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  4. Messenger by R. T. Smith

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   We shall not all sleep,
   but we shall all be changed.

Two nights he came to me, mute,   
on fire, no dream. I woke to find   
the window embered and fog filling   
the willows. The third time
he was milder and early, his gray form
all ash. He said to me at bedside, kneeling,   
“You must say your life to save it.”   
Midnight, hoarfrost. I was not yet ten
and didn’t know what to make of so brief
a bedtime story. His features
were simple and familiar—the smile,   
both eyes shut in bliss, I guessed,   
head and torso echoing an antique   
keyhole. From sleep’s icy edge   
I asked, “How?” But he was gone,   
the room all hazed. The air smelled   
of struck matches, scuppernong,   
a copperhead’s musk. What next?   
The moon was new in the budding
bird cherry and Venus startling overhead.   
Dizzy for water, I followed   
my flashlight down the stairs   
where the black mantel clock   
was bonging. Beside it sat the twin   
of my herald, a stone bookend   
from Kildare and no more able
to speak or take wing than a weathercock.
His closed eyes told me, “Look   
inside,” but I ached to see him blaze   
again and say aloud how change   
could shake me to a shining. “But   
I must be the key,” I thought,
and stepped over the sparkling threshold.
My nightshirt floated ghostly
across the scalded lawn, under the arbor,   
beside the barn, my soles not troubled   
by white grass crackling
all the way to the well shed,
the burning that must
have been coming from me.

R. T. Smith, “Messenger” from Messenger. Copyright © 2001 by R. T. Smith. Reprinted with the permission of Louisiana State University Press.
Source: Messenger (Louisiana State University Press, 2001)
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