James Mele, Nature’s Games


An acolyte in this autumn ritual,
I hold the young ram propped up
On his hindquarters at just the right angle
To trip the switch in his spine
That paralyzes his will to resist
And turns the half-wild wanderer
In the mountain mists
Into a fawning, docile pet.
Oblivious to the consequence
Of what we are about to do to him,
He lolls his head back on my shoulder,
His gentleness stuns me with the thought
That he could not be more innocent
Or more a victim if we were
Out to slit his throat
Rather than snip his scrotum.
My own tightens with a visceral empathy,
A reflexive cringe surging to my groin
In anticipation of the burdizzo’s steel jaws
Crushing the arterial cord to his testicles.
The tool has as much power as Atropos’s shears,
The threads in his seed of countless lives
Yet to be conceived cut by its pinch
And denied even the chance for a fate.
If the poor bastard only knew,
If he had a mind to contemplate himself
And understand how this bloodless castration
Violates his very reason for existence,
It seems he’d find in him somehow
The strength to struggle against the outrage
Of our prudent husbandry
And not let us invalidate his ticket
In the genetic lottery
That is nature’s only game.
This sacrifice thwarts the blind will,
The prime-moving motive in
The protoplasmic code in all being
That incites the frenzied, febrile delirium
To mate and breed and multiply.
Life rages in its essence for more,
Always more life, more flesh, more generations
To overwhelm the entropy of death
With infinite and promiscuous creation.
I have a notion that we trespass here
On ground reason has no right to walk on.
There’s an odor of sacrilege in our economy,
A blasphemy against the ram, against life itself.
He’ll never mount a ewe now,
Not in earnest at least,
No matter how many head-butting bouts
For their favors he might have won.
He’ll be nothing now but a bag of wool
Or meat on the hoof perhaps.
The job done on his velvety sac,
I let go of my grip on his fleece
And watch him bound away in wild flight,
Unaware of the terrible price of my restraint.
In some far corner of who and what I am
I suddenly feel less whole myself,
Somehow less a man.


None of us had the heart for it, even the vet’s
Mask of professional composure could not hide
The squint of pained regret around his eyes,
But we steeled ourselves to the solemn duties
Of the covenant between animals and men
And coaxed the foundered mare closer
To the hole we’d dug to bury her suffering in.
Unsteady on her legs as a new-born foal,
She twitched and trembled with each
Reluctant, hobbled step, her nostrils flaring
With rapid pulses of anxious breath.
Questions ached deep within her eyes
That cut to the bone of even human understanding,
Her pathos so profound it stripped my brain
As bare of moral comfort as hers was by nature.

She’d always been gentle and sweet-tempered,
And after the rituals of nursing her for weeks and weeks
With ice and poultices and doses of bute,
She’d become more a beloved sickly sister to us
Than the broodmare livestock she was in fact.
In turns we often stopped awhile amidst our chores
To stand with her in the stall and stroke her neck,
Trying to soothe her with a balm of cooing talk
That eased only the pangs of helplessness we felt
Watching her struggle in the coils of fate.
We knew by the book the causes
And the course of her malady, yet somehow
We could not fathom her body’s betrayal
Of the essence of what she was
And how it robbed her of the legs to run
In the green, sun-drenched fields of summer.

We’d held onto hope too long, no doubt.
It took time to swallow the hard truth
That force of will could not make her whole again,
Not will alone at least, neither hers nor ours.
We had to lose faith before our consciences
Could grasp the cruelty of our futile love
And our eyes were opened to her utter brokenness,
Her head bowed down by relentless pain,
The drooping ears and the dull sheen on her eyes
The color of the ashes of a fire long gone cold.

So now we stood with the mare along the length
Of the raw wound we’d cut into the earth,
Resigned at last to release her
From the dogged grip instinct held her in.
The day darkened for just an instant
As a stray patch of cloud slid across the sun,
Then it was done – the needle in and the syringe
Pushing the drug through her veins to the heart
To turn off the life in her like a switch.

Her body seized up in a spasm then went limp.
On that cue we leaned our weight into her
And with our shoulders shoved her into emptiness.
She rolled over and landed on her back in the pit
With a sickening thud that took the breath
Out of the conviction we’d done her a kindness.
Her forelegs reached up toward us out of the shadows
Like a desperate supplicant’s pleading arms
As we stared down at her in silence, our tongues
Burning with the bitter taste of such brutal mercy.

James Mele is a graduate of UCD and the Antioch International Writing Program. He has published poetry, fiction, and articles in numerous periodicals, most recently in Blueline, Innisfree Poetry Journal, and Connecticut River Review. His first full-length poetry collection, Dancing in Eurynome’s Shoes, was published by Antrim House Books in 2017.

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