FLASH FICTION CONTEST
THE LAST POET
by Jacob Cockcroft
Ink supplies had dwindled until society could no longer afford the profligate spilling of centuries past, so authorities reluctantly declared illegal all extraneous usage. High treason it was to spill ink into words that did not administrate or advertise. Yet authors continued to spill, and that’s where dutiful citizens like me make an honest wage. I hunted poets, until I tracked the last one down to a dusty town at the edge of the world where plants don’t flower, waters dare not flow, and it ain’t worth the ink to draw it on a map.
I found her supping at a lone cantina and slid into the seat across from her. She startled. Nowadays lawful folks keep their sentences short and their sentiments shorter, so I can spot a poet simply by looking in their eyes. Hers were vibrant crucibles of rage and desire, scalding with a fierce intelligence. She looked me over until understanding swept like a shadow across that porcelain skin cast over high cheekbones and a hardened jaw.
I withdrew a folded paper from my breast pocket and slid it with two gloved fingers across sticky, warped planks. She opened it delicately and scanned the lines, not because she didn’t know them by heart but because, like an aged whiskey, the familiar burn brings an intimate and pleasurable pain.
“I discovered this,” I said, “under some loose floorboards in your room, alongside a litany of sonnets, odes, and free verse.” Then I leaned back and ceremoniously produced the revolver I planted on the table between us. When it struck the wood with a thud the patrons turned their heads and began swiftly departing the premises. A sudden flurry of movement from all the lowlifes save the one I had actually come for. She remained as still as sculpture. “If you want to avoid a public burning, consider going for this alternative. It’s more expeditious.” She contemplated the weapon, which despite meticulous cleaning still betrayed age and heavy use, the cherry wood of the grip dulled, the blued steel tarnished.
“How considerate of you,” she said at last. “Most in your position wouldn’t offer such compassion.” Her tone was even and cool; I could not tell if she was indulging in irony, something poets enjoy. “Forgive me,” she continued, “but I anticipated someone less knowledgeable of sonnets and odes. And your vocabulary is so eloquent, considering your vocation. Expeditious. Litany. How are you so well-versed?”
“A hunter knows the difference between a fox and a wolf, madam. That doesn’t make him a wild creature also.”
“But I’m curious why you chose this particular one,” she said. She still held the poem between her elegant fingers and occasionally she glanced to it before calmly returning my stare. “Have you heard it before? Do you know what it means?”
“It made no sense upon my reading,” I admitted.
“It’s called a nursery rhyme. I copied this down from memory. Does it sound familiar?” I hesitated. She paused to cast her gaze over the words again. “Does it remind you of someone? It always reminds me of my son.” She glanced over to the wall beside us, where memories appeared to play invisible over the cracked adobe. “He was so small. How could a thing so fragile teach me more than anything else, in the brief time I was blessed to hold him?” We were both silent for a long time in the empty bar. Starving crepuscular things whirred in the creeping dusk outside.
“It does remind me of someone,” I said finally. “The woman who birthed me.”
“I was orphaned when she was caught. So I don’t think you can call someone ‘mother’ who chooses words on a page over flesh and blood.”
“You’re wrong. She didn’t choose poems over you, but because of you.” She folded the paper carefully back along its proscribed creases before offering it back to me. “I want you to keep this one.” I flinched back from it.
“It has to burn with the rest.”
“I didn’t write the law, but I uphold it. Where would we be, otherwise?”
“In a world where you and I might read to each other,” she answered. “I see the poetry inside you. I’m guessing a part of you wants to find someone one day who can reach for that gun faster than you.”
“Maybe that will be you.”
“Maybe,” she said, but her hand nearest the pistol held the folded paper, and instead of dropping it she lunged with her fatally further hand, so that she still clutched the poem as she died.
When I returned to my room afterward, the innkeeper had taken the liberty of drawing a bath for me. The stench of gunsmoke would not abate and there was a ringing in my ears that dulled the outer world. I stripped off the faded uniform, yanking off my army boots and casting them clattering to the floor. I slid into the wooden tub with a long, deep exhalation. After a time the water had cooled. I glanced back to the door. There were no sounds from the hallway without. I gingerly unfolded the poem. I read it silently, mouthing the words. Then I spoke them, loud as I dared.
A sash billowed softly on a gentle breeze by the window cracked ajar. My voice slipped out under the lifted pane and gyred weightless in the abandoned night, a slight and primal dragonfly fleeting free into black and fathomless skies. I saw a mother and her child, snuggled close in a darkened room, where moonlit motes of dust winked translucent and fairylike. The child’s face was unabashed, his eyelids luminous and drooping, mouth open. The rhymes she whispered as she caressed his tender hair guided him gently into dreams: the tale of a man who was an egg, but who shattered, and by no power of man or beast could he be pieced back together.
Jacob Cockcroft is a speech-language pathologist who previously worked in the independent bookselling industry for over 15 years. He received a master’s degree in communication disorders from the University of Arkansas for medical sciences, and avidly pursues interests in etymology, historical linguistics, and constructed languages. This is his first published work of fiction. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.