Philip Levine

Out by Dark

If you take the two-lane highway from Tetuan to Fez
you’ll come to a crossroad near the halfway mark
where the signs are in Arabic and the numbers
have disappeared. If a man with a shepherd’s crook
squats under a cedar tree and spits out the shells
of sunflower seeds, you’ve come to the right place.
Go down on your knees until you feel the cold rising
slowly through your thighs to settle in your hips.
The sunlight burns along the nape of your neck
urging your head downward and forward until you’ve
assumed the posture of prayer. It’s an hour past noon
early in the year, and already the shadows darken
in the yellow grass and fill the the canyons carved
by truck tires. You’re too tired. You drove
all night through the sleeping Roman towns, Tarragona,
Alicante, the white village of Lorca, where the bread
tasted of nickel and phosphate. You slept outside
a cave with painted eyes and spoke only to yourself,
you crossed the straits, your face into the wind;
the salt water filling your ears like so much music
beaten out on a wet rock. The truth is you don’t
want the truth at all. Listen at last in silence
to someone who is not wise, to someone
more lost than you: Under a leaking, pewter sky
in the mountain town of Moulay Idriss, I stopped
a tall stranger robed in the ragged cloak Esau
fled God in and asked where I might buy a bottle
of rain water or red wine. He nodded slowly.
“This is a holy city,” he said. We stood face to face
on the single mud street that vanished ahead among
seven brown earthen shacks, each with a door closed
on the screeching of black birds. “So?” I said.
“So,” he said in perfect English, “If you’re not
out of here by dark I’ll cut your throat,” and he
smiled as he drew the wound across the small space
that separated us. So, I hitched a ride to Cueta
with a German couple who dealt in rare pollens
that singed my nostrils. Near the parched beaches
of the Passaic I took up electronics and made my peace
with obsolescence. If you can’t hear me at least
listen to the earth’s prayer that gives off the perfume
of birth and worms or the psalms of dark wet wings.
Those are the magpies. They’re settling around you
pretending there are grains of wheat in the pig grass,
seeds in the weed thick mounds, pretending they came
of their own accord or because they were curious,
pretending the rain keeps it promises. By half-past
seven tonight the world you lost will be one darkness,
a feather of velvet closed down, an eyelid of magpie.