In this time of masks I can touch only land,
open the green book where warm feet wrote
lines of desire. I need stranger maps now.
I will comb the ghost-tilth with my hands,
wake the past from its red-clay bed.
I go shoeless between dead and quick,
mazing blood-spoor, pressing skin-warmed coins
into the earth until the birds hush and years
pressed like flowers open all around me. The elms rise
tall and domed after forty-five years of absence–
and you walk to me out of rook’s rasp and cloud-shadow:
sketched in heathaze, moon-skinned as birch.
Each step a different face. A child painted with blackberries.
Tweed-clad, rabbits in your knotted hand.
Spring bride wearing the lace of old mayblossom.
I trade breath for secrets, cigarettes hand-rolled
on a warped stile; slip the names away
for safekeeping. In telling, you become: eyes dim
from fox-fire to an almost-mortal light.
In listening, I’m remade, wear others’ faces over mine:
I am the baby you lost in a cold cottage.
The girl you showed how to make calls
like linnets, yellowhammers; you were happy
to be the songbird in her cage. I’m the lad
from the gasworks with the long mouth
you’d have sucked brown ale from, but had to hide
behind joshing, jostling. (He never knew. You never forgot.)
Sometimes you stumble, and your deaths walk with us.
Brambles look like the wires from a long-gone war.
They left you there, a broken puppet in the mud.
And now your gasps echo from the tiles
of the isolation ward, hair falling lank over your gown.
You gape at the smallpox-scars on your hands; I hold them
until they smooth over. Friend, they razed the hospital.
Put up houses you and I could never afford. Not in this life.
Friend, this is no battlefield. Just uncommon land.
It’s the best name I can give. We make a bridge of arms.
Dusk creeps across the grass. You ask me for stories now;
I hesitate. This isn’t the present I would give anyone–
but I speak, and find no faces lost to me looking back.
Take them back with you, through the gap in the hedge
and the setts that lead to the buried wood. This is a border
I can’t yet cross; I’d guide you though unspoken
by the tongues swimming in my mouth, molten as damsons.
The grasses sigh in your passing.
My hands hold night: but are not empty.
I walk back on torn heels. Home seems bigger
than this house, big enough for the living and the dead
to roost in; and coffee only deepens the taste of you.
I open a new book and write your tales beyond dawn.
Mat Joiner loves and writes about ghosts and green things. Their stories, poems, and essays have appeared in the likes of Not One of Us, Wormwood, Lackingtons, and Strange Horizons. They live in the English Midlands, where they watch foxes and crows and accumulate pin badges, books, and postage stamps.