Oct/Nov 2023  •   Poetry

Gift of an African head

by Michael J. Galko

Public domain image

Gift of an African head

The marriage ceremony was not exactly what I wanted.
You were academic royalty, after a fashion, and I—I was

the son of peasants made good—both of whose second
language was English. There were crowds of people

I didn't know there, at the ceremony, family friends
of your parents, packing the Sausalito Women's Club—

Julia Morgan, architect—to wish well on this dubious pairing,
or at least to drink. One couple, colleagues of your father,

the law professor, collected African Art. Their gift was a statue—
Mali, circa 1400. The head was mounted on a little stand

and was about the size of a balled fist. The face itself was grey
stone, some kind of cement-like brick, and embedded into

it were other stones that jutted out. The man said some thought
it was a representation of the pox, though there were other

ideas, in the world of African Art collectors. The eyes were
sunken, as if it could see slave ships in the near future.

"You can't import these anymore, you know," said the man.
We didn't know what to do with it, this contraband head

that stared out from some other world and right past
our own. The marriage itself was not what I wanted, either.

I learned that quickly enough—an endless series of cutting
remarks, competitions, recriminations, accusations, tears...

After we moved to Houston, three years in, I rediscovered
the head. You had packed it away in a box in the closet.

I put the head on one of the new bookshelves, between
Melville's escapist "Typee" and Achebe's "Things Fall Apart."

Such placements are planned, at least on my bookshelf.
"I don't want that there," you said, after noticing it.

"I kind of like it," I replied. I speculated that it was meant
to be a representation of conscience, watching us

from stony silence. A few months later it disappeared.
I didn't know where it was and I didn't ask. There was

just a blank space in the bookshelf, with the books
leaning across it, touching at their tops. When this

happens I try to imagine the authors conversing, after
reading each other's collected works. I found the head

again a couple of years later when I was drinking
with a lethal purpose. It was tucked in a back cabinet

where I had begun to hide my extra whiskey bottles.
The stand was bent, and a stone had chipped out

of the forehead, probably banged off when it was
shoved back in there. Almost certainly so, since the stone

was there by the stand, as if it could be repaired someday.
The head stared at me, each time I secretly poured

myself another drink. And then I stopped drinking and left
that cabinet to itself. One day, two years later, I took it out

when all alone in the house. I placed it on the table in front
of me and had a staring contest with it. I blinked. It did not.

But as I stared into the deep blank sockets of its misshapen
skull, voices entered my head. The voices said I was wrong

in my lazy speculation. Conscience was inside, always—
but sometimes a man needs a mirror. I am healthier now.