The hospital surgeons were amazed when they
learned of his plastic surgery, fifteen
successful operations on himself.
He was glad when doctors who refused him
began offering to finish the treatment.
copyright © 1979 - 2011 Carl Miller
Painting, “Howard Creek Beach”: 1995, Acrylic on watercolor paper, 12 x 18 inches. This was painted for a cover. I cropped out the part of the sky where the title goes.