The Burning City
Rebecca Hurst (University of Sussex, UK)
I sing from a wet throat and a dry soul,
vision properly moist, a mind behaving itself.
Is wine good for a man? Are furs
and the blood heaving with all that is Colchis?
But something is clenched in my chest. There’s a hush there.
It’s no longer me singing, it’s my breath…
~Osip Mandelstam, 365
The city gapes and staggers
Throwing an orange light across the sky.
Fire illuminates ruined buildings,
Faces clenched like fists against
the sword or arrow that was their undoing.
Crawling through the ash and wreckage,
I find what once were city gates.
Carved from a great cedar tree,
they have been torn from their hinges,
letting the wild dogs through.
Behind the burnt-out stables
I meet a man cradling the red
bundle of his own guts.
On the blood-sodden ground lies
His shaman’s stick and split skin-drum.
He presses a black feather
into my hand and says:
Go north from here, child,
to the mountains and the forest.
Let the forest devour you.
There is not time for him to bless me
Before his spirit is gone.
I walk through the ruined gate
and find a gelding from my father’s herd,
still bridled, his eyes black with terror.
But he stands so I may mount,
Willing to leave this gasping place.
We turn our backs on the drifting pall of smoke,
the silenced streets, the Cossacks
camped beyond the broken walls.
The black earth of the steppe carries us away.
We ride north until the air is clear.
I find a place by the river where we drink,
And I wash smoke and dirt from my eyes.
The mountains lie ahead
dividing the land like a great reptile.
I do not look back.
It is no longer me singing, it’s my breath.
A single note, like a brass bowl ringing.
I hold the black feather close.
Rebecca Hurst is a writer and artist, with an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Sussex. Born and bred in the United Kingdom, she spent the first decades of her adult life travelling, with a long sojourn in the United States. Rebecca has worn many hats over the years but writing and art have always been her means of understanding and celebrating the world. She is a member of the Four Quarters, a collaborative arts project that documents the cycle of the seasons in one stretch of Sussex woodland. You can find out more about her work by visiting her blog.