Salted Earth

In the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence: Charon's boat, the sleep of Night and Morpheus by Luca Giordano (1684–1686)

I. Sky Burial

In a fever dream, or perhaps I had been drinking,
I saw a desolate plateau,
dawn breaking over a monastery wall,
gray light raking cold charnel ground,
and a platform strung with silk,
bearing splintered bones and strips of flesh.
I burned juniper twigs, watched wisps of smoke twist and
drift downward in wake of waning hopes.
Some prayers, I feared, are too obscene to answer.
But then they appeared, glorious birds savage and sublime,
tore you apart in a way I never could, rose and
turned in circles beneath a ceiling of cloud.
I composed a prayer to the calls of carrion birds,
agents of violent salvation,
thanked the heavens for their indiscretion,
until the vultures, sickened, skimmed the earth,
dragged down by something heavy in your soul,
surrendered your flesh and departed,
leaving me, a daughter alone on littered ground,
the sole witness to your aborted sky burial.

II. Sea Burial

In a dream, or maybe I had been drinking again,
I saw you swathed in burlap, slipping into depths,
past dead reefs and the unblinking eyes of incurious fish,
envied your indifferent drift and gentle dissolution,
the cold amnesia of the ocean floor.
Faithless, for I had been thinking again,
I walked to the water’s edge,
over sharp stones and broken shells,
scoured the beach at low tide and confirmed my fears,
found a button from your suit, your gold fillings,
a stained handkerchief stitched with your name,
your plastic comb and black rosary beads tangled in seaweed,
a kneecap dusted by sand—
ghostly artifacts regurgitated by the sea,
small hauntings on a desolate beach.
When high tide reclaimed you, I sat on an outcropping of rock,
cursed your name and peered down at the sea,
saw your face beneath the waves and felt ashamed, as always,
to be drawn to you by familiar currents and filial longing,
and afraid to let you disappear,
into the depths where you belong.

III. Hades

I dreamt of the River Styx, befogged bends of roiling grief,
And in my dream, my delirium,
stood on a muddy bank, massaged my crawling skin,
watched you cross and heard the howling of those abandoned,
stranded souls who would never know dreamless sleep.
I watched you alight on a misted shore,
a pale shade slipping into forgetfulness,
into the company of shadows cast in the absence of sun,
absolved of shame by the short half-life of memory.
How much did you pay Charon to cross the river?
What currency enabled your escape from me,
a daughter dreaming, still, of reckoning?
In my dream, I railed against your easy peace,
only to reconsider, fall to the ground and
pray no one would ever utter your name,
conjure your memory and effect your resurrection,
stir your consciousness with a thoughtless libation,
awaken a malevolence not so easily contained.
I prayed to Morpheus; I dreamt of dreamless sleep.

IV. Pyre

In my fevered imagination, or perhaps in a dream,
women wrapped your body in white muslin, placed it on a pyre,
splashed it with oil, something fragrant to disguise the rot.
For this, I forgave them, sacrificed honesty to expedite the end,
surrendered to the flames all evidence:
old letters, diary pages, and faded family photographs,
a first communion dress, the cracked belt that lashed my back,
and a book of saints—stories of faithful women
burned at the stake like so much tinder and trash,
abject lessons for a daughter scorned and expendable.
Charred faces and orphaned phrases spiraled upward,
carried by the heat of their own burning,
blackened and drifted down as ash,
covered the earth in a scene befitting war’s end,
an armistice born of exhaustion and a glut suffering.
But the fire would not feed on your flesh,
scorch your rictus smile or devour your staring eyes,
daring me to lift my face above the smoke and
draw a breath of air before I drowned.

V. Earth Burial

This morning, I did not attend your wake but drank instead,
fearing you might open your eyes and look through me again,
as you did so many years ago,
disbelieving my resemblance to you.
Half-asleep, I dreamt of a hearse on congested streets,
gutters glutted with dirty snow, black coats flapping in the wind,
a cemetery sinkhole of corruption, a priest
flush from indulgence bestowing absolution.
I imagined our battles ending in an avalanche of dirt,
the laying of a granite slab to prevent your wandering,
to weigh you down and bear your epitaph,
a history of ignominy inscribed in stone.
But spring came early in my dream, and from your bed rose
bloated peonies, roses ready to stab careless fingers,
snapdragons and flame-tongued lilies.
Groundskeepers tended your grave, as if it were just like any other,
cleared your name, weeded around your hands and feet,
nurtured the sickly blooms crowning your head.
Generals of antiquity salted the fields of conquered enemies.
I could not be that cruel, or strong, even in my fever dream.

VI. Lament

I have long dreamt of this day, dreamt of
vultures turning in circles and bearing away bits of flesh,
gentle waves inviting endless sleep,
the mist above the River Styx,
the purification of the pyre,
the finality of cold clay falling,
but there will be no catharsis, no justice, I know,
so let the inscriptions lie, and your name live on,
beneath lichen and moss,
beneath accretions of car exhaust,
beneath skeins of frost.
I have renounced your base patrimony,
recused myself from the requiem,
absolved myself of mourning and orphaned myself.
I will never visit your grave—I will let you lie quietly—
or in the places you haunt, present my face,
utter your name to disturb your dreamless sleep,
conjure your memory or stir your slumbering conscience.
This is the armistice born of exhaustion,
the fruit of our salted earth.

Alice Hatcher’s work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Beloit Fiction Journal, Fiction International, Lascaux Review, Fourth Genre, and Chautauqua, among other journals. Her novel The Wonder That Was Ours won Dzanc Books’ 2017 Fiction Prize and appeared on the Center for Fiction’s 2018 First Novel Prize long list. Her website is

Read the excerpt of her novel that appeared in The Wonder That Was Ours (book excerpt) .

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Issue 6

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