Three Dramatic Monologues

Three Dramatic Monologues


Though nothing more than rumours now have touched
The little towns beyond the city walls,
And salted meats and vegetables yet hang
For sale in booths along the market street,
And outside every theatre ring out
The jeers and laughter of a lively crowd,
And, just as ever, fools sic limping strays
Upon a bear chained, toothless, to a post,
And all the royals and all the nobles yet
Remain within the city, unafraid,
And nowhere have the roads begun to ooze
With naked almsmen heralding the End,
Still, every dawning day I search with dread
The loins and armpits of my little ones.
I pray my husband shun the noisome river.
And every night before my second sleep
I look to all the windows of the house,
And hidden from the sleeping eye of Heaven
I gather bones and feathers in a bowl
And spare a drop of blood from my own palm
To purchase one more day of peace from Ankou.

This day some neighbor women came to call
And in my kitchen took their fill of ale,
And, mending in their laps, together drank
The blood-warm gossip of the wedding season,
The foreign gentles’ sundry bad love-matches,
Some poor child’s landed, liver-spotted groom,
The best and least of laces, flowers, and pies
Set forward by the families of those maids
Whose dowry chests and morning gifts were all
Our own not half a dozen years ago.
I smiled, no wiser than my witless friends.
But let one scratch her neck, or clear her throat,
My hand fled to my heart, and it was all
A Christian woman like myself could do
Not to take up a hot brand from the hearth
And screaming drive the lot into the street.
A Christian I am, never may you doubt.
I hearken to the priest, I say my prayers,
I school my little ones to trust the Lord,
I thank the Holy Mother for her Son
And ask her blessings on our lowly roof,
I show my back to Satan and his works,
And in sweet Christ I lodge my hope of Life.
But sweet Christ—Glory be with Him forever—
Was born and slain from here a thousand leagues,
And in an alien desert He forgave
His killers in an alien desert tongue.
Christ lives, my only Saviour and my joy,
But far away in Heaven with his Saints,
While Ankou stalks the English countryside.

My mother’s mother saw him as a girl.
One day in spring, when she was yet so young
Nobody feared that she should go astray,
She took herself alone into the woods,
And, toeing her way along a downed tree, faltered
And fell atop a body in a cart.
A beggar or a holy man, she thought,
And surely some days dead. But then he stirred.
His cowl, it slid a little from his face,
And well she marked the holes that were his eyes,
The lipless teeth that ranged his rotting smile,
The rising bony rustle of his laugh.
With not a word she hied herself back home.
A few days hence her mouser turned up sick.
Within a fortnight half the town was dead.

I cannot say what frightens me the more,
That I devote my every second thought
To the propitiation of a Thing
Hateful to Christ and all of Christendom,
Or that I am the solitary soul
Who dreams all is not well. All is not well.
Beneath the shouts of vendors in the streets,
He that has ears may hear a different call,
A reedy tuneless keening on the wind,
That swells and fades and never disappears.
It is the call of Ankou’s wooden cart,
The ancient axle stubborn with disuse,
The handles clacking at his skinless touch,
The wide bed which has always room for more.
Of late I hear it even in my sleep,
Empty for now, and nearer every day.

Another Achilles

Better, my mother always said, to be
The servant of a servant here on earth
Than king among the dead. Wise words, perhaps,
From one who’s never died or been a servant.
Myself, I had the fortune to be born
A king, or king-to-be, among the living.
Today, my father long deceased, I sit
Here on his throne, in Phthia, growing plump
With sunny trade and endless golden weather,
Ruling with soft, pale, patient hands a tribe
Of shepherds, farmers, vintners, and the like.
Our milkmaids are the pride of Thessaly,
Our walnut baklava the stuff of dreams.
It is a good life. I am a good king.

