Qasida of the Ferryman

by Sofia Samatar

1. Qasida of the Ferryman


Your plane took off at 5 am.
New York, Cairo, Omdurman.
You won't come back. In the red dawn,
the winter puts her stockings on.
Her rings, the streetlamps, flicker down,
fading in the frozen town.
You've left me your Volkswagen van,
your coat bunched on the seat, a can,
a notebook fat with rain, your pen,
your Purgatorio, and then,
when the engine starts, a violin,
Mohammed Wardi singing thin,
low bi iidna min zaman.

Time to pay the ferryman.


He guides his boat along the lane,
eyes like ashes, beard like rain.
Fourteen lovers wove his gown,
seven drugged and seven drowned.
And his pole is carved of bone, 
and his heart of mountain stone,
and all fools who weep alone,
all wrecks and remnants, are his own.

The van is trapped, the four wheels spin,
the door springs out, the night comes in:
a rush of snowflakes, wild and wan,
the foam he floats his ferry on.

Pay me the fare.
I raise my chin,
and tell him No.
He coughs. He grins.

Will you not, my pretty lamb?
Then listen to this dithyramb.
For I'm a flood, a flash, a swan,
a tundra-wand'ring turjuman;
I've eaten souls with cinnamon
from Singapore to Samarkand.
My little boat flies underground,
swifter than any hunter's hound,
to every land in every clime,
a mocker of the laws of time.
I've skimmed the streets of fair Khartoum
and glided by the Mahdi's tomb;
I've spied your lover in his room
on a fragrant future afternoon.

Is he alone? No, heart of mine;
another plays your pantomime.

See where she stands. Her garments cling,
her lashes fall. She wears a ring.

And the radio blares a sobbing tune,
lovely longing Umm Kulsoum.
He sang it with you once, in the rain:
bayni wi baynak khatwitayn.

The race is run, the battle won,
the victor is the other one.
Your lover is her uncle's son.
Yield to her claim, and cross my palm.

The snow falls fast. The wind. The wind.
I raise a hand as hard as tin
and give him, when our fingers join,
my heart, shaped like an old Greek coin.


This is the season of the lean.
The winter's put on velveteen.
You haven't written. In the sun,
you have forgotten everyone.

Here the clouds are dirty twine,
the sun a crumpled valentine,
and on the lake six ravens stand,
sad envoys from the underland.
I toss them bread. I know their names.
I read their dry and ticking brains.
They croak at me, but can't divine
the garden growing in my mind.
They don't know how I pluck the plums
of my occult terrarium,
strip the fruit of seed and bloom,
and crush it with a wooden spoon.

The pulp it makes is rich as wine,
and stains my table like a crime,
and from the sable stuff I spin
the gold of never giving in.

My kitchen light is bold, unblent,
and bright as the flame of my intent.

In the blossom month, at the season's end,
I will buy my heart again.

Sofia Samatar is a fantasy writer, PhD student and all-around book lover. She's currently in the Department of African Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studies twentieth-century Egyptian and Sudanese fiction. Her debut novel, A Stranger in Olondria, is forthcoming from Small Beer Press in the summer of 2012, and she blogs here. She has recently discovered that many of the things she writes are not Brief Nothings, but speculative poetry. Some of her poems are available at Stone Telling; one is forthcoming in Bull Spec and will be reprinted in the anthology The Moment of Change.

Sofia's favorite fruit is the cherry. She once spent an afternoon in Platres, Cyprus, eating cherries and reading Jane Austen's Emma. That was a good day.

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