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The Naming of the Lost

I call myself the lost one. I walk the rails
below the mountain, above the water's curve,
companioned only by my steady breath.
I, I—there is no soul behind that word,
a cry against a time which even my flesh
and hidden bones cannot recall to me.
My face is the one which I saw reflected,
without a name. And it may be this day
that I will walk myself down, or tomorrow.

The rails are rusted, brown as the hillside,
but the sun strikes an echo from the steel,
keen of ten thousand steps of stretched metal,
twisting upon its spikes. My ear against
the rail, I hear distance, distance, distance.

This dress, lilac flowers now stained by sweat,
I took from a woman's line of drying clothes.
I took it the way I'll take a name. Perhaps
the place I walk to, Catawba, that will be
my name. On the beating under-skin of my wrist
I taste the day. I am river water
which flows swift deep and green, carrying more
than itself, secrets, not knowing more
than tangled currents and the rub of the banks.
I feel pregnant, as if a river's child
were growing hidden by this borrowed skirt,
but I remember no lust, and no man's arms.

In the heat of the late of summer, cool on my back
a shadow's thrown. An edge of an echo, steps.
"Is someone there?" I call. The shade moves on,
slowly passing like the shadow of a cloud
that is not there. The sky is hot, hazy.
I look back, to find no one behind. Again,
without a reason, I had thought that one
for whom I seem to wait was following me.
But there's no one, not least myself, who has
the name by which to spin me clear around,
to make my feet daintily dance, my hands
weave gold from the summer-straw air. My path
follows along the steps that I have found.

The land broadens, mountains rise on the smell
of sassafras, of tree bark spice, green juice
sweet in the stems of rock maples and beech.
I feel the sandstone ribs of the country like
the bones of a lover. I, the nameless one,
will love only one sure as rock in himself,
his name pressed in every cell. When he
dies, his bones will cry his name in the wind
that lifts the tipping wings of the red-tailed hawk.

Upon my left there widens a bay of land,
a green lawn down from the tracks to the river bank,
and sunk to its rungs in the meadow soil, a chair,
alone, with neither house nor barn nearby.
The chair looks out across the flowing stream.
I go down, stepping from cinders to grass and mounds
of starry flowers foaming here, and here.

A kitchen chair, and turned from oak—one rung
is broken where a farmer's foot would rest.
Seven rods support the rounded back, the gray
wood carved to show an open pair of hands.
I rest my hands upon the back and watch
the river flowing north, nestling against
the near bank, gnawing it from beneath. One day
it will devour the meadow, this chair, and all.

I lift my feet from broken shoes and stand,
the grass blades bend, soft edges unblooded
against my ankles. The heat goes from my skin.
Ahead, Catawba lies, and they say there
that white and glistening salt is hilled beside
the tracks, burning under the sun, waiting
for rain to run it into sterile earth.
A long walk, yet, and so I sit and rest,
my shoulder-blades within the back's embrace.

In the river's deepest bend, I see bottom,
and broken hulls of sunken barges finned
with heavy carp upon the bows. Silt stirs.
Quickened with the raw Appalachian earth
which ran down red in spring rain, three dragons rise,
their wings unfurling, up from the barges' depth.
The dragons rest suspended in the stream,
great fish with golden scales. Watching, I scarcely
hear the tread of feet on the railroad ties.

"Good day."
                   I turn. An old man stands where I
had left the tracks; he holds one hand above
his eyes, blocking the river's reflected light.
"Who are you?" I call. He cocks his head.
"A farmer here. My name is Merle." He waits
for mine. I fold my hands on emptiness.
He takes long strides in high, brown boots, pushing
aside the grass and starlike flowers, the steps
of a younger man. White hair hangs collar-long
on his blue-sky shirt of faded plaid, and white
his beard as well, but streaks with black. "My chair,"
he says, a resonant voice. "D'ye like it, girl?"

What can I say but that I do? He kneels
beside me. "And what d'ye see from sitting there?"
I motion, nothing, and the old man steadies
himself with a hand on the seat and gazes out
across the water. My lips, my throat grow cold,
as after chewing mint. "I see dragons,
their scales like light, all golden in the stream."
"A good eye, girl—your name?"
                                             "The lost one," I say.
"I've found a name in every place I've been,
where the pale moon has faded flowers, where
the sun is old and copper-dark. And now
I walk to Catawba landing, and that, perhaps,
will be my name, or hold a name for me."

