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A Circle in Five Strands
by Amal El-Mohtar
I do not apply my sword where my lash suffices, nor my lash where my tongue is enough. And even if there be one hair binding me to my fellow men, I do not let it break. When they pull, I loosen, and if they loosen, I pull. — Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan, First Caliph of the Umayyad dynasty
I know a story about a man
who kept between himself
and all the world
a single hair.
The man, the world,
the unbroken hair—
(says the story)
is wisdom: to know
when to resist,
when to desist.
It takes so little—
only the breaking of a single hair—
to lose a world.
We braided the distance between us
in locks of hair: yours, clean snippings
spining into a card's crease—mine
a jumbled tangle sifted through my fingers,
smoothed and knotted to itself.
I trust you, a joke,
not to make magic at me.
(Later, the sippings from holy wells,
the shared cup and fumbling for words
solemn enough for ritual.)
Parceled into post, these pieces of us,
ambassadors flown to fold the miles
over and under like lacing hands,
like rope, like a bridge—
plaiting pledges into substance
our words could walk.
We walked toward each other.
We crossed our stars with our hair,
bound them in their difference:
mine thick and dark and curling,
yours straight and fine and fair.
We revelled in our opposites,
played middles from our ends.
We were Justice and Temperance taking tea,
sword and scales and ceremony.
We swapped night and day like playing cards,
drew selves from our sleeves to suit our moods:
presently Night is a round blonde moon,
shining-shy and warm white-gold, while Day
is a brown afternoon, river-warbling at falling leaves. Later,
Night will be stars and a sharping crescent,
while Day will be languid-bright, shushing foam,
salt-white against the sand.
Here is what I know.
We trailed our hair through hawthorn blossoms,
over rocks and under roots. We chose
feathers, flowers, twisting branches,
silk and wood and copper wire,
to decorate each other, queen ourselves
with crowns of grass and ivy.
We wore our braids and bridges smooth.
Was it, then, the ease of walking,
the softening and seamlessness,
that vanished you? I saw the fray,
our ends splitting away
into chaff and straw, and spoke my fear—
and you saw,
and you shrugged,
and said nothing.
There is left, between your heart and mine,
something very like a single hair,
aching in the meat of me.
I feel no pull. I fear to pull.
I fear to break, or find it broken,
and your face turned from the mending.
I fear an ending.
I would change this story out,
comb through other tangletales
for different counsel
(Janet saying hold on tight,
Lizzie saying shut your mouth)
on how to bring you back to me—
and with you, all the miracle of you,
goblins and spindles, cities and sunsets,
I heard and you heard,
holy wells and gleesome squares
and all the magic we made—
but all that remains of you
is this hair in my heart,
and an itch
that whispers I would heal
if I would only pluck it out.
Amal El-Mohtar is an Ottawa-born Lebanese-Canadian, currently pursuing a PhD in the UK. She has been nominated for the Nebula award, and is a two-time winner of the Rhysling Award for Best Short Poem. She is the author of The Honey Month, a collection of poetry and prose written to the taste of twenty-eight different kinds of honey; her poems have also appeared in multiple venues online and in print, including Stone Telling, Mythic Delirium, Apex, and Strange Horizons. She also edits Goblin Fruit, an online quarterly dedicated to fantastical poetry. You can find her online at amalelmohtar.com, as well as on Livejournal and Twitter as Tithenai.
Photography: adapted from …The hair Chronicles… by Doralis Mesa.