The Apprentice’s Last Day
The candle is still burning;
the flute’s note, unsure of itself,
wavers in the door. I have watched
and listened, and all that time crowds
behind me—the day I burned
a whole field with one match,
the night I spent in a graveyard,
standing on each grave until I saw
one falling star, then moving on.
So many useless tasks
I have done, and done well,
and now I have one more.
The boss says, after it all, we follow
the same path backward along the beach,
filling our footprints with sand.
He says every time we die
it’s the same; we have to go back
and cover ourselves over
every step of the way. I’m ready
to start again so I run almost
to the edge of the water. Let waves
do the work, erasing me. I’ll dance
here, while the candle burns,
and the flute still staggers through its song.
Once I thought, no matter what
we live through, we wind up winking
our skull’s windows at nothing.
I would have given in to the sweet
mercury of despair, but I learned
to carve my shell on the inside,
surrounding myself with beauty.
I learned that sometimes we are almost
holy, like glass in certain kinds of sunlight,
almost invisible, ready to spin off
inside the circles of light, a dancer’s shadow
crossing the wood floor of the stage.
Now I know I’m older by the weight
of the chain of days behind me.
My fingers are thinner; rings slip off
when I wave my arms in the air.
The first days of my apprenticeship
are hard to remember, snowed deep
in the past. The boss said it all comes back
in its time, and made me stand on one
leg until I remembered the first
words he ever said to me—
think of this, he said,
when does a graveyard get to die?
Since then I’ve learned that a candle
burns brightest at its end, that you walk
under the river if there is no other way.
That a man can find peace even
in the city, where swans drown in glasses
of milk and light dives from
its high window into the street.
Once we saw an old bum lying,
actually dead on the sidewalk. The boss
said, stop, and we stood
ten minutes, waiting to see
if the world would end.
I never knew how to take it. I walked
up and down in one place
until it felt like standing still
and then I ran. The boss chased me,
shouted, wait, come back,
it’s not over yet.
You still have the windmill
of gravestones to kill, and then the last task.
I would have quit right then
but the boss said, you’ve got
to give chance at least
one more chance to happen.
He lit this candle, placed it
in my room. He set a flute
in front of me. Watch and listen.
Bury your dead well or they’ll come back.
And when this candle burns to its end,
you could go. I didn’t know
what he meant. He told me to choose
solitude and the empty road,
to choose stars abandoned by night.
He said, when in heaven, act like an angel.
But then, what’s last? I asked him. He said,
I’ve already told you that.
When a candle burns down
its edges curl inward,
like fingers bending toward fist.
The flame in the palm burns taller,
brighter than it’s been. A pearl drops
from the wick, is caught in the wax
pooled beneath. A lake could be a shaft
of water through the earth.
So many lessons shake my sails.
I’ve learned if you speak too loudly
no one will hear you; I’ve learned
to begin with a whisper of the end.
The wind kisses me goodbye.
The grass rolls up its green sleeves
to shake my hand. November second,
and I’m afraid, not ready to go. No one
can even give me the correct time—
every clock, watch, and sundial just says
it’s sooner than I expected.
Still I lift my lance
to stab at the darkness,
at the dead spinning in thick
orbit around the earth like
the blades of windmill.
The boss told me once I didn’t have to kill
the windmill, only face it well.
He told me the heart of the event is the event
perfected in intent, in memory,
in imagination. Now I suspect
that something runs through our lives,
naked and unnoticed, a long thread
pulling us back and forth. I suspect
that there are no accidents,
that something is always talking
to us, if we’d listen. I suspect a lot,
but I’ve learned to keep my quiet to myself.
The lips of the candle are pulled
into full grimace, the moon outside folded
perfectly in half. The last notes tug themselves free
of the flute’s grip; it’s time to go.
But what is the one last task?
I think back: I’ve already
swept out the river’s closets, and retraced
all the trails I never turned down;
I’ve even dragged the dead
from their room of death
and thrown them out with the rest.
But I’m sure there’s one more thing.
And then it comes back to me,
what the boss said once, that when
my apprenticeship is done
I’ll have a whole lifetime of work
waiting for me. That when I’ve
counted all the small deaths that led
to this, and solved the secret
of all I’ve lived through, then
I will have my yes and my no,
then I will live again.
But first, before that, I’ve got
to write that secret down, even once,
and leave that note for you.