Malus, by Ernest Hilbert

When they first fall, crabapples glow in the grass.
They fit in fists like rocks.
The first taste is sour at the curled edges
Of the tongue, but with time sweetness seeps up.
They are pitched at aluminum siding
Where they slam and dent like cannonballs
On the side of an ironclad. Boys hurl them
Like grenades, over fences and hedges,
At imagined enemies. They drop
And splay, corpses on the grass.

No pretending it’s Okinawa today, though,
Not with her, his best friend. He wants to wrap
Himself around her, cling to her taut torso,
But she’s faster than he is, bolder too.
She leads him over barbed wire, through thorns,
Over ominous patches of poison ivy,
And up, higher, into the apple tree.

They scale cautiously, limb to crooked limb,
All afternoon, in the dappled center.
Summer light spears and sways the green.
White blossoms feather in shifting shoals
Broken by cooler speckled emeralds.

They never planned to get so far from the ground,
But now they are too high to turn back.
The tree creaks like a ship they could sail
Out of the world if they ever had to.

She laughs in the high rigging, unafraid,
Lilac blouse billowing, small legs muscled
In daffodil shorts. Marbles tied with elastic,
Like tiny planets, bind her tight pigtails.
(Light pools through their cloudy colors, aqua
And blood, Neptune and Mars nestled in black.)
They’re not yet five, but she leads him higher, 
Enticing him. She gazes up and aims herself
At the top, never stopping to look down.

He can’t stop locking himself to the bole, 
Peering down along knotted branches to ground,
His stomach aswarm with bristles of glass.
The tree’s rigging groans and bends in warm wind.

On their journey they loosen apples that thud
And crack as they strike their way among limbs
Down to long grass, where they’ll rot blonde
To brunette then black as the soil beneath.
Her dark brown arms flex. She leads him up
To skimming glints of sunlight that swell
Out like kilned glass. He pauses, three boughs
Below, as she spreads the topmost stems.
The sky’s hot blue surges into the shadows. 
She is lost for a moment in the sun’s flare.
At last he pulls himself up beside her.
They survey gray pixels of rooftop shingles.
An air-raid siren sings. A phone rings below.

A tang of charcoal drifts on August air,
Blown from far yards they can’t see.
A high squeal sounds for a second
Almost like suffering, then a splash.

Leaves hiss in wind, then settle, sonata
Of gods who want to survive forever.
The mysterious globes hang all around them. 

Ernest Hilbert is the author of two collections of poetry, Sixty Sonnets (2009) and All of You on the Good Earth (2013), as well as a spoken word album recorded with rock band and orchestra, Elegies & Laments, available from Pub Can Records. He hosts the popular blog E-Verse and the E-Verse Equinox Reading Series at Fergie’s Pub. His poems have appeared in The New Republic, Yale Review, American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, Parnassus, Boston Review, New Criterion, American Scholar, and the London Review as well as in anthologies, including the Swallow Anthology of New American Poets (2010) and two Penguin anthologies, Poetry (2011) and Literature (2011). He works at Bauman Rare Books in Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife Lynn Makowsky, Keeper of the Mediterranean Section at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.