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Tommy Sheffield

The Breath of Mountains (or, Serenade in D Major, Op. 25)

The Breath of Mountains (or, Serenade in D Major, Op. 25)

I. Safelight

The flute
sings brightly through
the darkness.

The room,
trapped in silence,
submits itself to the notes.

Bow your head.
A snake in a basket,
tethered by song alone.

The cat slinks by my feet,
trying to figure out how he
can sit on my desk while I work.

But it is impossible.
There is no easy mercy for creatures
who cannot discover meaning for themselves.

Yet the paws of discovery pad their way
along this brow nonetheless:
I feel a tingling

string of events form a slideshow
in my head: it wrings itself dry
of the notes from the flute

like red darkroom fluid,
and instead smiles across
a cavernous expanse,

for the air
to make it true.

II. Streets of New Delhi, Nosebleed

If I listen closely to the notes,
I am reminded of the wind—
spreading through the Spiti Valley,

floating over bright white rivers,
traveling south toward Delhi,
where I first saw the man with the snake.

Clotheslines, water running along
the side of the road, children too,
bikes, rickshaws, cars and trucks and buses,

the wind carrying down and yanking the shirts
and skirts on the line, flapping flags, opening
and closing shutters.

The first day
in New Delhi
I was overwhelmed,

a foreigner with no sense
of place, no mind or taste
for the food, the landscape;

even just the streets
tore into me
with noise and speed.

The rivers in Himachal Pradesh
give water to the Ganges,
to the Indus, but never to Delhi.

Why didn’t I listen to them?
I should have ignored Delhi,
gone straight to Nepal,

climbed the tallest mountain,
fallen to my death—
better that than this.

Instead I’m having a panic attack.
The sun bears down and my vision
whites out. A warm red stream dribbles

down my face, and with very little
grace I fall prostrate upon a pebbled path
beside the busy road. No one notices.

III. Aditya

I awaken to the sound of a flute.
The streets have quieted down;
somehow time was allowed to

pass without my being woken.
The stars are out. Little pinpricks
through which pour hints of morning.

The flute’s song is tenuous,
ever pressing upon the pitch.
Floating like wind over rivers,

the song coaxes the mind out from
the skull. So too does the snake
rise from the basket,

passing through a circle
of darkness into the lights
of New Delhi, and where

should she set her eyes first
but upon me? The man stops
playing his wooden flute.

He waves at me.
He smiles and nods,
beckoning me to come closer.

The snake drops back
into the basket
as if put to sleep.

“You speak English?”

“Of course I speak English.
You have blood on your face.”
“Oh—sorry,” I say, trying to wipe the dried blood.

“Don’t say sorry to me. Say it to my snake. You’ve scared her.”
“What’s your name?”
“My name is Aditya.”

I tell him my name is Milford.
He listens to me say the name,
then repeats it after me, slowly,

trying out the sounds.
Mil-ford. Milf-ord.
He seems to like it.

“Where are you staying?”
“A hotel, I suppose.”

“I don’t know. Perhaps you can recommend one.”
“Not nearby.”
“Well, where do you live, Aditya?”

“Around the corner, down the road.”
“Do you have anything to eat?”
“Of course I have food. Let’s go.”

IV. Garjana

I clean my face in a water basin.
He has a tiny mirror on the wall
halved by a diagonal crack.

I see my black hair,
my sad ragged beard.
My slowly-wrinkling face.

It’s been hard
at home.
I thought India

would make things better.
I thought anywhere else
would be better.

But no matter where
you go, you take
yourself there with you.

“Do you like rice?”
“Who doesn’t?”
“My ex-wife.”

“Oh. I see—
so you live alone?”
“Not entirely.”

Aditya’s house is small, cozy.
There’s a gas fireplace,
a television set, a computer in the back.

He introduces me to his snake, Garjana,
ironically named because she
never hisses. Aditya says he likes the quiet.

He prefers when there is just one sound.
That’s why he snake charms at night.
No one is around to see. He knows this.

He tells me that by day he is a programmer,
which is how he affords the house.
He doesn’t snake charm for attention.

He keeps Garjana, a king cobra, in a terrarium
beneath a heat lamp, always filling her water bowl,
buying her mice to eat.

“Snake charming is a dying art.
People don’t want it anymore.
They just want TV. That’s fine.

But I like it. You wouldn’t think it,
but snakes are deaf. They don’t ever
hear the song. It is like the matador’s cape.

The bull cannot see the red. The snake
only sees the movement of the pungi
in the charmer’s hands. I think

that’s beautiful, in a way.
Charmers often yank
the teeth of their snake,

sew their mouth shut. I do not do that.
Garjana is my best friend.
She is well-trained, tame.”

We eat the curry, poured orange
over the rice. Turmeric, cumin,
hints of ginger. Aditya likes his spices.

The food makes my forehead sweat.
He brings me more water.
We finish eating.

“I caught her in the wild.
It was many years after I moved
to Delhi from the Spiti Valley,

where my family is from.
My parents had died.
I needed a new land.

Though, there is no
more beautiful place
than Himachal Pradesh;

but there is nothing
there for me now. I needed a city.
Maybe you need the opposite.”

V. Lahaul-Spiti

The Spiti River, white and churning,
releases mist into the air. I walk along the water.
The valleys here speak of the land ahead: Tibet.

My guidebook says the Rohtang Pass is named
after Ro (corpse) and Thang (plain/field).
Field of corpses. Yet I feel more alive

here than I ever have before.
It is not work to walk
on one’s own, here.

The wind is chilly, brisk, but I risk
nothing with this jacket. The village
where Aditya was born lies

just a few miles south of here.
It’s sad to think that he
will never return to it.

The wind reaches down,
pressing against the valleys
and rivers and up past the villages

patterning the mountainside.
I will photograph this new world.
I will take it home with me.

VI. Virgil, the Darkroom

My cat looks up at me.
“What is it, Virgil?”
He wants some food.

“I don’t have any here.
You’ll have to wait until
I’m done.”

I hang the last
dripping photo to dry.
It is of Aditya, standing

in his kitchen, holding
Garjana. Aditya has
a weathered face,

gray whiskers along his jaw,
eyes that can spot a liar.
But his smile, warm,

seems to disagree
with all his other features.
The snake is in a coil

on his arm, staring
at the camera,
and though the picture

is black-and-white,
the red safelight brings
the snake’s eyes to life.

Beethoven’s Serenade ends,
and the darkroom is consumed
by silence.

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Tommy Sheffield was born in 1991, in Fairfax, Virginia. He is a graduate of James Madison University, where he studied poetry under Laurie Kutchins. He currently resides in Fairfax, Virginia, where he is studying poetry in George Mason University's MFA program and works as the Poetry Editor for Stillhouse Press.

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