Philip Levine

My Brother Abel, the Wounded

He drew our future in the dirt
with a broken knife he kept
hidden in a green wine bottle
under the sycamore. A circle meant
a perfect year in the absolute.
A straight line signified, but what
he wouldn’t say, laughing when
I asked and repeating, “Better not
to know more than you need
to know.” Soon I’d be sixteen,
small for my age but not scared,
perhaps because he drew me toward
a large X he called our manhood.
“Right there,” he’d say, “you and I
will give no quarter and ask for none.”
That was the March I planted roses
beside the back fence, and it snowed
almost into summer, the year
I found African daisies and stole
them from a neighbor’s yard
to plant in mine. Later when the war
darkened the headlines, and I
collected beer bottles in the alley
to trade for turnip seeds and put
in rhubarb and prayed the cold
held off, I’d waken in the dark
to see him hunched by the radio
at all hours. In the morning
I’d find black flags inked across
the northern coast of Africa,
black for them, black for us,
until one day the map was gone,
and he took to late night walks
even in the heavy rains of autumn
while the windows smeared my face
before me, while the roof drummed
the steady rhythm of our blood
until I fell into a dreamless
winter sleep he never wakened from.