The Dust of Paradise
Wahshi, dark-black Wahshi,
the boy from Ethiopia:
a mirage ocean,
a sun-land, a day-land
where people are shadows,
where the sun is the sky,
Father of none, and all alone.
His thumb blots the sun like a moon
as he tracks the bright trotting beast,
his javelin swinging by his side,
skin jeweled with sweat,
stripes and antlers and gold blurring,
hieroglyphic eye staring
as Wahshi chases it down.
When the untouchable horizon eats the sun
those two are still running together,
bright beast just as close as the horizon,
a prayer for its soul on the hunter's lips,
and then young Wahshi is writhing
in a whirling net unfurled from a great tree.
The beast bounds away like the sun from a day.
But Wahshi is caught
and like a beached fish
he can only gasp.
Like fruit, the slavers drop down from the tree,
the great lone tree exploding up from the grass,
and they slurp at the juice of their gums
at the sight of such a fine catch as this boy—
so black he would dye the very night
if not for the stars.
shackled at the auction,
the light sinks into his deep skin;
Wahshi makes a meal of sunlight.
A couple of grizzled wrestlers
flick some coins on the wood table
(spinning the Greek emperor's face)
and they strap Wahshi's muscle in metal
hand him a sword, and turn him loose
in an arena hewn from living rock,
a great bowl gouged from a mountain
where the plants are red like the blood they drink.
Wahshi flies, he kicks away from the sun,
carving at collarbones, his blade ringing
with the shrieks of the newly dead.
Only the packed arena is louder.
Now the boy Wahshi fights a new foe
whose black skin is freckled with diamonds,
with diamonds like shiny beads of sweat,
and his eyeballs rolled back in his head
like boiled eggwhites.
Sabers sing and flash
so free from their sheaths;
wrestlers lock and clench and shake,
eyes glaring, teeth gritting, chains jingling,
white blind eyes against Wahshi's dark moons.
Wahshi's blade is gone; it is in his foe's skin
through the stomach, it nicks the foe's spine
and milks his marrow.
Wahshi's black foe gasps,
his eyes roll forward green as seaglass
and the diamonds sprinkle free onto the sand.
The foe moves his lips, he speaks, clutching his gash,
blood spilling through fingers like silk
from a broken loom.
"Wahshi," he says, "I prophecy, Wahshi,
that you will kill the voice of a god,
that you will never know paradise."
Blood bubbles free from his smiling mouth,
bearding his black neck,
and he takes Wahshi in his trembling hands.
"You will only know dust."
Little Wahshi grins and shakes his head,
thinking dead men say strange things
as chains drag the leaking corpse away,
smearing the thirsty sand with a red offering.
The gate opens, and a new foe
steps out of the shadow. Wahshi lifts his saber,
flicks the metal as though to make music
from the resonant reverberant steel,
and gets ready to kill again.
He crowds the graveyards with warriors,
and the earth is lumpy with fresh mounds.
None stop him: the frightful flee, the brave die,
his swooping javelin splits hard bone
like lightning to rock.
He wars against all men all alone,
this heathen who will never know heaven.
Nightblack Wahshi bashes arrows into the sun
(they fall as meteors),
spits poison from his drinks, and rises from sleep,
slashing at shadows in pitch dark. Then one day
his owner bids him take ship over the sea
to the wastes of the Arabs and the Prophets,
where more money may be made. So,
Wahshi-Full-of-Death makes cash in Mecca,
heckling yokel prophets from the mountains
when he isn't diving down on fighters
like a hawk into a flock of pigeons.
guzzles sweet and sour wine
and thinks nothing of life,
since he is its sworn enemy.
He groans in the sweat of bedsheets
with whores, but none fatten
with his children. His seed is dust.
He sees the faces of the men he's killed
everywhere, their shifting eyeballs,
their clutching fingers, their writhing feet,
he sees them everywhere, and looks away
only to meet the violent eyes of more, of those
who lie in the earth, the meals of red worms.
Crowds of orphans and widows curse him,
glare at him like stars from the dark nights.
One day Abu Bakr says to Khalid ibn Walid:
"We will rid Arabia of liars and idolaters
and bearers of false witness and apostates.
We will subdue them, and they will submit.
Go, raise an army, and rinse your sword
in the blood of all who do not bow to the tide."
There is a garden, far up north
in the rainy windy north,
pent in with ancient stone,
walls woven with vines and ivy,
a roof of branches thatched
with the green leaves of long-lived trees.
There a liar and a lion
named Musaylima of the Banu Hanifa
weds Sajja of the Banu Tamim,
a black-veiled beauty
with an army back behind her thousands-strong.
Though Muhammad was the final Prophet
these apostates hear the voice of God.
Together they constitute a force.
Wahshi gropes in his pocket,
fishes out a fistful of change
and buys his freedom. Besides,
Abu Bakr is changing things,
banning the violent matches
even as his armies war in the dust.
Wahshi's heard of settling down
and though he's not sure what that means,
he wants to settle down anyway.
He buys wives, a house, land,
slaves to work this property,
as much as you can to fill a soul
with all the things good and pure
needed to get to paradise.
He kisses his daughter goodnight, his son,
then Wahshi pinches the candle and goes to bed,
clutching the hilt of the knife beneath his pillow
just as his son hugs a stuffed animal.
Sleep is a prison of nightmares for old Wahshi,
the dream realm is where he kills the long-gone dead
all over again.
"I have heard," says Khalid ibn Walid,
"Of a man whom none can kill."
Wahshi grins. "That's me," he says,
laughing. Khalid adds, "I need just such a man.
The Wars of Apostasy rage ever on.
With you as our Champion,
we can end these wars and save many lives,
we can spread the Prophet's truth
(Peace Be Upon Him Who Dwells in Heaven)."
Wahshi shakes his head, the morning light darkens.
"Not for all the dust of paradise," he says,
"would I meet the eyes of another dead man."
But Khalid knows the family needs money.
"I can't give a grain of the dust of paradise,
but your children will be safe, and your name
will live long after you are walking there."
Soon Wahshi agrees to these lies.
The dust of the desert is churned up by the boots,
sliced through by the waving fields of spears,
swirled high by the pairs of breathing lungs
of the Army of the One True Faith.
A slow sandstorm billows in its wake.
Then the armies meet,
like two rising ocean waves, drawn up
by water and tide, roaring as they rear,
collapsing and rushing forth in throngs
far-flung, foaming with spit.
A dark red stain spreads deep down
into the desert depths,
and the sky fills with galaxies
of wheeling blackbirds.
Khalid ibn Walid, with his cracked sword,
screams his many men on,
pushing Musaylima and Sajja back
to the walled garden where they wed.
That is where the Champion goes,
past walls sprayed with gore from wide necks,
past broken limbs tangled in vines and ivy,
past a roof of branches leaking blood.
Musaylima and Sajja stand side-by-side,
Like a hieroglyph.
When an arrow to the throat brings the woman down
she sighs her last and Wahshi shrieks,
flings his javelin into the Liar's gut,
and the two apostates crumple together,
damp robes arm-in-arm and hand-in-hand.
Wahshi looks into the eyes of the dead,
and a handful of dust brushes past his cheek.
...So it's said, when the mirages of Ethiopia
are particularly thick
you can still see a black little boy,
javelin at hand, thumb blotting the sun,
chasing a galloping beast
that he never catches.