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The Tsar At Dawn

ISSUE:  Winter 2000
The sound that wakes me is a doe leading
   her two fawns through the mantle
of oak and maple leaves shrouding my yard.
    I turn to see her
freeze, then flee through a crease of dripping fir
   with her young leaping after—

and into a shaft of brilliant sunlight
   walks Nicholas, head down, hands
clasped behind his back, hunting for mushrooms.
   He stops to stretch his shoulders
    and neck as though just
   awake from the deepest sleep.
    The man loves nothing
so much as such mornings after hard rain,
   dew glistening on the grass,
    undulating lines
   of honking Canada geese
    passing overhead
and the rash salute of mushrooms at dawn.

   He does not know where he is,
or where his guard of Don Cossacks has gone,
    or why the weather
is so mild for this time of year, no snow

    so far into fall,
   or even that I lie here
    while my fever spikes
watching him bend to inspect a circle
   of creamy white fairy rings.

   He has been haunting the woods
all week. The blue of his eyes is a dream
    of clear winter skies
softening to the shade of solstice prayers
    as the day drags on,
   then lakewater in mountain
craters or the flowers of Russian sage
   where he has stopped now to kneel.
    Those shut umbrellas
are shaggy manes, best if gathered when young.

You can see he is a man who welcomes
   time alone. Last night, when trees
    swaying in the wind
set off the motion sensors, I wondered
    at first if it was
his wandering that filled the night with light,
   if it was his voice I heard
keening somewhere in the middle distance
   for his wife and five children
lost forever in a summery flash.

He rises again, a ragged darkness
   at the knees of his trousers,
and finds himself drawn to a bright cluster
   of puffballs where the land dips
down to our abandoned apiary.
   From behind, he looks younger
than I am, straight-backed and thick in the trunk,
   a man with time on his hands.

I remember moving like that nine years
ago, before the first signs of illness.

    Perhaps he has come
   to take me away with him,
    returning me to
a place beyond the Pale of Settlement.
    Perhaps he has come
   to teach me that I must love
    him, though he never
   meant my people anything
but harm. He may have come for nothing more
   than to linger in these woods
    that have been helping
me heal. The lad leather of the puffball’s
   mass draws him down, makes him smile
as he reaches out to stroke its smooth white
   flesh in search of the tell-tale
    cracks and yellow tinge
that would be the first signs of bitterness.


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