Laura Swearingen-Steadwell


Out of town, down
along the cliffs and walls
sunken in surrounding earth,

ahead for miles, the towns, farms,
vineyards, and gentle hills of Umbria,
gold and orange, soaking up the open sun,

a switchback path led me down
between trees, where darkness pursued
its thousand shadows.

Two women took admission.
They expected no visitor
so late in the day, or the season.

Up a little hill,
red globes hung from a tree,
otherwise bare,

lanterns of a kind. No,
pomegranates, full and fresh.
The flesh of one, fallen,

gave easily. Somewhere else,
I might have taken one to eat,
but here I couldn't stomach it. 

More orbs dangled above me,
seeded hearts bright against
the mesh of greens ahead,

the mounds of grasses, weeds
and mosses that had made a life
smothering the ancient stones.

Down, and the grass brushed my knees.
Down, beneath my breasts, down, level
with my sight – then I went under.

The tombs were measured,
with wide paths between them.
Most gaped, beside the occasional

spider's web tangled in a corner.
Tons of stone leaned together
to shelter the dead.

Each small and careful cove
impressed the air in its own way,
but all had pallets meant for bones.

They look like benches in a sauna,
I thought – and I sweated a little
looking at them. What was there to fear

but the silence? But the silence.
I heard the faintest trail of cars
on the road not so far away,

and birds' eveningsong above,
but I felt silence

as I leaned my head into
the archways of tombs
and saw darkness.

In some, the structures
of barracks or bunkers lurked.
Or little windows let light in

from the opposite wall. I made out
plants, ferns curling, feathered strands
groping the stone towards earth above.

But in one doorway, looking in
was like going blind.

So I looked at everything else:
aggregate stone, calcified white.
Ice green lichen.

There I found traces of writing
chiseled into the stone. Clean.
How clean the lines.