George Ellison

God’s Horses

The apocalyptic genre is by nature dreamlike,
and thus apparently incoherent; it is best to try
to make sense of what we have on its own terms
[as] one picture melts into another.

—John Sweet, “The Book of Revelation,”
The Oxford Companion to the Bible (1993)

I sit in my room of windows.
Pale light casts pale shadows.
They dance like leaves.
Thought by thought I pass through the surface
of everydayness into that random flow of images
barely remembered if at all until such moments as these.

Sunday morning 1948 … my father …
MIA in a B-24 over New Guinea since 1944 …
declared officially dead before the service
throughout which unearthly colors flare as
light angles through diamond-shaped panes …
row upon row of white lilies in green fields.
The church is on N. Main Street in Danville,
Virginia … it will, of course, burn down …
stained glass turned liquid in the heat.

The sermon is about God’s horses.
The preacher says he has four:
white red black & pale.

March 1, 1944  …tail-gunner
Arthur J. (Bud) Swartz writes
to his family in Aurora, Illinois:

Dear Folks…It’s sorta hard to think of
any thing to write about but I  try to write
as often as possible …We had a day off
yesterday and Ellison, Nelson, Smitty
and I went out in the country and rented
horses to go riding. It was really quite
an experience. The farmer didn’t have
any horses rounded up so he turned loose
a lead horse and followed it on another.
We loaded saddles & harness in an old
29 chevrolet and took off to follow him.
We must have gone five miles when we
came to a corral out in the middle of no-where.
You could see horses all over the country…
Finally the fellow came riding in driving
about 30 horses, and the lead one led
them right into the coral. A lot of them
weren’t even broken so he sorted out
some you could ride. They were all
pretty wild and we did a lot of running.
All in all we had a pretty good time …
Well, that’s about all the news for now
So ’til later…Love to all, Bud.

My mother read Bud’s letter aloud after his
mother mailed a copy to us. I knew that my
father’s name was the same as mine…Sr. & Jr.
I knew from his pictures that he had red hair.
I now knew he rode with his crew on wild horses
four days before he died…but I never knew him.

The preacher rides round and round
inside the church on a red horse
waving a sword at the congregation.

“Come and see!” he exclaims, throwing
open the coffin below the pulpit.
It is, of course, empty.

The red horse is laughing…tears flow
on either side of his face…with dignity
he turns to the congregation and says:

“There is no body to be found here …
but someday, of course, the no-body
will suddenly reappear.”

Which was, of course, true. Plane debris and a mix of bones
were happened upon by a native hunter on a steep slope
in high mountain jungle. I received the call in February 1999.

(Mother never remarried.
She died in September 1992.
Her name was Ruth.)

After DNA processing at Pearl Harbor a joint burial
of the crew of the B-24 Liberator nicknamed Cold Steel
was enacted at Arlington National in December 2001.

In sunlight too bright four black horses …
harnesses polished … buckles gleaming …
stood quietly as the cortege assembled.
Hooves clattering they pulled the flag-
draped coffin down the winding road
that led from chapel to grave.


I still sit in my room of windows.
Pale light still casts pale shadows.
They still dance like leaves.
But they are imaginary leaves.

I don’t know how to end this poem.
As I said I never knew my father. I have
no desire to create an imaginary father.
I know that on April 30, 1944, he went
with friends on an “off day” to ride horses.
An “off day” meant they wouldn’t have to
make yet another bombing run over Papua
New Guinea or the Bismarck Archipelago.
I do like to think about Bud’s description of
what they saw when they followed the farmer
in his old car to where “you could see horses
all over the country.”

Elizabeth Ellison
Radiant Horse

"God's Horses" was originally published, in slightly different form, in George and Elizabeth Ellison's Permanent Camp: Poems, Narratives, and Renderings from the Smokies (Natural History Press, 2012)



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