Father sold the horses,
grumbling, Fewer bellies to fill.
Their lives for ours, you know.
We were openmouthed screeching
baby birds, all appetite and sound,
and we knew we had to amount
to something, to make it worth
the swap. We soon learned
our life’s lesson, that something
is always being swapped
for something else, bartered
or exchanged: a slingshot
for a sack of jacks, a kingdom
for a horse, a hand
on your leg under the table
for a vow, the means for the end.
Our father loved a deal.
What will you give me for that,
he’d ask, a light in his menacing
eye, how much you want it, what
you got to offer? No matter how few
marbles you’d saved in your small
cache, he’d try to trade, all the time
teaching you that nothing has value
unless another wants it, that desire
is all, the endless swap, getting
the goods, stacking them up,
pulling one out from time to time
to dust it off, admire it again,
or not. Maybe time to trade.
It’s the art of the deal, Esau’s
bargain, the mess of pottage.
But Father wouldn’t learn that.
Over the years, he gave his life
for smokes and drink, the blustery
bid, the tasteless joke, the chance
to be the big man in a small place,
betraying his schooling, his prayers,
and his prosperous children, who dared
not hold out their empty hands to him,
dared not entreat that bankrupt heart.