My wife, a gentle stout Euboean girl
Whose dowry brought a hundred head of kine,
Looks after me as sweetly as a mother
And mothers like a wife our dozen boys.
They’re grown and bearded all, but still at home,
Unmarried and without a taste for war.
I love them, lazy creatures that they are,
Although I’ve ruined them. By now it’s plain
No king of any honorable city
Would ever leave a daughter in their hands.
When I am dead, they’ll break the kingdom up
Till everything my father proudly built
Is counted, joist by nail, and sold for parts.
All things, he used to say, must have an end.
My own, like me, will be forgettable.
There will come other kingdoms, other kings.
I cannot claim the gods have given me
A single drachma less than my desert.

Yet sometimes, for all that, I rise at night,
Disoriented in the lightless room,
Thinking that I’ve awakened somewhere else,
My red silk sheets a simple woolen sack,
The bedroom walls a battered canvas tent,
My wife’s bronze looking glass a glinting shield,
And outside not a whispering Phthian breeze
But the Aegean’s unrelenting tide.
I lie in darkness, trying to recall
The place I’m in and in it my own place,
Until a kindly wind unclouds the moon,
Restoring bed and vanity and wife,
And once again I’m nothing but myself,
Achilles, ruler of the Myrmidons,
Another of his generation’s sons
Born to a father greater than himself,
Though one of just a few who in his youth
Showed prudence and refused to sail to Troy,
Where every last Achaean ship was torched
And every man, horse, slave, and concubine
Cut down and buried in the muddy surf
Under the gleaming chariots of Priam.

It did not feel like prudence at the time.
I’d heard the rumors that the Argive king
Was gathering a force of demigods
To sack the richest city in the world.
My father and my mother heard them, too.
The old man would have sailed once more for glory,
Had all his oft-recounted feats of arms
Not ground away his pith and left him lame.
So in his place he charged me to set sail,
Taking his horses and his ashen spear
Along with every man of fighting age
To haul back ships half-sunk with Trojan loot.
Proud Peleus was by then too old to hear
Whatever words I might have had to say,
So I said none, but kissed his hand and left.
That night my mother smuggled me to Skyros.

There on the island, I was draped in silk
And hidden among the daughters of the king.
My mother was a superstitious soul,
And one night on the island she confessed
The gods had granted me a double fate,
That, should I choose to take the favored path,
My name would live three thousand years and more
Though for my body less than ten remained,
And so another path was offered me,
Less honorable, less painful, more obscure,
Down which I’d know prosperity and pleasure,
A wife, a grassy countryside, a throne,
And when the great god Hermes came at last
To lead me to the darkness, my reward
Would be an absolute oblivion
On earth as in the kingdom of the dead.
For her there was no question of a choice.
She wanted only for her son to live.
And so I lived in Skyros as a girl
Where every market stall and kitchen thrummed
With whispers of young men who’d sailed to Aulis,
Intent on battle, plunder, and revenge
Against the preening horsemen of the east.
The legends flowed, and then began to ebb.
The girls and eunuchs gossiped less and less,
And I believed the time to choose had passed.

One afternoon a little boat appeared,
Oared by an ancient humpback, heaped with trunks
Of pottery and clothing and perfume.
The other girls, bored, curious, went to see.
Most of the stock was cheap or chipped or frayed,
But as the others started to disperse,
I noticed, propped beside a spool of yarn,
A shield of wood and leather, bossed in bronze,
And, lying just beside it in the sand,
A polished spear, tipped with a leaf-shaped blade.
I took one step, unthinking, hand outstretched,
And just below the peddler’s cloak I saw
The taut calf of an athlete in his prime
Contracting slowly, like a bow drawn back,
And from the shadows of the old man’s cowl
There gleamed a grinning row of straight white teeth.
I turned my scented back and walked away,
Hurrying up the strand to find my place
Among the patient flock of palace girls,
Ready to give myself to the diversions
The eunuchs had arranged for us that day—
A footrace, maybe, or a game of darts.
I’ve always had a talent for such things.
When I looked back, Odysseus was gone.

The Light of the Body

You’re here. I knew you’d make it. Come on in.
Coffee? Iced tea? It’s no trouble either way.
You know the other afternoon at Tanger
When—just like that—you walked up and said hi,
That meant the world to me, it truly did.
You won’t believe the way some people act,
The credit analysts, the other tellers.
You’d think they never met me in their life.
You’re the exception. You’re exceptional.
The way you smiled, like not a thing had changed,
It made me wish I’d done more at the time
To get to know you. I regret so much,
More what I didn’t do than what I did.
But now you’re here, now we’ve got all this time.

