Tonight, on the deck of Charon’s death–barge,
Aesculapius sees a woman he once danced
with under the moon in the bluish sea–surge
of the Mediterranean — the is a story the
loremasters swear is true — he puts his hands
to hers, cold as a long–buried fossil, and the
whorls of their fingertips merge as her body
tells him, in Braille, via osmosis, how to unknit
the hurts that took her breath, her sense of touch.
The sinew of flesh, the dark resonance of bone
sings to him, a wind of answers sluicing through
ruined apple trees, jack pines, every secret to
the mending of mortality and beyond: death isn’t
a barrier, the stop–and–shift–into–reverse cry that
it is for others. Her wrist will burn for a month
but she shudders then awakens, her golden eyelids
moving fast as the bark of Cerberus at the bone–and–mortar
gate jar her truly awake, aware of one more chance,
the opportunity to throw the past like a half–empty sack
into the back of a wagon going the opposite direction;
smaller and moving out of sight, her old life, her old ways.
She plants a kiss soft on Aesculapius’ parchment–thin cheek,
then swims for the far shore, where the long reeds
wave darkly in the breeze, goodbye, goodbye
About the Author: Ryan G. Van Cleave’s most recent books include a poetry collection, The Magical Breasts of Britney Spears (Red Hen Press, 2006), and a creative writing textbook, Behind the Short Story: From First to Final Draft (Allyn & Bacon/Longman, 2006). He teaches creative writing and literature at Clemson University.
About the poem: Aesculapius, the son of Apollo, is the god of medicine. He became such a gifted healer that he was able to restore the dead to life. This angered Pluto, lord of the Realm of the Dead, who urged Zeus to destroy him. After his death, Aesculapius was placed among the stars.
"Aesculapius in the Underworld" copyright © 2001 by Ryan G. Van Cleave. The poem first appeared in Poem, May 2001, and was reprinted in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Fifteenth Annual Collection (St Martin's Press, 2002). The poem may not be reproduced in any form without express written permission from the author.