I was a traveler in an antique land
Who walked on legs of paper birch
To make a youth's first hajj to Mecca's sands
To ground my fifth pillar in solid earth.
The evening adhan rang, but far and faint,
The poison desert wind did louder play
Yet loudest still was my own spirit's plaint
And in my haste I lonesome lost my way.
The dunes rolled forth like waves of gilded foam
No mariner could be more tempest-tossed
Sand-blinded distant from the Prophet's home,
No moon-eyed pilgrim could have been more lost.
And I prayed for deliverance
with words my tongue could scarcely hew
And there became a supplicant
to One whose name I barely knew.
Then amid the scorching chill of desert midnight
An angel of the Lord
With the crown of a pale Arabian steed
And vestiges of wings he didn't need.
We drifted leagues above an unknown citadel
Breathless and wordless I wished to see
When a firmament-shaking voice told the angel,
"Maleq, show him what is to be."
So the angel drifted north
And my turban unraveled into a serpent
I grasped its tail and we flew forth
Sailing lightly, lithely on the current.
We descended to find an army of reapers
Carrying sinister-grinning blades with ruby-red lips.
Some reapers wore gold robes, others green,
And as they huddled around a milk-pale tombstone
They quarreled over who should inscribe the epitaph.
The soldiers' blades carved crimson smiles in their mold
Yet the men were surely kin.
The gold carved the green, the green carved the gold,
Each man defaced his twin.
Maleq boomed like all four winds, "Behold!
How quickly the paths that were many become few!"
And I wept, for the soldiers were brothers to me
As moss pecked away the blood on the tombstone like buzzards
Becoming a knoll with only occasional pearly blinks
To suggest what lies beneath.
Their archers meanwhile took aim at the sun
Piercing it with a million amber stigmata.
Their architects built a tower aspire to their prey
And their blacksmiths chains to make it captive.
Bitter hot Maleq went, and the serpent went taut
And we alit upon a stadium, with five thick-veined legs of stone
Upon which live lambs burned and bleated, bleeding hope.
Inside, the spectators smashed golden sundials,
Pocketing coin-shaped pebbles and reducing all else to dust.
Meanwhile the stormcloud slabs of stone cried out,
"Kill! Oh, kill and die!"
As smoke-skinned djinns elicited wishes so they could judge the damned.
And amid the chaos, in the eye of the swarm,
The groom of orange-flickering skin,
Wide and alight like a mountain ablaze,
And the bride younger than myself,
Her self scarcely etched on her years.
They named him "Man" and praised his might
And also named him "Fire."
They named her "Woman," also "Night,"
And sold her to the pyre.
And as the fire besieged the night, a scroll within it fell.
From the flame I rescued it and there studied it well:
"THE NEW PROVERBS OF HELL"
Fools are trapped by snares of conceit; wise men with snares of learning.
The work of man's hands is idle worship; God's unfinished work is to make marble dust.
The pious flinch at neither word nor sword.
Better laid on the rack of virtue than liberated by the sword of vice.
A golden boat will weather all storms.
The lion regurgitates his daily bread, but vultures sup on the wisdom of the immortals.
Go forth and multiply, when all else is lost.
Cliches are but truths wearing sackcloth and ash.
Shorn truth is often incarcerated with longhaired falsehoods.
Water your camel and your slave first. They are cisterns of holiness.
Put the blade to your brother's neck first. He is the mote in your eye.
Above all, a mystery; below all, explanation.
All else are interpretations."
I awoke in Mecca kneeling,
my serpent turban concealing
the explanation of mystery.