When the Shell Burst

by Jack Stewart

When the shell burst, the veins in his wrist
hung down like reins, and when he pressed a handkerchief
to stop the bleeding, the blood streamed like reins
though his fingers. With a stick, he twisted
the knotted cloth until the bleeding slowed,
sunset and sunrise slamming into each other in 
every direction overhead, and staggered off
hoping to find a stretcher emptied of the newly dead.

At home, in a starched and folded sling, he writes letters,
though he has little left to say, to practice
writing with the hand he has left. The sleeve pinned
over the stump, the gold buttons shine like medals
no one envies or admires. His salute now mirrors
the officer’s, a kind of mockery he does not intend.
Most everything—holstered revolver, spoon, glass of water—
is on the wrong side. At night when he goes to bed

his arm under the pillow feels likes something
that should not be there.
                          He hadn’t even thought
to look for the hand. He only remembers
his arm seemed to be having a seizure
or waking from a nightmare he somehow
had to calm. He remembers mostly the stick
and tying the handkerchief with his teeth, which got slick
with blood and slipped twice. He knows he did not faint,

though someone said he did. He feels all he needs to write
is his new signature. The different angles and sloppy vowels
say all anyone needs to know. He doesn’t resent
the cut-up food or laid-out clothes; he just practices.
Tying shoes, shaving—he would like to go to the range
and shoot the gun that is just for show. At night, when he prays,
he puts his hand over the ball of the stump, as if
God could think nothing has changed.

In a month he’ll “mail off” the envelope of the sling,
and the stump will be enough to shield his eyes against the sun.
He has the proper hand left for dancing and enough right arm
to press on the small of a back. He’s whole enough
that sometimes nurses flirt, and he flirts back,
and only in a slightly different voice. There are limits
to what he can do, but when he dresses each day,
the necktie falls across his hand like reins.