“The Archer” by Raymond Luczak

somewhere in Atlantis

My father was an archer of acclaim.
When he pulled his string and flexed his bow,
he squinted his good eye and tilted so
his supple shoulders stayed outside his aim,

targeting a fox, nibbling unaware,
before his arrow punctured its slim neck
and nailed it to the tree as if a peck.
I pulled out the arrowhead, almost clear

of blood. He beamed down at me and said,
One day you’ll perfect your zinging-the-string
so your arrow can sing it anything
you hear. Just practice till your arms feel dead.

My sapling arms soon matured into trunks.
I’d already learned how to whittle bows;
I’d long practiced the art of letting go
until I could close my eyes and hit plunk.

By then I’d explored the southeast forest
and spotted a few unicorns sleeping.
Their secret place was mine for safekeeping;
I loved watching them snuggle in their midst.

Their horns spiraled as if made of pearl-jade
yet iridescent as moon-lit river.
Their white manes rarely gave a quiver
as they nosed together in the low glade.

When they awoke, their eyes were of deep brown,
the very color of the richest loam
that enabled the vines of grape to roam.
The unicorns left behind a deep crown

among the grasses. I dreamed of snatching
a foal and taming him so we’d impale
prey with horn and arrow. The size and scale
of our doubled talents could make catching

buffalo and panthers profitable
on an island where we breathed and ate fish.
How novel it’d be to serve a meat dish!
My sudden wealth would make affordable

a palace for my parents, and I’d live
simply with my loving wife and children.
The problem was, I had no such kindred.
Many women had made my heart misgive,

but one in particular gave me hope.
Airla wasn’t the loveliest of all
but her coy glances made me feel quite tall.
I felt less of a bitter misanthrope.

Her hair, black as tar, cascaded off her
shoulders like waterfalls down to her waist.
Her breasts swung like grapes, begging for a taste.
I knew that for marriage to occur,

I’d need to demonstrate wealth or some skill
that would contribute to food and shelter.
When Iason returned, a thick welter
of emotion swelled. He bragged how he’d killed

and persuaded her that they should marry?
When he’d left, he wasn’t much of a man
but as a soldier, he had a game plan.
I knew I couldn’t afford to tarry,

not when he’d trained in Sparta and kept score
killing traitors in Helen of Troy’s name.
That I knew unicorns spread like a flame,
and then a group of archers showed up for

proof of their location in the grasses.
They jabbed me in my chest, saying, Liar.
Iason smirked at how I’d lit a-fire
in my cheeks as he swept our chalices

off the feasting table. Yeah, tomorrow.
That night Airla sat next to me and smiled.
I felt giddy with my heart beating wild,
but that night I felt a yawning sorrow

envelop me as in a heavy mist,
as if their sleeping glade had disappeared.
No doubt warned, the unicorns would’ve cleared.
I thought again of how I should insist,

as I led the way, that I’d only lied.
Once there, though, the men gasped upon seeing
the unicorns sleeping, breathing, being.
The men quietly slid bows off their sides,

their shoulders slinking back for that ping.
Their gray arrowheads flinted in the sun
as they prepared to take aim as if one
Medusa ready for the snarling.

I leaped behind them onto a boulder.
I quickly speared into each of the men’s
hearts and backs. No, they couldn’t be my friends!
Growling, they twisted and turned their shoulders

around to zing me but I’d quickly run
deep into the familiar trees and climbed
up where I surveyed for odd movements, primed
with my arrow to kill another one.

The moonless night, filled with its sounds, felt long.
By morning the vultures had descended,
their beaks picking clean the flesh distended.
I buried their bones. I had to fake strong

when I returned with news of the dead.
Naturally they hunted for remains
of their loved ones, but it was all in vain.
Today I marry Airla. I still dread

the moment when the gods break the sky
to strike me dead with thunder and lightning,
my dishonest soul too frightening.
Oh, how I rue the day I learned to lie!

I’m still standing, but I’ve already died.
What will I teach my children with my bow?
Isn’t it better to leave such prey just so?
Truth has pierced a gaping hole in my hide.

Raymond Luczak is the author and editor of twenty-two books, including Flannelwood (Red Hen Press) and Lovejets: Queer Male Poets on 200 Years of Walt Whitman (Squares & Rebels). A ten-time Pushcart Prize nominee, he lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Image: “Mythical Taxidermy” by Nicole Monroe; knitted by Jody Morin

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