A time came when our sails whipped into black.
Some pall splashed from sky like pitch; night
was noon and winds ripped the rigs without cease
or mercy. We cowered in the careening bow,
praying to the sea-lord for deliverance. The waves
became a stallion surf that rode our boat wild,
galloping smash after smash into the lee of an island
that seemed rise like a forehead from the sea.
Our boat stove in and gone, we crawled ashore
to a haunted and wild land misty deep-blue
as if dusk’s hour had frozen before death.
Whipped by winds and rocked by surf
the very ground thundered from deep below.
No food or shelter could be found: just bald acres
of rock from which some pale lichens grew except
at the far end where a leafless tree kept watch.
No humans had been there: no huts or bones
or charred firepits: No scraps to lash up a raft.
Except for sea-birds careening overhead
there was no food to be found. We slaked
our thirst from crevices in the old stone
and picked the bones of a fallen kestrel .
Collapsed and dreaming of homes far away
we woke to the sound of horses in the night,
invisible to us but ever near and furious and dire,
their hooves’ thunder up from the drowning sea.
Come morning we found that one us had vanished,
the shallow impress where he slept littered
with a few horsehairs glistened with blood.
All day we searched the isle shouting his name
but only winds and hard surf bellowed back
with a twisted echo, as if from deep below.
That day we caught a pelican at the far end’s shore,
smashed it dead with rocks and feasted on its gore.
But five men tearing at one bird is hardly mood
for celebration and that night we slept more desperate,
edged closer to our bodies’ circle in that wicked dark.
Come morning another had vanished and we found
a huge horse dropping where he slept, still steaming
with the breath of the man who had laid there dreaming,
one eye staring up at us from the shit like its foal.
Each day the island wore us down, battening some
dire viscera upon our growing terror and despair
going nowhere and finding no escape from the elements
of howl and shake and thunder. Our prayers grow hoarse
and our eyes bled piling stones with trembling fingers.
We posted a watch each night but always the man swooned
as if seduced to sleep by some snakehaired wind
and come morning we found another gone, always
signed off our out with a horse’s symbolon—hoof-print,
a thread of mane or tail, once a mare-shaped shell.
By the fourth morning there was just two of us
and we were too exhausted and defeated to get up.
We lay beneath that wile barbarous sky, feeling the
stone beneath our bodies ground its teeth against
some darker deeper firmament, biting up and down.
I thought I saw our companions running
at the island’s misty edge, whinnying and clopping
and baring big white teeth. We called their
names—Antinoos,! Petrarchus! Callymicas! Soos!—
but the vision vanished with a thunder’s snap
and we swooned while heaven horse-pissed down
and the surf thundered vicious just offshore.
The next day Polydamas too was gone, more grass
to settled down the god’s maw. Of him all that
remained was the tiny wood horse he had been
carving for his son. Now it’s only me, the one
man, faced off with the Furies and the Fates,
sustained and battened on brutality’s salt fare.
Just me on this island of ghost horses and a lone
medusa tree on which at night I hear my brothers’
bones whinny the wind, swinging on nooses
woven of horsehair and a lost god’s sea myth.
For years now I have sailed this solitary rock,
the only witness to time’s long dash of divines,
my face the long-carved caul of that awfulness.
What is it when a man is harrowed so pure?
Is it like when an earth god is exiled to sea?
Perhaps that is the mystery of Leviathan,
falling forever in appalling silent majesty.
We cannot know our fate and yet it must do.
It’s time you left now—go—row on, get through.
Consider this harrow a well deep enough, done.
May your homeward journey by fortune outrun
the maleficent old hand that turns the winds’ screw.
And if those horses should stampede your dreams
call it a blessing, the waves drowning a god’s screams.
For Real Toads’ Islands Challenge
Poseidon was probably an earth-master god like Zeus brought to Greece by Indo-Europeans in the late Bronze age (ca. 2000 BCE), who brought horse-culture with them. Poseidon was a much greater god than the place he is relegated to in classical Greek mythology—brother of Zeus, given mastery of the depths, tamer of horses and rescuer of ships at sea. His rape of Demeter as a stallion (fleeing, she had changed herself into a Fury or night-mare) and fathers the first horse Arion, who becomes the greatest war-horse of all. When the hoof of Arion strikes the ground, he Horse Spring (Hippo Kreme) opens up: according to Burkert, “the horse is born where the deep opens up.” Horses were ritually drowned in sacrifice to Poseidon in the fresh water that rises from the sea at the whirlpool in Argos.
As Lord of the Sea, “Poseidon reveals himself as the sea opens, up, whether when sea monsters gambol beneath him or the storm-whipped waves tower upwards.” (Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, 139). The living depths are his—further down we find Hades, the realm of the dead—and as Earth-shaker, earthquakes are expression of his rage. “Poseidon reveals himself as the sea opens up, whether when sea monsters gambol beneath him or when the storm-whipped waves tower upwards” (ibid.).
In myth, the solitary figure on this island may be Glaucus, the old man of the sea, who was once a seafarer and ate an herb that made him immortal though not immune to aging. (Now there’s a fate.) The herb only grew on one island and served as a remedy against fatigue for the sun god’s horses.
Marine mammals like whales and walruses and seals are believed to be land-mammals who returned to the sea some 50 million years ago.
Another Arion in the canon is the first singer who rides a sea-horse; that figure is tattooed on my left arm.
The hippocampus is a sea-horse-shaped area of the brain essential for spatial memory and navigation, providing a cognitive map of the perceived environment. It also provides the relational database essential for creativity. Alcohol blackouts are the result of excessive amounts of alcohol shutting down the hippocampus. A shrinking hippocampus is an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease.