B&W circle

Coup de Grâce

Gavin Yuan Gao

Think back to that autumn when
the month-long fever could’ve claimed
the frail light of your child-self, when
you were still pure enough to almost believe
the end of one life could be the finale
of all despairs. Then think of your father’s
hands, work-wrecked & threadbare, cradling
the sallow gibbous moon of your face.
When later, the snow came too early
like a borrowed future, filling up the window
boxes, deepening around the ankles
of your hunting boots, you’d gladly follow
that sweet trail of windfall apples to the crayoned
edge of childhood beyond the barbed-wired fences
had your father not called out to you
through the woods, through the twilight
prison-striped by the silver birches. Remember
how he carried the weight of the dead
in his shotgun, which he’d polished with a felt scrap
until the muzzle glinted like the slick
engagement ring around a solar eclipse.
He’d shown you how to shuck a bullet, how
to crack a life open through the center
of its skull. But that was before the fever turned
your cheeks crescent. Before the possibility of loss
appeared to him as real as the frost dulling the back
of his ungloved hand. Before you both saw
the last breath struggle to crest the snout
of that wounded fox, which, red as the windfall
apple, had dragged a trap-clamped leg all the way
from a badland in the far north
where nothing would grow or come
to its rescue, & every light seen was the feeble light
of diminishment. Your father pushed
the shotgun’s darkening weight into your palms, saying
with his wind-worn eyes, end its suffering, end it
before it enters you & is yours forever,
as if this mercy
was a gift, relentless as the animal will to live,
though all you could think of was a body so still
that it became a kind of listening, a listening so complete
it required your bones to sing to it, until you forgot
the winter of your own body, how you pulled
the trigger toward the white wreath of your breath,
felt a shudder—how the trees leaned in to claim the silence
of that temporal space & finally, sated, leaned back again.

Gavin Yuan Gao is a poet and translator living in Brisbane, Australia. His writing was highly commended in the 2018 SLQ Young Writers Award and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His work is forthcoming or has appeared in The Journal, New England Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Hobart, and elsewhere.