The Forest’s Edge (Summer, 1864)

— Aaron Coleman

for my ancestor
in the Pennsylvania 25th Colored Infantry
inside Fort Pickens, Florida

            The stillness of the wood across the bay
is a lie. What blinded us
                        when the orange moon opened

            the night the way
                        sick bloat opened the gut
of my brother? Again, another one, my north

                        light in the hard soot sky. This dark’s
            too full of heavy shells and shot and roofless
rooms. Look up. No, don’t trust

            fear more than pain. Pray we turn
the hurt into something free. If not
                                    now, then when—We tried

                        to speak. They took
            his teeth. My eyes
                        pick distances then keep

on roaming. I held his hand
                                    that night he passed. Felt cold fill
his palm, claim his arm, creep past the knot

                        that was his elbow. His skin forgot
panhandle heat. I don’t blame
                        those that chose to leave

            another place again, in
desertion or death, in
                        dark or broad daylight. You run

            when you have to go. Sometimes I’m still
surprised by the strength of numb feet,
                        the way the spine holds

            shoulders. Heard slavers
’cross the bay inside Barrancas got it bad
                        too, death thickens the air, less

            from our guns than thirst and hunger.
What’s war on a sinking island
                        where we can’t feel the ground?


            The harbor grew
                        hollow. I learned
the fungus in the gator’s
                                    jawline, in the cypress
knees, black water, and
                              broken teeth. We
strained the long way. We
                                    waited for our dead
                        to end
the war for us. I learned
                              to read the blood
            spills in dirt redder than red earth,
                                    got lost
            without leaving
                        our post. I pay
                                    such close attention
            now I almost love
                        the silences between
the living. Don’t nobody
                                    have to tell me
                        negroes raised these walls
            around us years before
this war. Most
                        nights I listen close
enough to hear the breath
                                    of black folk freeing
                        themselves, hiding
            their way here, risking
                                    everything I risked to
      own their own bones, to
                        keep their blood. I tell them:
            welcome, stay ready,
I don’t know
            when we’ll go.

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