Friday, October 9, 2015


Excerpted from The Poet's Secret by Kenneth Zak, copyright 2015. Used with permission of Penju Publishing.
Stop the bells from ringing
Hush the infant's cry
Lovers lower your gaze
For one moment of respite
I am among you no more.

Wind be calm

Birds keep your roosts
Clear the sky

If only for an instant
Because I need this.

Quell the tides

Let the sea fall placid

Quiet the ancient whale's song
For there is but one honu now
And he is lost.

Elia huddled beside Dean Baltutis. The two of them were tucked away in a turreted alcove in Orton Hall. Massive blocks of native stone belted the fortress, stacked in the same stratified layers found in the underlying bedrock. It was as if the three-story building had sprouted from the earth's crust. Arched bay windows, a gargoyle bell tower and a steep pitched roof gave the structure the look and feel of a castle. Ashen, columned walls and oak floors dominated its corridors.

The century-old bastion cradled the most rare books at the university, esoteric tomes ignored by most. But Elia found sanctuary within its musty corridors. She often wandered amongst forgotten titles and ran her fingers along crumbly, gold-leafed bindings older than the building itself, and nearly as ornate. She felt safe here. This stock house of words felt like a home.

What had lured them here, however, was the university's extensive collection of maps. An atlas was spread across the table between them. Dean Baltutis scrawled his finger over a section of the map and circled a splash of baby blue, nothing more than a nondescript speck on a grand piece of glossy parchment. But within that imaginary circle lay a very real place.

"There's nothing there," Elia said.

She scooted forward. Her chair's leg stuck in a crack between the floorboards and caused her to jerk forward. She felt herself blush, but the Dean didn't seem to notice, or at least pretended not to.

"Hardly a blip on the radar," he said.

He pointed at a barely legible word. Undeterred by the stubborn chair, she slid forward on the worn seat and squinted at lettering finer than an ant's leg.

"I've never heard of it," she said.

She felt her cheeks flush again. Of course she hadn't. The mapmaker had barely spared it a droplet of ink.

"Few have. It's due east of an old Spanish shipping route from the 1600s," he explained. With his index finger he traced along an imaginary line just south of the West Indies.

She stared at the map. Scaled distances vitiated. She wondered whether squinting might transform time as well, like those nights when her eyelids succumbed and she drifted asleep still transported off within the open pages on her nightstand.

She looked up at Dean Baltutis.

"But you know it?" she asked.

"I spent about a month there," he said and nodded, "twenty years ago."

"With Beck?"

She knew that was why he had brought her here, but she wanted to hear it just the same. She noticed crow's feet creased his temple. Twenty years ago those lines likely weren't there. She had never imagined the Dean in his youth. She brushed her fingertips against the skin alongside her own eyes, still smooth.

"Sort of. He was writing up in this mountain hut. I was pining away over a lost love. Heartbreak—I think that's what finally prompted my island invite. It was the one time Cam shared his getaway with me, but even then he never allowed me up to that hut. That was off limits."

A hazy watercolor of the island started to take form. She envisioned sand and warm, teal-blue water and palms trees. She began to contemplate how she would get there.

Steps approached. The two fell silent. A backpacked co-ed with a black, braided ponytail peeked into the alcove but found the hideaway occupied. The Dean pushed his glasses back up his nose and stared at the intruder. She glanced at Elia and the Dean, sighed and walked away. Elia wondered if their coupling looked odd.

"I never saw him during the day. But every couple of nights or so he came down to the village. We'd plop down in this shed of a seaside bar and thrash out life, love and eventually his writing."

"Eventually?" she asked.

She had always assumed a writer spoke of nothing else.

"Yeah, we talked sometimes 'til dawn, the cantina long empty, just me and him and a bottle or two of wine, always red. Like a couple of candles burning into the night."

He flashed a yellowed grin. She lifted her chair over the floor crack and felt the table press into her stomach.

"What is it?" she asked.

"It was strange. I would listen to him ramble, but he just knew."

"What? What did he know?"

She heard a book thud down the corridor. She barely flinched. Instead she stared at the tiny speck on the map while he spoke.

"Everything I was feeling. One night Cam shared with me a few of his poems. I was sitting there, half past drunk, and listening to what became Secrets. I still remember the full moon flooding through the window. It lit him up like a spirit."

She'd have to fly through Miami.

"Right then I knew. He was the real deal, a poet dancing naked. The stuff everyone else bullshits about. He had nailed it. And I began to tear up."

She gave him some room to deflate.

"Cam looked at me, like what the hell is wrong, but those words hit me like they were my own. He had tapped into something I thought only I felt, but couldn't describe, and had transformed it into something more."

He glanced toward her and sighed. "That's one humbling awakening."

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