Poem: The Historian

History repeats itself, history unmakes itself.
Seething masses struggle and swelter and starve.
The boy flees floods, one mote among billions.
But gradually, year by year,
Turbulent skies grow gentle,
Seas subside.
Burnt brown lands grow green.
There is food, there is air, there is breathing room.
The nights are cool.

Saved but sorrowing,
He begins to taste true doom.
He haunts museums.

The young man leans on a rail, surveying mammoth bones.
“I will see you someday,” he tells the whorled tusks.
“I will meet you, Matriarch.”
He will not look over his shoulder at thunder lizards.

Vistas and frontiers open.
Cities drain away.
One day he stands weeping at a glacier’s toe
Snow falling on his cheeks.
He kneels and kisses the ice.

He hurries now, hurtling forward.
He scours the web of words,
Learning, studying, preparing,
Committing lore to memory.
Where the world will have been,
He recites it all.

His clew of thread
In the labyrinth of legend
Is a glacier of knowledge
He cannot take with him
When it melts away.

In a darkened cinema he gazes upward
Rubbing the stubble on his cheeks
Repelled and drawn to some playacting hero
A sword, a stone, a saga
Woven and rewoven a billion times
In humanity’s dreams.
“I will see you someday,” he tells the warrior,
“I will meet you, O King.”
He wonders how far beneath the legends
The worth of that man will be.

Wars rage around him.
At first, he flees them as he fled tides,
But this, too, is knowledge,
So he masters savagery
Rushing against refugees of time
Running the other way.
Cradling a body on a sodden battlefield
He spies his reflection in a blood-pool,
Glimpses first streaks of gray.

The modern world disintegrates
However he clutches the days.
The glowing streets,
Skyships and landships,
The web of knowledge
Shrink and melt away.
Conveniences, inconveniences,
Cars and medicine and machines,
All vanish into the fairy-hills of fancy
Until the pace of unravelling progress
Grows dizzying, terrifying.

He stays up nights, talking to streetlights
Until they transform into gaslamps
And wink out, one by one.

He travels on foot in empty valleys
Once paved with wall to wall cities.
He rides among people
Who have not yet learned to fly.
They are forgetting, faster and faster,
Everything they knew,
Everything they built.

He begins to tour the world’s great monuments
To see them all before they melt to stone.
“I will remember you,” he tells towers,
“I will remember you,” he vows to domes.

The stories change.
The stories remain the same.
Battlefields become intimate affairs.
Disease kills millions, then thousands,
As people dwindle and the world widens.
The city-shorn landscape is vast:
Forests and fields, flora and fauna,
Four seasons like clockwork
In a land where clocks are stones.

His beard is white, his face lined
With wisdom and fear.
He squares his shoulders
For a meeting he’s dreaded
For three thousand years.
No lord could live up to legends
That flow forward to meet his feet.

And yet he is not ready
For the love and gentle reproach
In the eyes of a dying stranger
A kingly figure, broken on a battlefield,
Who greets him with a kiss
And forgives his tardy return.

Merlin sees his doom and flees it,
Hides in a cave in shame.

At last, a girl comes to find him,
Surprises him, gives playful thanks for
Gifts not yet given.
Bemused by time’s paradox,
He promises to tutor her,
Takes her hand, steps out into the sun.
Her aptitude is astounding.
At first, there is nothing he can teach her.
Little by little, there’s more.

His steps turn at last to legend.
In a fort whose gates yield to him
He passes unhindered by swords.
He takes his place at the king’s side,
As if he has always been there
(He has always been there).

The warrior is only a man,
A provincial soldier, no great hero,
Clutching desperately at vanished days.
Once, this land held cities and roads.
Once, civilization flourished here,
Learning, lore, books, machines,
Rome’s rigid, imperfect imperialism
Now falling to ruin,
Now shrinking like melting glaciers.

“I will not see tomorrow,” Arthur tells him,
“But I would preserve yesterday.”
Merlin loves him then.
He embraces every instant,
His Camelot,
The idylls of his old age.
He watches the man become a boy,
Weeps when he, too, melts away.

Merlin is old, his bones chilled.
He stands on towering white cliffs
Watching an angry deluge.
He thinks he will cast himself in.
But he has one promise to keep.

So he leans on a stick and watches
The surging seas roll back,
Green fields unfurl before his feet
Where armadas once foundered.

Slow-footed, childlike,
He picks his way down to the high green grasses,
Towards distant, shambling shapes on the horizon.
Tears track his cheeks as he gazes upward
Into wise old eyes and a whorl of mammoth tusks.
He reaches out and brushes her long, red hair.
“I have come back,” he says.
The Matriarch leans against him,
And the man lays down to sleep.

He need not fear thunder lizards any longer.
His old age has iced over.
Glaciers grind his bones to dust.

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