Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Midnight Walk of Eben Byers

Grand cemetery, Pittsburgh’s Allegheny
arcs up to a hilltop, where nestled
in a millionaires’ necropolis, stands one,
a perfect replica of a Doric temple,
a steel magnate’s mausoleum. Sunlit,
the dryads seem to converge upon it,
a timeless Aegean day-dream.
Moonlit, it is the uneasy prison
of what remains of Eben Byers. Its stolid doors,
which might try two men’s strength to wedge
them open to a peeping-gap, are weighted
so that a tiny push from inwards hurls
them open. The dark inside is palpable
and seems to thrust back against you.
The best advice, if you find these doors ajar
is to run like hell and do not, do not, look back.

One casket there is lined with lead, they say —
pallbearers once groaned to lift and lower it
from catafalque to hearse to wall-niche.
This one, amid the disapproving Byers all
somehow breaks loose of a Gordian knot
of iron chains and adamantine padlocks,
undoes the patient webwork of melancholic spiders,
and floats, a log on a stream of unseen plasma,
to any place its never-sleeping occupant desires.
Police reports of a roaming black casket are filed
under “Hoaxes,” “Pranks” and “Hallucinations.”

How he emerges from his lead encasement,
whether the lid creaks up on rusted hinges
or whether he oozes out from a mouse-hole
it took him long years to scratch out, no one knows.
They say he mostly walks the graveyard,
striding among the oaks and sycamores.
Nocturnal deer and ’possums flee him
as his heavy tramp cracks pavement
and the flap of his metallic shroud dulls
the night chants of frog and cicada.

His gelid eyes still water in skull sockets;
there is flesh still, though dead since 1932,
on the withered left hand, palm upward
to scan the heavens for sustenance,
for rest assured, that whatever walks,
is hungry. If you scale the fence, you might
just find him on the Butler Street downslope,
amid a cluster of erectile obelisks.
He watched from there and no one saw him
until the last mill died, until the flicker-fire
no longer red-glazed the tombed hillside.
It is said that he is slightly lumen-
escent, that a greenish glow clings
to his felt hat-tip with corpse-hair aureole,
that arcs of small lightning or St. Elmo’s Fire
emit from his bony fingertips.
He runs his good hand on every granite
marker, not reading inscriptions, no:
he feels the butterfly flow of gamma rays
from thorium, sniffs the good whiffs of radon
that please him more than he can say.

To those who have seen him, and not
died screaming, he is known as “Radium Man.”
The steel mill he inherited was less to him
than travel and a good game of golf,
which he played to champion. Let others
build opera houses if only he could outdo
the rest of the magnate class on the course.
And he did: ’06 U.S. Amateur. Until the pain,
his right arm a misery of knotted nerve-fire.
A Yale man, he trusted a Harvard man,
who, bottling the famed success of the cure,
the radium-and-water treatment of Europe,
offered him a sample of RadioThor.
The ultimate in pep and healing, its label said,
This is the cure for the living dead.

By damn, one bottle and he was good as new.
He told friends, and pretty soon the Mayor
of Pittsburgh had drunk a hundred bottles.
There was talk around the leather-chaired club
of renewed and superhuman bedroom feats.
Radiothor came in by the carload.
If one bottle was good, and a hundred
turned Milquetoast into a roaring Don Juan,
why not three bottles a day?
Are we not entitled to the most of the best?

Eben Byers drank fourteen hundred bottles
of Radiothor. In the ensuing collapse and
galloping cancers, parts of his skull gave way
and his jaw ripped free and fell to the floor.
When they darkened the room where his corpse lay
it did not stay dark — his teeth and nails
glowed greenish, and what was left of hair
waved of its own accord like tided seaweed.
His lead-lined coffin made national headlines.

Then silence. Then a decade of the sleep of death.
But radium lived on with its 1600-year half-life;
it forged a new alliance with bone, neuron, sinew, joint.
When atom bombs erupted, his eyes widened.
When Strontium 90 fallout dusted down,
his dry tongue licked his upper canines, craving.
When isotopes lit the hospital skyline, when X-rays
arc’d on and off like fireworks, he sensed, and knew
there was more of what he craved, things new
to the Periodic Table he could one day savor.
When, at a nearby research institute
a pilot breeder reactor created Plutonium,
he knew it was time to set himself in motion.

The thing that walks at midnight, down
from its Doric resting place, is not content
with holding his hand out beggar-like —
for what? Dim manna of the night sky,
massless neutrinos passing through,
the taunting wave-pulse of a magnetar,
the warm hum of cosmic rays,
and just before dawn banishes him to hiding,
the hot half-sun at horizon, a Cyclops eye
from infra red to gamma beaming.

Radium Man wants more.
His left hand clenches, unclenches
as he thinks about the possible feasts
he might have at Chernobyl, quake-
shaken Fukishima, even Three-Mile Island.
His heirs would interfere, or seek
a discreet disinterment and cremation;
the servants who did what he asked
unquestioned, are dead and buried — sad
to say, permanently dead and buried.
He is alone in this. And all he can manage
to utter now, with his truncated face,
is a kind of hunh …… hunh ….. hunh
to the owls and bats and ravens.

Once in a while, his bad arm rises,
an involuntary wave of what’s-the-use

Pray you do not see it,
if you chance to come upon him
by his Doric mausoleum
with its gaping-open doors —
the skeletal right hand
that holds aloft, as club or cudgel,
the jawbone of Eben Byers.

Death and the Maiden

after the German of Matthias Claudius The Maiden: Pass me by, oh, pass me by! Go, ...