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Marvin Shackelford

What Songs Remain

For generations we pack ourselves delicately into earth and concrete like the tiny porcelain heirlooms of our parents, grandparents. We forget the sky, forswear the sea, pass messages one safehold to the next by tiny radios that fight and pummel the acrid air. We come of age knowing voices split by static, dry, wavering. Our songs lie flat and hopeless, our call signs too honest: Deep Wait. Far Furrow. Lost Fox. We ask each other, over and over, What’s left? We begin consulting maps, inventorying supplies. We load oxygen tanks and cart them on wheels. Our masks fit tautly, promise a few hours’ security. We’ll get there and back. We wrap ourselves in leaded cloth and ancient suits and gowns from our fathers’ and mothers’ happier days. By nuclear clock we time the opening of our portals for first light. The sun breaks over us, and that should be enough, a start. The earth is cold and silent and surprisingly green. By compass and crudely recalled landmarks we guide toward the red-inked center of our desires: an open field ringed by broken buildings, heart of a college where they say people just like us used to come to learn to live. We emerge, breathless, from all directions and pick our spots. Gently we touch one another’s ears, sneak fingers inside our sleeves, marvel at new skin. Our names are free, so nearly loose and on the verge of open air. We string our guitars and harps and assemble our drums, think a moment of woodwinds and brasses still lost, and sit cross-legged in a circle. We pass our eyes and smiles from behind glass faces so easily, and after a moment of care and apprehension our music shakes the day awake. It roars and streams and disappears into distance, no walls to curl around to return and haunt us, no waves to cross, and before long we find our melody. We laugh and weep, play too quickly, too slowly, too loudly. We play as long as we can. For a while we are beautiful, there is plenty of world still around us, and we’re certain time won’t leach our perfect, simple hopes and dreams.

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