- Last Stand
Leonidas at Thermopylae
A warrior must not be in love with life. To conquer or die has always been our law. What I have done was all for Sparta’s fame. We held the wall; we pushed the Persians back,
but our two-day battle has come to this: bodies and blood, while a messenger reports the enemy takes a goat path through the leaves to decimate our flank, or what remains.
I’ve let the men disperse—why should they stay when defeat is guaranteed? Curse the traitor who shared our evening food, our fire and tent, dissembling every day, eager to whisper
in Xerxes’ ear a mountain route around the pass we block and so outnumber us— ten thousand to one. I do not fault the men for going. See, they flee like startled birds.
And still a phalanx stands, fully armed with sword and shield, awaiting my command. What brave—or foolish—men they are, my own three hundred. I selected each one
by hand for valor, loyalty, and strength, not dwelling on the chance of death, but certain that if death came it would be good. Who in the final instant judges it so? [End Page 191]
They have trained for this since they were boys. Yet don’t they have a home, a beloved’s arms, the dream of another spring in the Peloponnese? Although I am a Spartan and their king,
I long to witness my daughter’s wedding feast, the unborn children of my son, my wife’s black hair as it begins to silver. Oh, the olive tree and poppies beside our door—
How weary I am. How hard to bear my part, as though, like Atlas, I carry the world, and more: an awareness of our fate within the hour, sharper than any arrow, sting, or blow.
I see my own blood flowing toward the sea, the Persian who will cut me down like grass. When I was young, I never imagined this day, and yet my men are waiting. They attend my words.
What can I tell them they don’t already know? We die because we are soldiers—that is our job. In seeing it through to the end, we most excel and like a crashing wave become ourselves.
Here, at the Gates of Fire, our deaths will serve as an altar and our doom will lead to praise: they fought with spear and sword, hands and teeth; in dying they granted their citizens time to rally.
My wife, my love, dearer to me than life, our union has been long and pure, finer than most. I think of the tender olive wreath interlaced with roses that you made.
I’ve tied a lock of your hair behind my shield, where I place my hand. How lucky I am to have the story I leave: I died with honor, your name on my lips and the city in which you live. [End Page 192]
Men, come let us oil our bodies to gleam and pour a libation out to arriving dawn; shoulder to shoulder make our circle stand that poets sing about us when we are gone.
Still Life with Turkeys
My object is to become so still they do not see me watching, as they saunter up the dirt path to peck beneath my cabin window. They expect full silence, coming out of the woods into this clearing under the undulant trees and fern, which they investigate for insects and seed. Right out of an Audubon print, all twelve are lean, polite, stately; for a moment I know why some thought this should be the national bird. They cast a strange clear otherness on the day, making their rounds, their turkey sound like a low brook bubbling over stones. One of the apostles glances up. Do I convince it, melting, as I have, into the scene? [End Page 193]
Gardner McFall is the author of two books of poetry, The Pilot’s Daughter and Russian Tortoise, as well as the librettist for the Seattle Opera’s commissioned opera Amelia (2010).