Rita Dove

The Event

Ever since they’d left the Tennessee ridge
with nothing to boast of
but good looks and a mandolin,

the two Negroes leaning
on the rail of a riverboat
were inseparable: Lem plucked

to Thomas’ silver falsetto.
But the night was hot and they were drunk.
They spat where the wheel

churned mud and moonlight,
they called to the tarantulas
down among the bananas

to come out and dance.
You’re so fine and mighty; let’s see
what you can do, said Thomas, pointing

to a tree-capped island.
Lem stripped, spoke easy: Them’s chestnuts,
I believe. Dove

quick as a gasp, Thomas, dry
on deck, saw the green crown shake
as the island slipped

under, dissolved
in the thickening stream.
At his feet

a stinking circle of rags,
the half-shell mandolin.
Where the wheel turned the water

gently shirred.