Wednesday, February 15, 2017

"Stay" by Mary Soon Lee, Frequent Contributor

Mary Soon Lee

In the twelfth year
of King Xau's reign,
on a windswept spring morning,
the palace gardens littered
with peach blossom,
Queen Shazia went into labor
with their fifth child.

A day, a night, a day.
On the second night,
waiting in the hallway,
Xau heard Shazia scream. Repeatedly.
An hour after midnight,
the royal physician came out to Xau:
"Your Majesty, the baby
is facing forward, not backward.
The labor is not progressing well."

Two drawn breaths before the man's words
made any sense--
Xau saw the red-and-gold dragon
embroidered upon the shoulder
of the physician's robes,
saw how the lamplight
glinted from the polished scabbards
of Xau's watching guards--
these things, these details
unaltered, unaffected--
and then Xau's heart thumped
like a galloping horse--
"Can you help her?"

The physician shook his head.
"I can cut the baby
from Queen Shazia's belly,
but it would kill her."


"Sire, neither I nor the midwife
think your wife can be saved.
The baby might live."

"No. Try. Try to save her.
Try everything you can."
Clearly, concisely,
so that there might be no
misunderstanding, Xau said,
"Shazia is more important
than our child."

The physician bowed and left.

The slow passing of the night. Dawn.
More of Xau's guards came on duty,
gathered about him. None left.

In the early morning, the midwife came out.
"Your Majesty, your son was stillborn."


"We can't stop the bleeding."
The midwife led Xau into the room.

The window open,
the scent of peach blossom,
sunlight touching the edge of the bed
where Shazia lay:
pale, her hair damp, sweaty,
cradling their son on her chest,
the physician pushing something
between her legs--
the sheets down there red--

Xau knelt beside her,
kissed her damp forehead--
"Shazia, we, I, I love you."

"Xau." Her eyes brimmed.

He kissed her again,
touched their son's cheek. Cold.
Their son's lips purple,
his nose so small, so perfect.

"I'm sorry," said Shazia.

He bent over her,
held both her and their son.
"Don't be. Don't be sorry. I'm sorry."
He wanted to lie,
wanted to soothe her,
wanted to say it would be all right.
He wanted to ask her,
wanted to beg her
to stay.
He did not.
He said, inadequately,
"Our son is beautiful."

She closed her eyes,
panting for breath. "Xau?"

"I'm here. I love you," said Xau.
He held her, held their son
until she stopped panting,
stopped breathing,
her skin emptying of color.

The physician stood up
and moved away from the bed.

Xau let go of Shazia,
anchored the baby
beneath her arms.
He had to get up,
had to tell the children.

He looked for the physician,
the midwife.
"Thank you for attending our wife. Let--"
His voice crumbled.
He wrestled the words out.
"Let the baby stay with her."

Poet's Notes:  This is part of The Sign of the Dragon, my epic fantasy in verse, which centers on King Xau. Xau was chosen by a dragon to rule; he possesses a magical power over horses; he defeats a demon. But in this poem he is as helpless as any of us.

Xau nearly always speaks using the first person plural, the royal "we," saying, "We are King Xau," rather than, "I am King Xau." This is one of the few times that he switches to first person singular, speaking to his wife for the last time, telling her he loves her.

Editor’s Note:  For an earlier--and happier--poem about Xau and Shazia, see:

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