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The Pilot in WinterTobias Hill
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Vol. 19 No. 22 · 13 November 1997
Poem

The Pilot in Winter

Tobias Hill

700 words

In a remote coastal town to the south-west of Corinth is the grave-site of Norman MacKay. In accordance with Greek Christian Orthodoxy, his bones have been dug up, washed with wine and laid in a box the length of his thigh-bone. The townspeople believe MacKay dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima from the B29 ‘Enola Gay’ on the morning of 6 August 1945. There is no record of a Norman MacKay on the flight-crew log for that mission. The population of the coastal town in winter is 300.

I

Salt fruit on a white plate.
Yorgos the waiter takes and eats
handfuls of green olives. Spits out
the stones. Outside is the noon sun
and all the young waitresses.
He watches as they hang
octopus on coathangers;

stretched-out stars, and pink
as knickers on a washing-line
and at the crusted ventilation slit
Yorgos smiles at the thought
with his eyes. It is clear weather
today, and the coast road
shimmers with its smell
of hot tar and last winter’s rain

and in a while the melon man
will drive in past the old town,
on the new road,
with his cargo of green skin.

So Yorgos waits for him
and while he waits he cleans his hands,
washes his forearms knuckle-white.

Opens the window. Leans out,
looking uphill to the old town
where the pilot is, and the blood relations
in good boxes, washed in wine.

His hands smell of their bone.
He dries the skin and nails. Goes back out
into the hot light,
feeling for coins in his pocket,
shouting a price to the melon man.

II

I walk to the hills where the old town is,
and the old church with its twelve framed
Elijahs. Wheels and chariots of fire
leaved with bright tin and sweet dust.

Outside is the industry of bees
and the clink of goats. Hills away.
Sound carries easily up here

in the summer, when there is no rain
and the bone-shed door
natters when the bolt is drawn
from the outside, and I go in.

This is a dry place to come,
but cool. The air soured by wine
and the ground darkened with oil
around the doorway’s light.

Here are the town’s blood relatives,
who have all met,
who can be singled out
by snapshots on boxwood,
and the measurements of thigh-bone;
great-grandparents stacked up like olive crates.

The pilot’s bones are stained with earth
to the colour of earth, and the skull
is turned back into the plough
of leg and rib. No lock, only
the shift of little bones
in the box as the lid is shut.

MAKI NOPMAN in chalky script.
Here there is nothing else, except
box, name and bones, and the sound
of trees shambling in the wind
from here to Corinth. Lines of high ground

silver and black with saltless fruit
over dead towns and city-states
and bloody stories, and blood guilts.

I bolt the door shut. A truck groans
down on the coastal road,
changing gears, miles away.
Overhead, fighter planes
catch the light, turning inland.

III

Under the tin roof he listens
to the seven months of winter rain.

His head hurts with listening
in the dark of his room
which is white in summer
but blue in winter
with damp and shadow

and because the rain
has fallen for so long
he can smell nothing,

as if the hills with their dust,
goat-shit and balsam
and the rock-shore with its rind of salt

have gone. As if he is gouged out.
He dreams of drowning
with eyes open
under the white cages of rain.

6 a.m. By the coastal road,
the pilot stands outside the bars
and under the clock-drip of trees,
telling his stories. The bomb

warm in the south-sea island sun.
Light on the city of canals,
Hiroshima, and the bomb-cloud
rising behind them like a blackout –

all of his bloody secrets
and his bloody lies. It does him good,
the talk. He puts his head back to taste
rain through the tamarisks,

sour and clean. The petrol station
is open, and the workers’ bar.
The rest is shut. He wipes his mouth
feeling for words, and goes inside.

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