And though his years lie worn and plain on him
he rises smoothly, and kneels before my feet.
He clasps my hand in his. "Welcome," he says,
"my Nimue, after a long and barren time."
I try to rise, but feel my shoulders held
firmly within the chair. "I say again,
welcome. A new Siege Perilous, I made
this to wait until you'd stray across the world."

I struggle, cry, "I wish to leave!" Then feel
myself untutored, rude. "You left before,"
he says, "and then I could not follow you.
But came the time appointed for the spell
to end—a water spell which found an end
as water must. And since, I ever watched
your path. For you, like all who spurn their hearts,
have lost yourself."
                             "And where have you followed?"
"I have been many places behind you. Steps,
and half-heard sounds, and shadows that soon passed."

I find some corner of myself within
that name, Nimue, Nimue, a place dusty
and cool with shadows lying thick at noon.
It may be I recall a long night's dream,
or a name I once had taken, or refused.

The weight of his hands on mine is warm as summer
in my lap, his dark eyes deep as August shade.
"Remember, then"—a distant image flares
of a slow stream, green banks, and two riders,
their horses gray. "Oh!"
                                   "Remember, then."

The riders halt beside a waiting cave,
ragged darkness guarded by an unshaped stone.
The woman slips to the dark man's arms, and she
is robed in green. Her hair, all free, is gold.
The woman waits; the man goes forward. Dark
around him closes as she sings of sleep
flowing north, weaves a spell of stream and brook.
The stone rolls closed to seal away the cave.
She smiles, a secret warm beneath her ribs
as a child not born. I push the memory
away—a vision, no more. "It is not I,
this water-singer, green-eyed maker of spells."
His hands are firm. "Nimue," he says,
"it was a far time away."
                                   "I won't believe."

But light ebbs from white, to gold, to red,
and merciful tears arise from a hollow place,
and I can cry for days from dawn to dust
and each relinquished past, long slipped away.

"You knew me as Merlin, then, and you were mine,
as Arthur was who passed to Avalon,
noble still. But you were dangerous,
a lake reflecting fair, bright skies while all
below is rocks and shards. And so I fell,
knowing that time must wear away that taint
before our stricken lives could be renewed."
His fingers touch my cheek and gather there
the tears. "River-child, my Nimue, look."

A teardrop rests, silver, in the palm of his hand:
he breathes upon it, speaks familiar slow
commanding words. And where the tear had been,
a green pearl-gem appears, faintly glowing
with evening light. "Take it, an orient
layered of long forgetting." He lets go
my hands. "Is it some spell to bind me, now,
within a flowered meadow? Do you give
me sleep as I awake to myself?"
                                               "Would I,
who have so long followed all your paths?"

I take the tear-jewel in my lips, perfect
roundness. Layer by layer it dissolves,
the sharp of anguish, bitter salt of remorse,
at center, sweet. And memory speaks as reeds
at water's edge and water tumbling down
to green and silent pools. I see, I see
the ageless through the old, Merlin, ancient
Myrddin who wears no more a farmer's face.

I learn again the names of things, the words
to free the winter's ice-bound streams, and warm
them clear, and freshening. My beating flesh
recalls a thousand thousand paths I walked
alone, and each a long night's longest dream.

"Ah, Nimue, this time we'll thread the nighting
stars upon our chains. This time we shall
become the rulers of all powers, of earth
and air, and fire, water, since we at last
have come to rule ourselves."
                                           "But I remain the
water-flow, and you the lasting stone.
Can you embrace, and not be worn away?
Can I be held and not break free to foam,
or chafe myself, confined, to stagnancy?"

"In time that was, my river-child, in time
when Camelot burned, new-pulled from imagining's
flame. But there are times between the stars
when all the elements are joined." A light
wind comes between us, lifts his hair, and falls,
is gone. "Yet if a teacher may regain
an erring student," I ask, "can a lover forgive
such a betrayal?"
                         "Have you not lost yourself
and found yourself again?" He lifts me from
the charmed chair by his hand's warm touch on mine.
"We'll sing together a song, and arches raise
of a new Camelot which shall not fall."

The chair crumbles, falls fine to ash and sifts
upon the flowered lawn. A new wind bears
the ash across the slow, north-flowing stream.
Three dragons wing from their water-nest to fly
in patterns tangled as ancient auguries.
The stars come out like salt, strewn, and fill
the night from north to south. I match my heart
to his, his breath to mine.
                                     Soft-bladed grass
closes above the place our feet had been.
Additional Information:
Copyright 1989 by Valerie Nieman and used here with her permission.