851 total words    

3 minutes of reading

Speak, beast.


            Curled suburban cuddle in front of the fireplace,

            possum-dreaming and paw-kicking, your fur

            a tumbleweed down the waxed hallway, your ears

            cropped and your tail docked,


            Or how about you? Yes, you: spotted neck stretched

            towards what’s left of your acacia trees, neck as long as

            a man’s grave is deep, I need you to fire that impossible

            distance between your heart and tongue and

                        speak. Speak,

            you barred owls with the pink tip of a poisoned

            mouse dangling from your beak, all your many neck bones

            hinged in one spot so you can pivot your blinking

            face to me. I am watching; I am waiting;

                        look at me and

                        speak. Speak,

            you black snake drowsing on the hot blacktop,

            your forked tongue remembering the long kiss

            of voles in tall grass, a memory gone when the woman

            runs over you—then twice again, just to be sure. I need you

                        to speak. Speak,

            you jittering squirrels, you murder of crows, you quarrel

            of sparrows, you pitying of turtledoves, you everyday

            outside flick of life at the mercy of these coming winds, these rising

            waters filthy and licking with flames.

                        Speak, sing to me, caw and fuss

                        among what brittle branches

                        left, I have opened my windows;

                        I am listening.


            you hellbender—giant salamander you are—a rarity

            now put on educational display, you eel-looking

            haint once pulled up by fisherman in these mountains.

                        Speak, because no one knows who you are

            anymore; you must make us remember. Turn your

            slack maw to my tapping on the bent plexiglass

                        and speak.

                        Say what it is you need to say.

            Oh, and you. You with your thick skull blown apart

            with a high-caliber swagger, your memory long

            and your once trumpeting

            gone, speak to me

            from beyond.

                        Tell me

            what it was to have those ears of yours in fury,

            raised like giant gray flags, how hard you fought,

            and even once shot how you just stood there

            confused, already dead but refusing to fall

            until your knees buckled, the rest of you slumped,

            and the great pillars of your tusks were

            chain-sawed from your face.

                                                I need to hear especially

            from you: I have a photo here of a man

            grinning with your lopped-off tail in his fist.

            I need you

                        to speak, dammit,


                        Say what it is you need to say.

            Or how about you: kin but safe

            in a cage, I’ve heard your placid

            chewing at the zoo—you took a sweet potato

            from my hand with the wet, breathing end

            of your trunk, slid it into the deep

            socket of your mouth.

                        I know that sound—

            I smiled at your keeper, fed you another treat, but now,

                        now, I need for you to speak.

                        Try it—swallow down

                        that food and flex

                        your tongue, push out the

                        grassy air from those

                        miraculous lungs.

                        I am waiting;

                        we are all waiting.

                        I am begging. Please, beast.


                        We are running out of

                        time; there are so many us, and what’s left

of you are

swaying in pens, rocking from side to side, sleeping and aching

and craving and thinking—I know you are thinking—

but not saying a damn word.

            No, not one, not one,

            which is all we need,

            I swear—all of you,

you birds and cicadas, all you flying, leaping, vine-grabbing

canopy beings, all you furred and quilled things too,

or you chittering in your burrows and hiding in the dark—

step from the mouth of your dens and speak.

            Listen to me,

            you belong here,

you with a mouth full of milk, with dirt under your claws, all of you

rooting and panting and hibernating and ruminating and standing

by the fence, watching us speed past in our cars.

            Listen to me.

            I need you to try,

            try to say

            just one word.

We can start slow with the low pleasure

sound, the delicious mmmm that closes the door to home,


then growl out that middle vowel and what comes after,

let the back of your throat issue forth a warning

and mean it, get angry with me,

because you’ve had enough, because if you don’t find these sounds

there will be nothing left.

Now, you’re almost there—

pull back your lips if you have them, show your teeth

if you have them, hiss, let out all the air, whatever air is left

and in doing so take us back to all our beginnings

with the sound of waves, with that final syllable—sea.

            Now try again.

            Try again.

            Try, please try.

            All at once.

            It’s such a small

            word on which

            your lives depend.

            I’ll do anything.

            Please, beast. Speak.

            Say it, with me, now:

            MERcy, merCY, mERcy, meeercy, merrrrcy, mercy, mercy, mercy.


            Now, please. Try. Try again.

            Repeat after me


“Mercy” first appeared in the Norwegian Writers’ Climate Campaign, and was subsequently published in Nickole Brown’s chapbook, To Those Who Were Our First Gods (Rattle, 2019). This poem will appear in Kinship: Belonging in a World of RelationsVol. 5: Practice, eds. Gavin Van Horn, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and John Hausdoerffer (Center for Humans and Nature Press).

  • Nickole Brown

    Poet Nickole Brown has been writing recently about the relationship between humans and animals in poems that operate like lean, lyric essays. A sample of new poems called To Those Who Were Our First Gods won Rattle's 2018 Chapbook Contest and was published in December 2018, and an essay-in-poems (in a 25-part sequence) called The Donkey Elegies was published by Sibling Rivalry Press in 2020.

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