Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Chariot

Dawn Potter

Hooves pounding on bronze; a long, wild, whinnying chorus,
and the horses were airborne, eight enormous wings
beating, swishing, beating. Without warning, wind
crammed a fist into Phaeton’s mouth, jabbed knives
into his nose, his ears. Legs churning, wings flailing,
the steeds cut through cloud, through hissing vapors
that melted under their fiery breath. The driver, careening
from side to side in the clattering chariot, clung to the reins.

His father’s instructions flashed through his mind:
“Hold back the horses.” Phaeton dragged at the reins,
but his wrists were unsteady, his weight was light;
he was a fly compared to the god; and the giddy horses,
unchecked by any master, lunged and galloped.
Traces tangled with reins, the yoke twisted,
a sharp hoof sliced a flank, a spray of bloody foam
whipped Phaeton’s parched eyes.

In a panic, the child threw the whole weight of his rigid body
against the reins, jerking them left, then right,
trying to find the middle road, to guide the plunging horses
into their familiar wheel tracks. But he had no clear idea
of where the road might lie. Beyond the horses’ flaming breath,
he glimpsed cloud and rippled patches of sky, of Dawn
hastily folding her lustrous cloak, and now, to his horror,
bright-zoned Orion leaping away from the hurtling chariot.

Phaeton no longer knew if he gripped the reins.
Terrified of the reeling heavens, of the Crab scuttling crazily
toward the Archer, of the wakened Bear, snarling, furious,
he looked down, far down, at puddle lakes, groves of grass blades,
tine-scratched fields no bigger than eggs.
The heat . . . this unrelenting glare . . .
His fiery crown oppressed him, his knees gave way:
Oh, why had he wished for such a father?

Now his birth seemed worse than nothing.
If only he had been the son of Vulcan,
contentedly chipping nymphs from stone,
mapping Ocean with a chisel, patiently mopping
a mild sweat from his uncrowned brow.
If only that happy boy chasing goats
away from his mother’s grapevine
had never stared into the sky and desired the Sun.

Dazzled, stricken, Phaeton cowered against the chariot floor.
The reins slipped from his fingers and slid away,
falling loosely over the horses’ backs. Now wholly free,
they bolted ahead, then veered to the side, then galloped forward again,
the chariot crashing and buckling in their wake.
High, higher, they raced into the scattering stars and then plunged
wildly toward Earth, and whatever they touched, they destroyed.
Clouds scorched and withered; great Parnassus burst into flame,

and on the mountaintops, snow dissolved to rivers of steam.
In a moment entire forests burned like tinder.
A house, a loom, a woman. Gone.
Cities vanished in walls of fire; even Ocean gaped.
Trapped in a hot waste of sand, the sea nymphs screamed;
Neptune, lifting his trident to heaven, bellowed for aid,
the winds were choked with ash; Earth burned, burned;
and on Olympus Zeus stood watching, in silence.

[forthcoming in Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014)]

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