The Ritual Cleansing of Steel Men

The Ritual Cleansing of Steel Men

Once a day, no more, dip the coarse grey cloth into the water,
Into the wooden bucket full of cold, rose-hipped water,
So cold the roses stay fresh, so cold the hand-bones ache,
Pull it out dripping, droplets falling across the red stone floor,
And begin the ritual cleansing of the steel men.

Wipe away gently the blood, both old and new,
Wept from wounds hidden, or spattered from the field,
Wash off the mud, caked brown, dried and flaking,
Scrub at the rust, spreading in patches across his chest
Across his arms, his hands, his feet, his legs, his face
And when he is clean, send him back out to fight again.

By this time, the water should be black and gritty,
The roses crushed and crumbled, no longer sweet,
The red floor stained darker with water and blood,
The once grey cloth a ruined rag of rust and mud,
And you, down on your knees in the dirty damp
Will pour out the bucket as the day’s ritual ends.

Do this, every day, once a day, sore with the ache of it,
Hands shaking with chill, fingernails black and torn,
Until the steel is mostly rust and it shakes at each touch,
Flaking away to make red-brown stains on the floor,
Revealing bruised and bloody flesh to your fingers,
And a man no longer trapped in anything but your arms.

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