Well, why don’t I just come right out and say it?
You must have seen the pictures. I don’t mind.
I mean, I did back then. I couldn’t bear
The thought that everyone at work had seen.
Those things we did were never my idea.
I thought I loved him. I thought he loved me.
I thought he’d be the one to give me babies.
Still, don’t fret. Anybody would have looked.
When we broke up, he sent those pictures out
Not just to everybody at the bank,
But Mom and Dad and all my girlfriends too,
My neighbors, my old classmates, anyone
Whose name was in my laptop or my phone.
He sent them out the morning I turned forty.
Hard to believe it’s only been a year.

But that’s the past. None of it matters now,
And, even then, it wasn’t why I left.
I always meant to stay on at the bank.
It was the longest job I’d ever held;
I could have died but never thought I’d quit.
The day it all came out, I called in sick
And drove up to the county for some quiet.
In junior high, I used to know a girl
Who lived out here. Sometimes I’d stay the night
And Sunday come along with her to church.
The building was a monster made of glass
With this bright blinking sign beside the road
That shone each week with messages from scripture:

My friend and me, we lost touch years ago,
And when I headed north that awful day
To come out here, I had no kind of plan
Except to get away from everyone.
I drove for hours before I saw the sign,
Its golden light still blinking by the church:
I really wish that you could understand
What a relief it was to see those words.
The truth is that I’d been expecting something.
The truth is that, wet-eyed behind the wheel
And hardly knowing why, I’d turned to prayer,
If not for answers then for some small clue
That I was more than how I must have looked
In all those pictures everyone had seen,
Some hint that what they saw, my body, made
Public in every wrinkle, mole, and hair,
And what they saw me do, and be done to,
That every bit of it might still be good.
And that same day, I put in my two weeks.
I broke my lease in town and got this place,
A short half-hour’s walk down to the church
Where I became Director of Youth Worship.

The kids are great, fourteen to eighteen, mostly,
So fragile at that stage, in flux, in pain,
All hung up between longing and disgust,
Careless with one another and themselves,
More beautiful than they will ever know.
I love them. And I love them all the more
Now that I’ve stopped pursuing my desires
And started letting God decide the path.
I once believed that I was meant to be
A wife, a mother, someone with a family,
But now I know He had a different plan,
He’s blessed me with a different kind of family,
Made full with other women’s precious babies,
For me to love as if they were my own.
It’s not the life I would have picked myself,
But you and I both saw how that life went.

Last week, before you saw me, I saw you,
Back in that little row of fitting rooms.
I’d stepped into the hallway to return
Some things I wasn’t buying to the rack,
And as I passed, the air swept back a curtain,
Baring a strip of mirror for an instant
And with it your small body in the light,
Half-bending to pick up a bathing suit
Puddled there on the little pleather bench.
I saw then what He wanted me to see:
That He has made you lovely to behold,
That you and I are sisters, that you’re loved,
That something made as lovingly as you
Was not meant for destruction after death.
He sees us all, He numbers every hair,
He marks the fall of every little bird—

Please don’t get up. I didn’t mean to scare you.
I never lock my door. You’re free to go.
But first just take a moment, take a breath,
And ask yourself: Why did you make this drive,
Out of the city, past the outlet malls,
The airport, all those miles of dying farms?
Why did you come here to this rust-stained knot
Of ugly brick apartments, to this room,
To see a former coworker you knew
Barely enough to call her by her name?
Ask yourself: Who was leading you to me?
You see the truth, inside you’ve always seen.
Now close your eyes. He’s with us. Let us pray.

Matthew Buckley Smith is the author of Midlife, winner of the 2021 Richard Wilbur Award, and Dirge for an Imaginary World, winner of the 2012 Able Muse Book Award. His poems have been featured in American Life in Poetry, Best American Poetry, and Poetry Daily. He hosts the poetry podcast SLEERICKETS.


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