RICHARD VANWAGNER

LETZTES EINS - LAST ONE
In 1734 small bands of impoverished serfs, in what is now the capital of the Czech Republic, gathered with a growing voice of dissent. The landowning aristocracy, fearing a larger rebellion, hired a group of German mercenaries who were supposed to quietly intimidate those who dared to question their position and authority. They did much more. This is Damek Lomsky’s story; it took place on the Charles Bridge which spans the Vltava River on the outskirts of Prague. The ancient stone arches still stand, having withstood countless wars and the natural wrath of floods for over four centuries. Adorned with the vestiges of numerous saints, people to this day visit and pay homage by placing warm hands upon the worn effigies of cold stone from an age long past.

Our din of grumbling discontent,
wind whipped torches and leather shod
steps was squelched by the echoing fire
of German flintlocks against damp stone.
In the front, I am first to stumble
and embrace the sudden stillness,
my jaw hitting with an inside crack.

Moving back from darkness, my tongue
pushes a thready tooth to swollen lips.
I blink in the misted light,
realizing they have already passed me by
as shots cease, crippling the night
with the cold quiet of strangled chaos.

Below, I hear the wind bend
between bridge and water
as those fallen for the last time groan,
freeing final breaths,
their wisps of will fading into empty air.

Above, framed by a single crusted brow,
a billowless fragment of Aquinas stares down
blindly aware. His stony eyes witness
a lattice of stained mortar joints
slowly woven into a burgundy net
of maimed and lifeless men.

Lethargic lungs seep short breaths
while I listen to unknown words,
ones that would make you spit and wipe
your chin with the back of your hand
if you uttered them.

I try pushing myself over, but
the left arm and hand with which I learned
to sling a scythe cannot compete
with the shattered shoulder and torn knee
buried in the icy burn of my gut.

Over my gasps I hear a laborious grunt,
a momentary silence, a loud wet pop
like an oversized pig liver slapped
against a butcher’s slab.

By the time I hear the third, I mouth, My God
they’re throwing us into the river.
There were seventeen tonight,
but a gutter can’t count,
it only gathers and pools until rain
washes its recollections clean.
It’s raining now - but I can count.

By the seventh, my struggle to rise turns
inward as the dark edges
of consciousness collapse;
I wince, reopening my eyes,
but memories betray the present,
tracing odd filaments of forgotten thought.

Like how the colored leaves of autumn cling
relentlessly, only to fall in a single
storm as the world turns grey overnight -
I think this is my storm.

Then the remembrance of a dark bruise
on my only daughter Anna’s thigh, how she fell
from Otik Mlynar’s wagon and tried not
to cry by pressing her face into my shoulder -
I cry for her.

Eight and nine pop and sink with visions
of winter wheat planted for spring stores,
and how the awkward green sprigs sticking up
out of an early snow taste sweet -
I bet I’m smiling.

By fifteen, the glinting sweat
and burst blood vessels of my wife’s face
glow in the proud birth of my son Jakub
two scant harvests ago.
They’ll remember - they’ll count.

Stumbling over my feet with sixteen,
they cast another up and over
into the freezing Vltava’s current below.
Callously, hands turn me, checking my pockets;
I laugh inside, wondering what they expect
to find; they tug off my boots.

I want more than anything to curse
them but the unspoken words melt
as Aquinas’ worn gaze catches my eye.
I hear “Letztes eins”
followed by a combined grunt,
I know it means I’m the last one -
I’m not.