Size / / /

Every year, there are people—not many,

but some—who send me charcoal rubbings,

etchings, transcriptions from old tombs

and ask me what they mean.

Some, I can translate; we reached

the language in time, or the phrase survives

idiomatically on other tongues,

or guesswork is enough to patch

the ragged edges of what we know.

But every year, there are some I cannot find,

some I cannot save.

Why do I hate it so much, writing

these letters, these terse apologies for failing

to satisfy a stranger's curiosity? That's all

it is; these tombs do not belong to

parents, old lovers, or even more distant relations.

Most have stood silent for centuries.

Yet there are people who care enough

to ask what they said, and I must admit

guilty ignorance.

When I was a very small girl,

I found a broken chickadee beneath

the oak that held its nest. I took it in,

washed it and fed it rice and built it

a nest of soft rags, but it lived only

one night. I cried hard at its death,

as long and hard as I would cry for my mother's

decades later. I think of that sometimes

while writing these letters: the awful risk

of caring for strangers.

We cannot save all of them.

Even the ones that survive have been

broken, lamed, their limbs amputated,

their features mangled past recognition.

Inevitably, some pieces are lost. Words

slip through the cracks, nuances are buried

in pauper's graves.

On the red moon of Tzevet'an,

a thief told me of the fourteen words

men cannot say to women,

but there were no other men

in the ice-bound prison where he died.

The words are lost, unguessable.

The last speaker of the Kao-Kling tongue

was a little girl, four years old, who knew

little more than the names of fruits

and the disease that killed her family.

Her mother had been a flower arranger

to the Lord of Fenkanpao; again and again

the child told me of a flower

as wide as her mother's hand, the blue of fresh milk

that had the most beautiful name.

She could not remember what it was, and

fever carried her off before

she could show me where it grew.

These are the mysteries

we know about. There are times

my frustration is so great,

my anger at time's merciless entropy

is so strong, that I give voice

to the most punishing thoughts.

How much is buried in the conquered lands,

not only of answers

but of the questions themselves?

How much more plentiful

are the dead without ghosts?

And yet I am trying.

Without funds, without time, sometimes

without love—but I am trying.

If not to save all of them, at least

to leave a marker above the graves.

Megan Arkenberg is a student in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she has been writing for a little over five years. Her work has appeared in or been accepted for issues of Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Fantasy Magazine, and many others. She edits the online magazines Mirror Dance and Lacuna. To contact her, send her email at For more about her and her work, see her website.
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28 Nov 2022

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