still life (with serpent)

by Hakeem Muhammad

he was tall
and dark

his skin
was burnt black
by the sun

his hair
was a white halo
of wool

his robes
hung loosely
on his
gaunt frame

eyes gleaming with wisdom
he stood with the patient boredom
of a disrespected elder

there is no hope
in these grandchildren

throw it again, Pops!
and he threw his staff
and the moment it hit the earth
it burst into life
hissing and slithering

wow!

got it, Jimbo!
yelled the man with the camcorder

great!  now we need a DNA sample —
where’s that biologist?
same species, right?
amazing!  how do you do that
old man?

it is not I but the Master
who gives life

(and takes it away)
he muttered
as the snake became
once again
a dead piece of wood

he retrieved his staff
and returned to the spot
in front of the cameras
and the instruments

he allowed the botanist
to slice and scrape samples of wood
for scientific examination

we need another angle on this —
so you, Jocko, take that camera
to the other side!  and you Brenda —
up on that rock!
we are definitely missing something here!

he wiped his pink and blistered face
and mopped his neck
which sweated profusely
against the ruthless heat

dry and calm
the old man waited

curse this sun!
why can’t we do this
at night?

there is danger
at night

they knew that a no
from the old man was
final

all right!
give it a throw, Mo’!
and the others laughed

he threw his staff
and the moment it hit the earth
it burst into life
hissing and slithering

wow!

the old man looked
at the young people —
stranger to him than
the now-familiar serpent

your pill —
what does it do for you?

this?
this pill?  man —
I couldn’t get up in the morning
without this pill!

it gives you life?

well —
I still feel empty
but at least I can
get up in the morning

it is not man who gives life
but the Master

the old man turned
and walked away

mouths open
they watched him
until he was a speck
against the burnt and blistered landscape

January 16, 1999

Hakeem Muhammad