by Ryan Alexander
She came to me skittish, wild.
The way you’re meant to be,
surrounded by cruelty.
I did not blame her.
I would do the same.
A pregnant cat, a happy distraction;
some sort of normal thing.
Calico and innocent.
The kittens in her belly said feed me.
And I did.
She crept with careful eye,
Body held low to the dirt,
Snagged a bite,
And carried it just far enough away.
She liked the MREs,
the beef stew, the chicken breast, the barbeque pork,
but she did not like canned sardines.
I do not blame her.
I would do the same.
She came around again and again
finally deciding that I was no threat,
that this big man wasn’t so bad.
I was afraid to touch her as the docs warned us.
Iraqi animals were carriers of flesh-eating disease.
I donned a plastic glove and was the first to pet
this wild creature who may be
the one true heart and mind that America
had won over.
After a while I forgot the glove and enjoyed
the tactile softness of short fur,
flesh-eating bacteria be damned.
Her belly swelled for weeks
and she disappeared for some days
until her kittens were safely birthed
in the shallow of a rusted desk
in the ruins that lined the road behind us.
She came around again slim
with afterbirth still matted to her hind legs.
She would return, but not quite as often.
She came to eat and for attention,
but there was nursing to be done.
One day she crept up with a kitten in her mouth.
She dropped it at my foot and stared up at me;
she expected something, but there was nothing I could do.
The young black and white kitten was dead,
its eyes not yet opened.
It looked like some shriveled old wise thing,
completely still, mouth puckered,
small body curled and limp.
She let me take the baby without a fight.
She knew, but seemed unaffected.
She had fetched me a gift,
among the worried nights,
shot nerves from poorly aimed mortar rounds:
The evil, the innocent,
her baby and
I thought I should say a prayer and bury
this poor little thing,
but I did for it what will be done for me.
I laid it in the burn can amongst the ash
and said I’m sorry.
3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division,
Stryker Brigade Combat Team
I was stunned by this perfect line especially: “this wild creature who may be the one true heart and mind that America had won over.” But there are so many others that struck with similar depth and accuracy…
What a poem to wake up to on a 4th July morning! Please read more about the collection “Operation Homecoming” at NPR’s website here (there is an interesting interview with Andrew Carroll, the editor) and you can also listen to Ryan Alexander read his poem (wonderfully) here.
Have an excellent 4th of July!
(Yes, it was probably naughty of me to copy the poem from the NPR site, but I really wanted to make sure you read it, and so a pointer would not do, and an extract just seemed very wrong. I hope that the author and the publisher don’t mind.)