For weeks he has watched the still heart
of the sails, prayed for unseen breath to lift
canvas from the riggings, mold the spar
to an inverse cusp slight as the fold of horizon.
He has prayed for a deck baptized with spume
and the quicksilver bellies of fishes.
But the ocean refuses to shrug, offers only
August sun back to itself without blemish.
In the hold beneath him, hulks of draped
crates haunt the air with the odor of saffron
and unspent Spanish gold too heavy for the spindly
arms of his crew to heave overboard.
These days, fortune is measured in ladles
of fresh water, the pitted rind of an orange,
flayed skin of an apple.
He asks himself what more he might do
and in answer turns his gaze across deck
where heat shimmers, conjures specters
of lanyards, cannons, the sleeping form
of the boatswain’s mate--
to the place where the horses have been gathered,
his favorite mare’s brisket tight against
the tarnished rail, her mild eyes ringed in white
like nimbuses around a sextant’s distant stars.
Unashamed, he wipes the sting from his eyes,
ties a kerchief around the sharp angles
of her head, closing her view of endlessness,
seeing, as he performs this small mercy,
a rime of dried sweat circling the moss of her
flared nostrils as she buries her muzzle
in the barley cupped in his outstretched palm
and follows him toward the wide blue gape,
her chestnut flanks rising and falling like tidewater.
And now a slap on her croup, hard enough
to make her start, fetlocks fraying in flight
as if she means to tread sheer atmosphere,
then a black hoof brands a slick half-moon
above his heart a moment before she vanishes
in a sickle of sunlight and salt spray only to break
the surface a moment after, blowing the great trumpets
of her lungs, the blindfold torn loose and floating free.
And now the panic of sixty more hooves
driven forward by rough hands,
water churning sorrel, bay, dappled grey,
until pink veins of blood from brine-singed
throats stain the blue like a tincture.
A handful of sailors crack oars against thrashing legs
to hasten the drowning, though it will be hours
before the last of them stops knocking the keel,
each strike like a heartbeat… or the tongue
of a bell in its diminishing arc.