Paean to Fake Shrunken Heads

As a kid in the oldsmobile back seat on the interstate,
I’d tirelessly scribble monsters
that worried my grandparents for the holidays,
barely taking a break to beg to stop at Stuckey’s
where a vending machine would spit out
a fifty-cent fake shrunken head.

Burnt, unsightly, and definitely dead,
born of a dormant torment
that assured us theirs wasn’t a good Christmas,
obviously plastic, deprived of a body,
these were far more real than Barbie, and could be
a tangible tragedy for me, or anyone.

Despite the unspeakable ordeal
the disproportionate forehead
and tortured frown had found peace.
These visitors from a plane beyond this one,
free from pain, with closed, meditative eyelids
made it seem like the whole head
might suddenly shudder awake in my hand.

How strange now and absurd
that I dreamed I’d see the gleaming eyes
of a disembodied raconteur
and be regaled with tales of the unluckiest slaves,
the horrible hors d’oeuvres of Amazonian tribesmen,
Shuar or Huambisa, who’d supervised its demise.

What to ask a fake shrunken head
revived from human sacrifice?
How on earth had he arrived in Iowa?
Would he laugh or weep? What would these sound like?
What world could such a voice come from?
Would it shriek, moan, or speak in monotone?

How lucky I am none of them woke
in my grandparents’ basement,
where only those green 7UP bottles
grandfather kept perfectly cold in the old frigidaire
breathed their soft hiss of soda fizz.
Sleep was easy on grandmother’s quilt.

But what if just one tsantsa had risen like a rattlesnake
believed dead, fangs raised to strike from a boiling pot?
What if its ghosts crowded my skull like hot stones
and truths untombed scalded my thoughts,
and what would most writhe in my child’s bones
was hissed relentlessly through mouth sewn shut?

MATT SCHUMACHER serves as managing editor of the New Fabulist journal Phantom Drift, and lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, Kaley, and several rescued animals. His sixth collection of poetry, A Missing Suspiria de Profundis, was published in Summer 2019 by Greying Ghost Press.