Lexington, Virginia, 1977


Everything, before then, seemed such a game:

watching as the barber sheared long locks

from the head of a guy who started to cry;

or the long afternoons we spent learning

how to salute, to spit shine shoes,

or to follow the cadence of the Corporal’s voice

as he kept calling left, left, as we measured steps

along the parade field learning to march.


But startled awake one cold winter night

by the sharp steady rolls of a snare drum piercing

the warmth and the quiet—

and the clamor of thick fists pounding our doors—

they rousted us out to the concrete stoops

wearing little more than blankets or robes.


Down in the courtyard, the sound of the drum

kept drawing us in,

until it stopped with a sudden smack

and a stern-faced cadet in formal dress

marched his squad through Jackson Arch

and there in the silence of Old Barracks yard

barked out the Honor Court had met.


And as their terrible verdict was announced—

personal gain placed above honor, a reputation

ruined, a young man now expelled from school—

it was more than the cold night air

shivering my spine.


How could I sleep after hearing all that?

I kept turning in my small cot.


For six long weeks,

I sensed him lurking in the empty sinks

or along the parade field as we marched by,

the ghost of a young man I’d never met

whose memory, still, creeps into my life

though we were told never to utter his name.


Mark Madigan holds an MFA in Writing from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.  His poems have previously appeared in American Scholar, Poetry, Tar River Poetry, and Valparaiso Poetry Review.

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