In the Breath of the Ten Thousand Metals – A poem by Sarah Crossland

Almadén Prison Camp, Spain—1583

We have all committed crimes. Whether or not
they are the ones we were accused of—lifting
a loaf of bread from its carrier with spell-weighted
fingers, a lost blue horse, the wife we forsook
for cold islands of macabeo in the night—guilt
forms in our hands each day like a pound
of cinnabar. Pander metal, the always hunted
or latticed. Lustering as the deep-knowing
sky that watches us. It’s that we want the guilt,
we want the heaven, we want the red lead.
And we are told to find it. Or soon our bodies
will fall into the long, entropic tomb rimmed
with its unavoidable scatflowers. In our two
shirts, the breeches and stockings, the single
hood we wear to bring darkness close to us
as it will come—the apothecary, the water cup
as large as a child’s hand, the imprisoning
sun, how it holds us here more than any man—
all the provisions we are given for each day to pass
are not enough. With buckets, we bail the rain out
after the dog-hungry storms. There is nowhere
for it but over our shoulders, back behind us
in the place we just have walked. Some men
write to their mothers and ask for coming
back. Back beneath their melancholic skirts,
calico and ugly as the face of someone who has
spent the evening with her own yeasty tears.
To where the wind won’t fiss, where
the mercury in its fat pails won’t find a way
to talk to us. There are sounds and there are
soundings. In the hymnals, it is not the same.
The chaplain, who is one of us, asks silver
coins when we will not give over our
hour to God. And where is he down among
the mines, hero of the picaresque whose name
does not have surrender in it? It is taking
our hands—the poison—it is a beautiful thief
to talk to us. To tell us the rivets. The spangles
which could be horses in the night. Instead
of dreams, the whitening shape. Into a cup of wine.
An ear crinkles in the fire, a sole or a pot
of shoes right before the oven’s door. Not a crown
to our heads but something blooming. Listen, our
teeth have found a way out. The hell is with us
inside and forever now, it is our own unending
skeleton. Every bell, every bell that has turned
will turn and turn to gold. There will be no
justice for any man. Only our toxic bodies,
which after all are innocent.

Notes: Cinnabar is mercury’s common ore, and has been used as a red pigment since at least the times of Ancient Rome. Prolonged exposure to mercury has been known to be poisonous, causing brain damage, a disruption of the senses, and eventually insanity.

This poem was originally published in Tampa Review.

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