By Clark Zlotchew
Plunged into darkness
alleviated by flaming torches
on rough-hewn rock walls,
damp walls of a cavern.
Flickering flames cast shifting shadows
on stone surface in disturbing dance.
I plod and I trudge in slow motion.
Before me suddenly
a narrow tunnel appears.
I squat in total darkness,
grope my way through
the dank, the cramped passage.
I cannot remember what I seek,
yet I feel I must persevere,
must reach this goal in time…
But what goal? In time for what?
I cannot remember,
yet I sense it is essential.
I feel it’s consequential.
I creep and crawl, blindly
feeling my way through
the uneven tunnel.
I’m on the brink of despair.
I will never emerge
from this infinite moist channel.
I glimpse shifting light ahead.
I struggle toward it
still in slow motion.
I emerge at last into a spacious chamber,
walls and floor paved
with huge sandstone blocks.
More torches affixed to walls.
Across the vast chamber, where
looms the enormous statue
of a beautiful goddess.
I see it for the first time,
yet it’s somehow familiar.
Its meaning lurks
in mist-enshrouded memory.
The idol gleams with gold and jewels
that glint and sparkle, reflect torch light.
Its dark eyes gaze at empty space,
but suddenly shift to stare at me.
I burn with blazing desire,
my guts quiver with joy.
A warm smile parts ruby lips,
reveals dazzling white teeth:
Milk and blood.
Her jeweled hand beckons
to me, to me alone.
The idol had been standing,
but is now seated,
though I saw no movement.
Priests in pure white robes
place them on her lap
with pots of incense
that release a dense red cloud,
a smoky exhalation.,
It thins into a vaporous mist,
an aromatic exhalation.
Disperses throughout the chamber,
bearing intoxicating fragrance.
Without alarm, without surprise,
the priests turn their heads
Their faces are identical!
Blank stares turn to welcoming smiles.
They open a path for me
between their two rows
of gleaming shaven pates.
I walk between those rows.
My will is to proceed slowly,
with solemnity, with deliberation,
suitable to this momentous occasion,
yet with every step I take, I find
myself floating toward the idol
with unbidden speed, flying
with each step.
I approach the statue
with adoration, with awe.
I stop and look back, searching
for the tunnel from which I emerged.
There is no opening! No tunnel. No retreat.
Only a blank wall,
enormous sandstone blocks,
equal to the other walls.
I turn back to the goddess.
The High Priest proclaims,
his cavernous voice resounding
throughout the chamber,
reverberating from sandstone blocks,
bouncing round stony echo chamber:
“The bridegroom approaches, my queen.”
Then chants in minor key:
This man, o Ishtar, do not reject,
but welcome him to your embrace.
The gift of his heart we beg you select,
all his cares to erase.
I yearn for my breast to receive
the gleaming obsidian dagger,
for it to plunge into my thorax,
lift my beating heart out of me,
to be hurled
into the fiercely burning fire
at the feet of the idol.
I begin to lie supine on the altar of her lap
for the High Priest to carry out his charge.
I hear a still small voice that murmurs,
They have mouths, but they speak not:
Eyes have they, but they see not.
I look down, I see, I perceive:
this jewel-encrusted gilded statue
has feet of clay,
common potter’s clay!
Disillusion strikes like a physical blow.
Followed by fear, disgust, and anger,
which course through my blood.
I sit up and leap to the ground.
The High Priest signals the others
to restrain me.
I gather my strength, summon my will,
force my way through them
to the High Priest who stands before me,
blocking my way.
I seize his glinting dagger,
fling it with all my might
at the statue’s head.
Dagger soars in slow, high arc
toward the glittering golden visage.
The blade clangs
as it slams
against the gold,
into the crevice between its lips.
The crossguard bars the hilt from entry.
The dagger is suspended, quivering.
The idol’s eyelids close like golden curtains.
The priests, robes darkening
from sparkling white
to inky black,
look with fear from me
to the goddess of gold.
The crimson-robed priests stare,
The blood-red-robed priests gape,
holding their breaths in expectation
of a momentous occasion,
of a fearsome situation,
of a dreadful culmination.
Nothing happens. Nothing.
They contemplate each other,
They hold each other’s gaze,
begin to smile with relief,
as robes turn sky blue.
Smiles blossom into chuckles,
then sprout into merry laughter,
gather volume, grow ever louder,
in tandem with diminishing fear.
Laughter intensifies into resounding guffaws
producing a thunderous roar,
To a sonic boom, which echoes
throughout the cavernous chamber.
The reverberations bounce
wall to sandstone wall,
stone floor to sandstone ceiling.
The quivering ground vibrates under foot,
sending shivers upward, tickling fingers
through calves and thighs to heart,
causing human legs to tremble and quake,
causing the idol to shiver and shake,
at first almost imperceptibly,
then plainly seen, plainly felt.
It rocks to and fro, gently,
then in wider arcs,
then with violence.
Chamber’s walls shudder then crack.
Dazzling idol’s clay feet crumble
to dust and dirt.
The statue lurches
onto the High Priest
clothed in dirt-grey robes.
The vast chamber collapses
amid the roar
of falling sandstone blocks
and screams of black-robed priests.