Desert

by Eric Aupperle

The tired progress of the tanks
makes little trenches of burning dust.

He follows the tread
prints across the level land.

Sand has settled in his deep brown boots and
his shadow marches behind with the rest.

The men that follow him wear
sweat soaked socks and
eroded expressions.

Their parched eyelids
have swollen shut
on their weathered faces
to keep out the dust.

They carry their canteens more
carefully then their guns;
they save the tears
their hot eyes water
and they never spit.

The air drinks up his sweat.

They travel on, spread out
to avoid angering the sky.

Dust goggles dangle from every collar;
he has lost his pair, but he smiles slowly.

They squint forward, splitting the dunes
with a line of trampled sand a hundred miles long.

He heads the march,
a cautious distance from
the tank’s exhaust vent.

The rifles on their backs
burn with the sun
bright light on metal
marking them.

Here there is nothing
but human ranks,
tall against the desert
and the towering steel shadow
lumbering ahead on caterpillar tracks.

Each man follows a continuous tread across the sand.

The dunes are singing, with the steps of men, whistling,
moaning, and gasping like beached fishes.

Their footprints are layered over and over,
though the men that make them stand apart.

The horizon they walk to is utterly flat,
as wan and featureless as the white of an eye.

The tank rolls on, leaving a calloused carpet in its wake.
His feet pound down and down along the path;
Their boots behind pound down and down along the path.

He pants with the men that follow him,
and every mile he sighs.
He is a man with his toes in sand,
and a permanent stitch in his side.

Before him in the distant west,
a great hill rises, a mound
where seeds of the sands have sprouted,
naked on the ridge: tufts of desert grasses
swimming in the heat haze.

Westwards, he follows in the shade of the tank.

On the ridge, a man is waiting, lying in the brush.
He counts the steps and the men that make them, and he counts their guns.

Illuminated in the evening sun, the guns below him gleam.
And on his other side, below, the guns gleam also.

The man beneath is marching,
marching past the ridge in the shade of the tank.

He does not see them, there
among the early grasses.
A flicker of movement:

and his shade is gone.
A flash of light replaces sound, deafening and blinding.
Heat blossoms before him,
a searing ripple through his aftervision.

The metal grows cold in his flesh.
He does not feel his boots fill up,
his insides twist and spill over
his belt. He watches only
as the other tanks roll down.

Moisture trembles on every brow.

A plume of smoke goes up
and then another.

The answer of the guns boom like oaks snapping.
The sigh of shrapnel striking sand rasps in the ears.

Fresh troops and bitter souls, that might have run, lie down and die:
there is no option to desert in an empty land, nowhere to hide.

Burning barrels on the rifles glow
beside the smoldering carapace
of the tank they followed.

The heavy air is full with the sound of fire.
The intricate smoke trails
trace glyphs upon the sky
and metal rains upon the desert from both sides.

He lies with his eyes turned up in his head
towards the fallen sun, left there.
The tired progress of the other tanks
makes a little trench of burning dust
for him to lie in.