Sujata Bhatt


The wise old men.
          of India say
there are certain rules.
For example, if you loved
your dog too much,
in your next life you’ll be a dog,
yet full of human memories.
And if the King’s favourite daughter
loved the low-caste palace gardener
who drowned while crossing the river
in a small boat during the great floods,
they’ll be reborn, giving a second chance.
The wise old men of India say
one often dreams
of the life one led before.

There’s a lion sprawled out
beside his cubs.
His thick mane tangled with dry grass,
his head droops: dusty stooping dahlia.
Then with a shudder,
          a sudden shake of his head
he groans and growls
at four whimpering cubs.
(He’d let them climb
all over his back
if only he weren’t so hungry.)
The lioness is already far away
hunting in the deepest part of the valley:
a tall dark forest.
Red-flowered vines,
gold-flecked snakes encircling every tree.
Tall ferns,
fringes of maidenhair edging broad leaves.
But now the lioness steps out
into a vast clearing.
She lifts her head towards the east, the west:
sniffing, sniffing. Her eyes stare hard,
urgent, she walks as if her raw swollen teats,
pink and now quite dry, prickle and itch
and goad her on.
She’s lean enough, afraid
her cubs might die.
Now there’s clear water flowing rapidly,
rippling over rocks, the lionesses stops, drinks,
her quick long tongue licks, laps up the water.
Now the lioness is wading through, swimming,
her long golden tail streams through rushing waves,
torn, bruised paws splashing.
A quiet breeze
         as if the earth were barely breathing.
Fallen leaves, still green,
and tangled vines swirl in the water,
               the lioness circling.
Nearby monkeys, squirrels,
even birds remain hidden, silence.
A dead bull elephant rots:
         bullet-pocked, tuskless. 

You hold me, rock me,
pull me out of my dream,
(or did I dream you?)
The fur lingers on your skin,
your body has not forgotten
how to move like a cat.
Look, the sun spills golden over the walls,
you grow tawnier with the dawn.
Shivering haunches relax,
the slow licking begins
gently over the bruises.