RICHARD FEIN

 

Cossacks

While I was exploring the Eastern, Slavic rite,
watching a dark-skinned altar boy hold a crucifix up high,
under an icon of the Madonna holding her son,
a parishioner whispered to me
that his mother had been raped by a black man.
The priest was singing hymns.
The censer gently swung amid its perfumes.

Years later in a Ukrainian-American bar in Queens,
one drunken dark-skinned man dressed in military camouflage garb
called himself the Cossack, and he would rid the neighborhood of blacks
the way the Cossacks tried to free Ukraine of the Jews.
A patron whispered to me that he had just decked a guy
and a hunting knife was strapped to his leg.
Then the ersatz Cossack eyed me, as if he had seen me before.
He had. I dared not say anything.
He asked me who I was. I gave him a false first name.
But he said he wanted to know who I was.
Behind him on the wall, between the Scotch and vodka bottles,
was a mirror that showed his back completely eclipsing me.
I lied and said I was raised in foster homes
and didn't know who I was, or cared.
He offered me a beer and sat down next to me
and whispered that we're both descended from Cossacks
who once rode the steppes, taking all kinds of women,
Ukrainian, Polish, Russian, Jewish, Turkish.
With him by my side I could see myself in the mirror,
but I quickly lifted my eyes above the mirror, above the liquor bottles,
to a small Madonna on the wall, holding her son.