White Whale Review: An Online Literary Magazine Untitled Document
WHITE WHALE REVIEW
William Kelley Woolfitt
William Kelley Woolfitt teaches creative writing and literature at Lee University. His poetry collection, The Salvager's Arts, was co-winner of the 2011 Keystone Chapbook Prize. His fiction has appeared online in Fiction Southeast, The Literary Bohemian, Precipitate, Joyland, and Pebble Lake Review, and his poetry has appeared in Drafthorse, Cerise Press, Qarrtsiluni, and Thrush Poetry Journal,
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William Kelley Woolfitt

The House of Bones

1873: Nancy, France

 

Grandfather fills in as my father. I live with him and his collections in a granite house, its rooms displaying animal skulls, femurs, jawbones, and clavicles, and a repository of Roman coins, and pinned beetles, and leather-bound books that crumble if touched.

His brood of friends–officers, priests, scholars, rock fanciers –clomp from room to room, hoot and wheeze. Carp-eyes ogle. Yellow teeth flash.

Grandfather takes me to the shale bluffs where we dig for fossils in a moraine.

Home again, cleaning up, the spade’s handle stings my hand. I squeal and thrash; he begs me to hold still, joins needle to lit match, and eases the slivered wood from my smarting thumb.

His face pales, trembles, as it does the rare times he speaks of mother. I try a little test: sob, sniffle, embellish. He gives me bed rest, mulled wine, supper on a tray.

For years after that, I can get a new book, good meat, candy, anything I please.

Then grandfather turns on me, decides I will attend the Polytechnic School and join the army, so that I may kill the Prussians who drove us from Strasbourg.

He says that I have mother’s face, that I should sprout a moustache to conceal my womanly mouth.


William Kelley Woolfitt

To Map the Land of God

1883: Morocco

 

I straighten my robes, gowns, and yarmulke. I grease and coarsen my sideburns. In the name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful, I rehearse the faltering Arabic of my alibi: I am Youssef Aleman, a rabbi born in Russia, fleeing from pogroms there.

Mardochée tugs my elbow, implores me to let him speak, stares at his feet. He’s a genuine rabbi, bloodshot, bedraggled, and snuff-stained, the only guide my paltry funds can buy. He says, forget your mapmaking dreams, or we’ll both die.

With every spare thought, I savor North Africa: its plump grapes and endless sand, my rambles in the Algerian foothills that jumble against the sea, the rapture-blue skies. Life as a soldier there only starved me of adventure, chances for death. The Koran and now the Torah fill my mouth; my teeth trip over new verbs.

Mardochée says to me, why chance my life for your rude wage? He says, snakes, fleas.

I read: all good deeds and acts of worship are for God. What sort of deed? My claim that we travel hither and thither, poor, but confiding in divine providence?

Mardochée says, it’s not too late to change our plans and flee the caravan, or else, like fools, let us ride south from Tangiers on these sickly mules.

He says, scorching days ahead; we may die a thousand ways, following our map of wild guesses and blanks.

But I cannot resist a land forbidden, unknown, where all Frenchmen are considered spies and put to death, where faith is displayed by the virile devotion and surrender of the Muslim


William Kelley Woolfitt

man. Rug weaver, silversmith, grower of figs, or olives, or cork; servant, or slave—no matter his rank, he stops all motion to fall on the ground when the muezzin calls.

Mardochée says, bandits, maggoty food, but like a Muslim I beseech, peace be upon us, bestow favor, show the straight path.

The Rif Mountains crowd my dreams; their jagged teeth rake the sky. I must juggle two fruits, never drop or bruise them—Arabic my muskmelon, Berber my pomegranate. Villagers call us monkeys, sling sharp stones at us, and spit, and curses. I hide my notes in my sleeves.

Mardochée says, reconsider; we must turn back.

I say, not without finishing the map.


William Kelley Woolfitt

Confessions of an Illuminator

1898: Nazareth

 

Mother Élisabeth almost speaks, swallows, waits for the right words. She clutches an envelope that I recognize.

Varnished grill between us, rhombuses of shadow and light waver over the thin paper of my envelope, her furrowed cheeks and tulip bulb nose.

“I find that I must remark,” she says.

I brace myself to admit: yes, I am a faulty gardener, thistles overrun the melons, and I have failed to shoot the jackal that murders their hens. And yes, I do produce too much mail, pounds a year; I squander ink, devour paper scraps by the ream, and my stamps outnumber the grasshoppers in a plague—an extravagance that dear cousin Marthe funds.

The superior mentions not one of these charges. She points to the iris I embellished on the flap, asks if I know how to draw, and if I will fill her plain church with scenes to inspire her nuns when they pray: saints blooming from morning glory vines, the stations of the cross.

The sister portress brings me boards, brushes, tubes of topaz-blue and cerulean, Indian yellow and aquamarine, flame-red.

I have not painted for nine years. The first paint-drop I squeeze out quivers and gleams like a tiny let-there-be.


William Kelley Woolfitt

Dust and Oil

1901: Cathédrale Saint-Vincent, Viviers, France

 

Like a spruce in a lightning storm, the bishop crackles before me. He charges me with the volts of his hands clamped on my head, the singe of peace he kisses to my brow.

As the censer's flames give off a smoky hiss, the floor tilts like the deck of a ship. I hide my face, sprawl at the bishop's feet, dizzied by the litany of saints.

May I discard the hermit's private joys: living as dust that drifts into corners, cracks, ditches, and ruts; giving hours to the delicious adoration of God.

I wear the vestments that Marthe tailored for me: linen white as lamb's fleece; her miniscule stitches; the cross, circlet of gold thread, and crimson heart she embroidered over my breast.

May I take the sacraments to the heart of the Sahara, the uttermost, where priests are rare; may I offer fraternal love to the soldiers of France, and prepare a feast for peasants, nomads, and slaves.

The bishop consecrates my hands with chrism oil. Which is the toucher, which the touched? All mixed up, our four hands gleam, drip, and ooze, like the boy's sardines commandeered for the multitudes.

 

 

 

 

Copyright© William Kelley Woolfitt. White Whale Review, issue 4.2


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