They had no idea what we were capable of.
With dollar store matches and a bloody nose,
we could strike on any surface.
A mailbox ignited:
Window envelopes melt and
junk mail shrivels like peace cranes.
Amidst pungent lime green flickers
our beanstalk bodies twist and rock,
awkward chalk outlines
too stiff to dance.
Lost boys wandering between railroad tracks and cul-de-sacs.
A twisted ankle, sunburn on a new tattoo and a torn pocket sliding under the fence.
Worthy collateral to make it back to the spot:
A convergence of abandoned aqueducts, drain pipes for driftwood,
empty spray cans scattered like seashells.
In our oasis, roaches crunch beneath sneakers
and mice stumble across cardboard, woozy from spilt malt liquor.
We pile up mattresses and spend the afternoon seeing who can cannonball
off the highest stack of milk crates.
As evening nears, we check our PVC pipe palm tree
to see if the big raven found the French fries we stuffed inside.
Then, with bruised shoulders and proud chests, the four of us head back towards land,
pausing at shuttered storefronts to taunt the mannequins
stripped of their overcoats and long since forgotten.
Our invincible laughter echoes through the shortcut alleys we tagged while
ditching 7th period last year.
Faking like we lost our day passes, we tried to jump the crosstown bus, but
this driver already knew our faces.
We suck it up and roll out on foot,
with or without street lamps— this is youth electric.
Neon veins from vapor cigarettes.
Slouching home, the September sun rises.
A decade away,
whippoorwills line the rotting branches of a dogwood.
Their cries echo off the hillside that would eventually claim us all:
Carlos, on his yellow Honda,
Kendrick, in a set-up,
Me, in line getting quarters at the laundromat,
Jaimey, in front of his girl.
From tricycles to the uptown train,
Brother Death remained patient. All those years,
like Spanish moss, barely a shadow on our paths.
We had no idea what He was capable of.
When we fell, He removed our hats,
folded our bandanas, wiped the dirt from our shoes,
sat sentinel in the red clover littered at our feet.
Autumn and Winter passed this way,
a ring of skeletons shining beneath a cloudless sky,
bony hands gently folded across empty chests.
In time, old willow leaves and last year’s snowpack became rich soil,
and Spring promised new life.
We woke to the hum of blind bees,
feeling for pollen in the hollow holes
where our eyes once searched.
Hugging the spirals of our sun-bleached ribs,
the energy sparked our ghost heartbeats
and gave us reason to hope for Summer,
that fireflies could fill the space between our teeth,
illuminate our mouths and give us voice.
But seasons and tragedies fade,
and eventually the world forgot our names.
The headlines once sparked by our faces
now faded into obscurity,
an afterlife anonymous.
No motive, no witnesses, no expectations, no hope.
Only then did Brother Death wake us up
and show us how to dance,
With no fear of the Fall.
All the Heat I Have
Both legs cupping my ears,
your thighs press close, echoing like conch shells
until your navel is a glacier out of focus.
Through the steam,
my tongue stirs deeper
as my hands panic, search for ballast, settle on your hip bones.
Oar locks to steady me, as the waves grow stronger,
My eyelids flitter, your softest hairs part.
In this moment,
you could break me.
Your fingernails, sandpipers
scratching the width of my shoulders,
heels grinding seashell swirls into my lower back.
Thrusting your chin towards the rafters,
tempting a lightning bolt, daring it
to aim for the small space between your top teeth
and strike with light, in a feathered stroke.
Your heaving chest hurls challenges into the wild of the night:
Break open the sweat beads draped across my collarbone
Make the pearled freckles shine brighter than
a necklace of fireflies in tonight’s air.
Distracted, I mumble:
It’s too late in the season for firefl—
The universe has again let you down.
Pulling the covers like a hermit crab, swiftly
you turn to face the wall.
The tears well up and cover you,
a dolphin fighting rip currents.
You want so badly to believe in the best of me—
that if given the chance, I will choose greatness.
On the eve of a storm, dash down the beach,
summon the avocet colonies from their muddy nests and together rush out to save the little turtles,
flailing creatures, too young to dream beyond the soft egg shells littering their sandbar.
But my dear, I can never love the ocean.
I was born here:
washed out roads,
afternoon rain and heat lightning.
Every autumn, we repair split rail fences using salvaged nails from the gully where people dump their trash.
With quick strikes on a rock, we give the steel a new life.
Every winter, forage for cattails and burdock when the creek lets up.
Every spring, leaves return to trees and buds emerge like slumbering bear cubs from the tips of branches.
Every year my town remains nameless on their maps,
a mere dot that the county road runs through.
History laid bare, the chill between us builds,
salt crystallizes on your cheeks.
My words tepid, neither apology nor explanation.
Like leaves two weeks out from the snow,
your dreams could emerge, brave seedlings,
or smother in detritus, kernels rotted.
You tremble slightly and
I breathe into you all the heat I have,
for blanket weather will soon be upon us.
I can’t bear thoughts of you hiding from the light,
sending your hopes away like geese until next June.
Braid goldenrods in your hair,
Fill your satchel with bread and apples,
A jar of spring water and a charcoal pencil.
Drink when thirsty and sleep when weary—sweetness lingering in your throat.
If you come to a cliff,
If you see a lighthouse,
If you open the walnut doors,
If you climb the rusting stairs towards the old lantern room,
If your faith in me has made it that far,
Draw a map on a bread crust and trust it to the wind.
Another sallow moon wanes.
My watery eyes scan the twilight,
begging for an osprey to alight,
talons clutching the path back to your love.
Eventually I fall to my knees, trembling,
arms stretched out like a starfish,
dreaming of the sea and my lips on your skin.
Saleem Hue Penny wrote much of his debut chapbook between 2 and 4am, awake with his twins soon after they were born. He runs community partnerships at the Chicago Children’s Museum and volunteers as a hospital magician at Comer Children’s Hospital; Saleem is a man who understands the importance of protecting childhood in all its wonder and seriousness. “I want to write poems about young people navigating wild spaces,” he says. Learn more about The Attic, the Basement, the Barn, including its audio component, at hueart.org