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The Elephants


Christopher Kondrich


Had it been a bell that we heard ringing.
Had it shaken us from our beds and into our robes.
Had we gathered around the empty tower, peering up into the empty
space where the ringing was still coming from.
Had we thought we were alone in hearing it.
Had we turned to one another, and, seeing that we had all heard the same ringing
coming from the same empty tower, decided to trust one another again.
Had we not trusted one another this whole time.
Had we not trusted the coat on the chair in the corner at night, the open window
whispering into it, moving its sleeves.
Had we been convinced that mice were moving the sleeves.
Had we still been convinced after we switched on the light to see the coat and nothing else.
Had we left well enough alone.
Had we rooted around behind the chair, under the radiator expecting the mice to prove
what we wanted to be true about the sleeves.
Had we expected too much.
Had we lost our expectations somewhere along the way.
Had we taken expectation out on our lives, had we held expectation against them
as if it were an impractical and insatiable measure.
Had the seasons been another such measure.
Had the spring made the prairiegrass taller than the yield.
Had the winter made the snow a skipping record blanketing the room before anyone came in.
Had our child or children come in, then us.
Had we wanted to tell them the truth about something, but we didn’t know what that was.
Had we asked our parents.
Had we not regretted not asking our parents maybe then we could sort silverware
into the drawer without bursting into tears.
Had we held grudges.
Had we held onto things to protect them.
Had we the ability to walk out of our bodies like we walk out into the street
at dusk when a neighbor is there and we chat a while, maybe we repeat ourselves, maybe
there aren’t any cars passing by.
Had we reentered our bodies, but less specific, had this been a penalty for leaving,
so that we could only express to our spouses vaguely what made us want to
walk out of our bodies in the first place.
Had it felt like we were living out of a suitcase filled with someone else’s clothes.
Had it felt like we didn’t have a choice other than no other choice.
Had it felt like, from that point on and from all points prior, we had this
present moment and we had to stand inside it as though it were a railway car
throttling forward through some dark tunnel of not knowing
whether it was closer to the front or the back of the train.
Had what we meant by that been that we didn’t know how long we were going to live.
Had we known how long we were going to live.
Had we liked to think of ourselves as the kind of people who would take up another’s labor
or watch another’s child, only to return each night having just taken up our own
labor, our own child.
Had we returned that night.
Had we instead made our way up the path toward the tower.
Had walking felt like sacrificing the little more we left behind us.
Had we gotten closer, had we run our hands over the cool stone of the tower
to find a patch of moss growing, fanning out under our hands.
Had we put our cheek to it.
Had we wanted to put our cheek through the moss, through the color of it,
down into whatever attaches it to the stone, and in that moment had it felt like it
was the same moss, the very same that our mothers had shown us when we were just
doors left ajar to the hallway of memory, our mothers held our hands to it,
to the roots or whatever moss uses to attach itself, which then attached to us.
Had we realized how long we had been there.
Had we then figured we had better come up with a story to tell our families,
why we had been gone so long, why we missed dinner, the nuts and fruit set out
even though no one ever touches them.
Had we begun to retrace the path, every step a resuscitation.
Had we then looked up, had it not occurred to us to look up until then, at the almost dark
sky the shade of muddled blackberries.
Had the sky not been a mortar for the blackberries.
Had we not pretended we were holding up a pestle.
Had we always seemed to ask the stars for a story on nights when we couldn’t
come up with stories ourselves, and had one such story been about how
we wanted shame as much as we wanted love.
Had that story rang too true for our comfort.
Had the stars inadvertently described us too well, which is to say too much
in a negative light that glows the same as wonder.
Had we roped the stars into all this with the kind of cruelty that comes from not thinking
about what the stars want, or what the stars believe, or what the stars have to do before dying out.
Had there been universal prayers.

Christopher Kondrich is the author of Contrapuntal (Free Verse Editions, 2013)​. ​He is the winner of The Iowa Review Award for Poetry (selected by Srikanth Reddy), and The Paris-American Reading Series Prize. His poetry appears or is forthcoming in ​​Boston Review, Crazyhorse, The Iowa Review, The Kenyon Review, Third Coast, Typo, Web Conjunctions, and elsewhere. ​He is an Associate Editor of 32 Poems, and he lives and teaches in Providence, Rhode Island.

This originally appeared on November 22, 2017