In a Field Outside the Town

By Gabriel Spera b. 1966 Gabriel Spera
Three days later, Suljic was finally given a drink
of water and marched with a dozen other men
onto a small livery truck, one of two, fenced
along each side by wooden planks,

the back left open to give a clear shot
to the automatic weapon poking out the window
of the red sedan that followed, the squat nose
trained on them, ridiculously, as if they'd any thought

of hopping off a moving truck. Suljic peered
vacantly through the slats. He'd missed the yellow flowers
of Spring and by now saw a landscape taken over
by Summer, the grasses closing behind them as they veered

from the road and lurched across cow paths. They drove
to the center of a wide field and stopped. Old sweat,
without the breeze of movement, prickled in the heat.
A metal smell drifted, an untended apple grove

baked on a hill, and the weeds droned, motory with bees.
But Suljic noticed none of these, fixed instead
on the gaps in the field where bodies, all dead,
matted down the wild carrot and chicory, their khakis

splotched darkly, like a fawn's dappled haunches
obscuring them. The men clambered down into the tall grass
and lined up at gunpoint. Suljic was sure the last
good thing he'd ever see would be the apple branches

drooping with fruit, but the man beside him grabbed
his hand, and looked him in the face, as if
Suljic, just a bricklayer, had any assurances to give.
He squeezed the hand back, hard, and felt a scab

crossing the man's knuckles. He saw, too, a thin scar
worrying the arch of his left eyebrow, much older,
perhaps from a fall as a child from a ladder
picking fruit. His hand was like a clump of mortar,

and three nights without sleep had webbed his eyes red.
And Suljic suddenly stuttered to ask his name,
what town was he from, his job—anything—but there came
the crackle, like sometimes thunder, undecided

whether to begin, that starts, stalls, then trips
over itself, the sound crinkling from one
end of the sky to the other. The sound took possession
of his face until it, too, crinkled, his grip

pulsed, and he fell forward. Suljic winced
in the tackle of bodies, and splayed down in the dirt
flattening himself like a beetle, not hurt
in any new way, not yet convinced

he wasn't dead and didn't feel it. He heard the click
of fresh clips sliding into place, and shut
his eyes lightly, sure someone had seen he wasn't shot
and would come finish it. But no one came. Another truck

rolled up. The men climbed down, and lined up, docilely.
He recognized, solely by rhythm, a prayer, cut off
by the crackle, the hush of crickets, the soft
whump of bodies folding at the knees

and knocked by bullets shoulder first
into the grass. No one yelled. No one tried to run.
Another truck, another group, falling like a succession
of bricks sliding off a hod. Suljic finally pissed

where he lay, and blended in all the better
with the others. The noise stopped, and he cracked
his eyes enough to see, across the backs
like bleeding hills, a man strolling along the scatter

of bodies with a pistol, putting a slug
into the skull of anyone that still twitched
or mumbled. Then came the snort and low-pitched
rumble of diesel engines as two backhoes dug

a trench along the margin of all the collapsed
bodies. Impossibly, the crackling started anew,
and when darkness finally settled, the squads continued
in what light the backhoes' headlights threw. Perhaps

the shooting was over long before the sound
left him, the crackle to his eardrums
was like the rolling of a boat to his limbs
echoing long after he'd reached dry ground.

The soldiers left. Still he didn't move, but eased
his eyes full open. The moon above the orchard
was shrinking higher, its light glossing the awkward
pale forms that stubbled the dry weeds,

glinting off teeth and eyes. He scuttled from beneath
the arms and legs flopped sleepingly over
his own, as though by drunkards or lovers,
and rose like a foal to his numb feet,

seeing throughout the field no man not touched
by three dead others. He stood for a moment, trying
to guess, even roughly, their number, multiplying
bodies per square yard, but the math was too much,

the count too huge. He stared at the faces beside him
in the grass, like a man leaving something he knew
he would someday have to return to,
looking for the landmarks that would guide him—

the crooked teeth, the welted cheek, the pale eyes eclipsed
by half-shut lids, lolling upward, inward, swollen
as though with weeping, blood from an unseen hole
glistering down a chin line, crusting on lips.

How could he explain his life, what could he say
to those who weren't here to see, to the mothers and wives
who'd swear for years their men were still alive,
somewhere, the bodies never found, bulldozed into clay—

would he tell them how he tiptoed, unable to avoid
stepping on hands and ankles, or how the tears
like a secret he'd harbored through three years
of siege shook loose, and how he let them, no longer afraid

of being found out and cut down by gunfire,
or how he ran anyway, when he reached the open, quick
as his bum leg would let him, without a look
back at the faces turned like gourds in the dark mire.

Source: Poetry (April 1999).

MORE FROM THIS ISSUE

This poem originally appeared in the April 1999 issue of Poetry magazine

April 1999
 Gabriel  Spera

Biography

Poet Gabriel Spera was born in Staten Island and grew up in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. He earned a BA in English from Cornell University and an MFA in poetry from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, where he received the Randall Jarrell Fellowship.

Spera’s narrative poems are often framed in rhyme and meter and explore natural and domestic themes. In an interview with Brian Brodeur, Spera described his allegiance to . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poems by Gabriel Spera

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Social Commentaries, War & Conflict

POET’S REGION U.S., Western

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza

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