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More of the Same

Within a wood set upon the bare lip

Of the pitiless amnesiac sea

I came upon a clearèd open strip

Of land. Within this clearing I could see

A tombstone. Upon it was this decree:

“Here lies a modest, pious devotee

To God, his family, and his native land.”

Around this plaque stretched apathetic sand.

I stared upon this venerated plot

Of earth, that long ago had clasped the dead

In blessed silence, for time I knew not.

The stillness from this hallowed ground had spread

From steady rock and amaranthine bed

To boundless heaven stretching overhead,

And made its once-local serenity

A thing of idle superfluity.

From the woods around this outdated site

Came an old man who stopped, and at me roared,

“Why tread you here? Under dense cloak of night

You ventured to this hallowed ground before

And stole away with that which wasn’t yours

To steal. I’ll see that you take nothing more

From this consecrated earth to which you

Come to take your villain’s illicit due.”

I raised my hands in gentle deference

And told this fuming soul I had but come

Here first today, and in further defense

Said that I would never think to steal from

Here. I told him never would I succumb

To such base, vile conduct; never once.

I asked him who would think to take from here,

This holy earth, a furtive souvenir?

His shoulders slumped, and the man heaved a sigh

And said that he lived a short space away,

And that for near all his long life, well-nigh

Eighty years, he had come near every day

To feel upon his cheek the saline spray

Of the waves, and then here would come to weigh

The pall of time upon the march of years,

And man’s pathetic voicing of his fears.

What—what!—fears—time—why is it that you speak

Said I, in such a melancholy vein?

Wherefore does your temper favor so bleak

A stance? Wherefore came you to entertain

These dismal thoughts, this woebegone refrain?

He then smiled, his hoary eyes arcane.

“It is upon this ground we tread,” said he,

“That makes this tide of woe inside of me.”

What woe, said I, could come from such a place?

And why was I assumed to be a thief?

A single tear descended down his face.

“I’ll tell you why this coppice brings me grief,”

Said he, “and why I cannot find relief

From truths I cannot bear. I will be brief.

From just above the ridge, and ‘cross the strand,

The callous ocean strikes upon on the land.

“Approaching near four hundred years ago,

A group of pilgrims chanced upon the shoal

On which we stand. A violent wind did blow

Their tiny ship beyond their skip’s control

And crashed the boat upon this grainy knoll.

The survivors, wet and weary and cold,

Elected to fashion from the debris

A temporary village by the sea.

“But finding it ideal to settle down,

A permanence, in capsule time, was formed

By the blithe founders of this coastal town.

They were untroubled, dry, well-fed and warm,

And through sun or wild oceanic storm,

‘From here, this land,’ the gallant people swore,

‘We will not be drawn. On this coastal plot

We make our home, and venture from it not.’

“They built a sturdy town, with three hundred

Souls therein. The town flourished! Its people

Built a church to praise God, grieve for and wed

Each other. Naught remains but the steeple.

The town was happy, secure and peaceful;

The mood each day was buoyant and gleeful.

They lived within a private human race,

Where kindness was the rule, the dictum grace.

“But the ocean does not restrain itself

For love, or joy, or anything beside.

The waves had set their yen upon the shelf

Of land on which the village sat astride.

The jealous reach of avaricious tide

Crept forth each year, and though the people tried

To stave the waters from their idyll clime,

The town would plunge in expeditious time.

“They fled! First in ones, then twos, then in scores.

They left their Elysian field, and faded

Into the world and were gone. The shores

Broke, and the waters, now unconstrained, bade

The human place it lusted for give way,

And, finally triumphant, did invade.

It made itself at home and settled down,

And crowned itself the emperor of town.

“The earth cycles, and nothing holds for long,

And from this town the waters did recede.

The soil in these woods is firm and strong

And fertile, and the rank decrepit weeds

The ocean left were fed on by the trees,

And soon a mighty forest did proceed

From where our long-lost travelers had stayed,

And little of their presence here remained.

“I come here, friend, to look upon the sight

Of the bare remains of this once-alive

Town. This forsaken glade bestows me fright

And in me a dreadful knowledge revives

Every time. Though man may prosper and thrive,

The earth from which his essence was derived

Will always come around to confiscate

That which it once decided to create.

“I ask for your forgiveness, gentle sir,

For lodging that from this place you would snatch

A prize. I come here often to deter

Grave-robbers and hoarders. Often I catch

Them in this glum and lugubrious patch

Of woods with thieving satchels on their backs.

They come to take the past from where it stands;

I fight to keep the past within the sands.”

A comforting word I could not express

To allay this old man’s forlorn affair.

I thought, perhaps, of trying to impress

Upon him the virtue of being aware

Of the here and the now. The disrepair

Of this antiquated settlement where

Nothing lived should not nor need not excite

In him this joylessness, this dismal fright.

Before I could give out my soothing speech,

The old man gave way to a spate of tears.

He then turned and wandered towards the beach,

Sobbing, retching, gagging upon his fears.

I called to him; it seemed he did not hear

Me. He was gone, but I knew he was near

For the sound of his wretched serenade;

And after a moment, that, too, did fade.

I left the woods, then. The day had grown cold,

And I found myself lacking want to stay.

I longed to be away from places old.

For the old man I resolved I would pray.

For what? I know not; I think, to this day,

He whiles his ever-fleeting life away

Within those trees. It gives me much concern.

I fear to those woods I, too, may return.

Daniel Payne