I had just enough language to catch
his departing in-
He lit a match.
He cupped his hands.
He sheltered the small
like a tame

I scratched his name
into my arm
with the barb
of my compass. The school nurse
bound me over. It did not hurt.

Later, much later, one lighter we crossed into Shetland.
It was a noisy water, lobbing
its swearwords up at the black banal. I hung my arm over
the edge of the boat. The white pennant floated,
my limbs like olive-branches. I let myself
stream too,
loose and streaming, offering up my wishbone body to the foaming water,
the dead in the copious coils of their drowning.

Black dogs are death omens.
I froze.
It was seals, sleek-sided as mahogany coffins.
Pints for eyes all deep and dark. And dolphins.
The big bends of their backs like the supple treads
of my BMX bike tyres, rolling.

The water is another world. A dream that slaps at our soles like a midwife.

In the pitching ship’s kitchen
they kept eels
as kinky as filaments
like organs on ice.
They lay, hatching sleep, waiting for transplant.
The scales, as they stuck to my fingers recalled
the lichens of eczema that clung to his chin.

I gathered a handful of sharp, salted ice.
I brought it to my mouth.
Ate glass like an alien.

On the top bunk I pleaded with God:
let me drown now and go with my uncle.
Not dead
but just
as lost
you see.

Then Unst. The signalman, Wolfman, Father of the Steppes

fetched me up on deck
and gutted me
in knifey Scots.

I had my own words for myself, though.
In the inscribing hour
before the gangplank
I wrote with my just-enough-language
against the grain of my forgetting.