I begin with a sentence: “And the mist has salt in it that burns as it heals, burns as it heals.” This sentence has circled and circled in the aviary of my brain for days on end, will wing its way into a poem. I live on the water, the water lives in me, swamping me, pulling me under into duende energies. From across the bay, the mists bulldoze in, fill my rooms until my hands are cloudy mittens and I breathe in the haze smoldering in my soul. Is it the poisonous smog created by the toxins of my toxic childhood and will the mist, with its burning salts, sear me clean?
Always the search for the irreducible line, that tail feather that hefts the poem into flight. This is the work of the poet and for this poet, I’m haunted by the very words I create—my poems scare me. The words that fly out of my pen are bullets and are terrifyingly violent as was the brilliant cruelty, delivered onto me with Biblical force, first by those who brought me into the world, then subtly, masterfully, by my ex-husband.
Now there’s no one left to abuse me. This morning, most mornings, I can’t get out of bed. I’m beached in sleep, the mattress a raft, my sweaty sheets, a flag of surrender. This after decades of launching out of bed in the pre-dawn hours before the pain came in to scalp me. While the morning moored me in tidal despair, another line, like a vulture, circled me: “Only the clocks watch over me.” These clocks have iron hands, decapitate my great, sorrowing angels, the ones who know the story of who I was before I was born. I need to have that story told to me as though it were a nursery rhyme. Perhaps I was one of God’s little lambs, the one destined for slaughter, needed for sacrifice.
Has abuse made me holy, the desecration, in the end, transformed into consecration, the pen, my tool for resurrection? This even though I have driven a stake into the blind spot in God’s eye, the way my ex-husband did me in while I reeled in a bout of madness?
That madness violated me, gutted me, destroyed me, round after artillery round in the battlefield of my mind, for too many years, countless years, this madness which drove me into the lock-up, the skeletal key thrown away, my keepers upon me like rabid dogs, abruptly, absolutely, came to a dead stop on the day my divorce settled. January 28, 2010 was the court date which ended a twenty year sentence. I didn’t know a sentence could go on for years, like a bad run-on headed for a front end collision. Mine did and the crack-up was disastrous.
While pinned to the bed like a butterfly in the hobbyist’s drawer, what I longed for is simple: I need to be needed. My son, nearly grown, lives with his father in the Arctic house I deserted. He might as well be living on another continent, the one my ex traveled to, getting as close to the North Pole as possible on an ice cutter boat. Furious and fierce wolves roamed there, white wolves, and my ex was one of them, his body, that ice cutter.
No longer needed as a mother, I long to be needed as a poet, all poets do, our urgent heart cries beg to be heard, but for most of us, the lines we sling fly back into us as boomerangs and books, far too many books, go down deep black holes. Too much interiority can lead to wandering in the mine shaft for years and I’ve been down there for decades, am one hell of a sooty canary.
Ah, but I sing—fiercely, furiously. Sometimes those songs screech into an octave above a scream, ignited by my fire breath, the primitive rhythms struck upon my drumstick bones. I maintain that the writing of poetry is physical, sometimes brutally so and I’m a heavyweight who’s very light on her feet still ducking the blows of my childhood, blows which literally left me brain-damaged. The boxing ring is the arena upon which I pin down poems the way Father did me while the ballerina on my music box slowly pirouetted. The tune it cricketed is eerie, ceaseless, and it fills my rooms as does the mist while I weep my infant tears, the ones sleeted with salt, and I burn as I heal, burn as I heal.
In me is a howler, screeching, half-mad, possessed. Her screams are lightning bolts exploding in my spine. She is shrieking louder than a cacophony of crows, very black rapacious crows. Still young, she wants to kill me, bludgeon me with a meat hammer, pound flesh till it thins, spurts blood which spatters my walls. A blaze of black violence, Gothic, demonic.
For now, she has shackled me to the writing desk, is the dictator of a hellish dominion and I must screech the pen across the page, eat her words, spit and spew them back up. I am to do this all day and into the night without surcease, I am her sluttish slave, must eat only that which is half-rotten, crawling with maggots.
I am her ghost writer and her anger is righteous, a searing of the very veins she’d like to slash. Her rage is so monolithic it is venomous, dangerous and my fear of her is rabid, something gone amuck, Lorca’s scorpion tails stinging with the sound of whiplashes.
That I have failed her abominably, horribly and horrifically is something I cannot live with. Her youthful brilliance came with thousands upon thousands flashes-in-the-pan. Stories tore out of her, they rippled with a muscular violence, landed with a deadly blow. Her talent was hot, spread like wildfire. She was courted by agents, editors, elite magazines. One editor of a big, big press glued herself to those wild talents, hovered over her, was nearly gluttonous to have her as one for whom she could be conduit, circuit, who could kick-start her career.
But now that young woman is kicking the barn down. She whose physical strength is such that it could make her brutal, murderous, she who dances among stallions, mucks stalls, tosses fifty pound bags of grain like tiny sugar sacks, runs round the paddocks in hard cuffs of soil, hauls water, bales hay, splits wood.
She wants an ax now. She wants to slaughter the old red barn boards as though they could bleed. She throttles the door with her fists, rams it with swift kicks, punches out cracked bull’s-eye window panes with her bare hands. She keeps at it for hours because she is burning with destruction, longs to tie herself to the stake, go up in a fury of flames, be a martyred writer.
She does this because the editor who groomed her thoroughbred bones, thoroughbred sentences, her nearly apocalyptic stories for too many years to count, this editor with whom she had entrusted her first book, a short story manuscript long labored over has returned her humble gift with a poisoned pen letter, the obsequious, deadly formal rejection slip. Within minutes, the brilliant young woman would be stripped of story writing for good. What ensued was a blow by blow massacre of each of her writerly blood cells till her heart was dammed with pus and the death rattle rose like snake hiss out of her lily white throat.
Down, down, down she went, but the old barn flew away like a rusty cage full of screaming banshees. Earth was grazed, the yard a killing field blooming with bloodied skulls glowing like vermillion moons. She lay down amidst the death stench, dabbed it on her wrists and neck, went into rigor mortis, grew stiff as stone.
Days, weeks, a century passed. No one noticed her absence, no grave marker was erected and no trail of sorry grievers ever appeared. Instead there was wind, wind that scalded her bones, wind like a train wreck flattening everything in sight—cardboard houses, picket fences like bald white stitches, trees that were careening crucifixes and the damage was massive.
Even though she was dead, she still starved herself, had a wolf with bared fangs slinking inside her ghost and her word smithereens were scattered like a mountain of black ash. Never again would a story be written. Forevermore the haunting cries of Flannery O’Connor’s peacocks, their tails ragged, their majesty somehow demolished and impoverished.
Instead the lame footed poems began with heavy ball and chain lines. Books appeared like makeshift fish shanties, shacks in the black forests, mountain huts the mystics abandoned. They smoldered like time bombs, grew waterlogged, sank down into depths so black and bleak the soggy pages were gummed together, smelled of toxic mushrooms. They slipped off precipices, were executed by that trained assassin, the critic.
And in that ramshackle grave, the dead one gnawed her bones until they were raw, let the leeches cup her blood. Her carcass was wrapped in fly paper, her teeth grew into carnivorous caves, her face was dessicated wood twisted with worm holes and her soul was gruel.
Not long ago, I wiedlded a spade, dug into dirt, dug again, heaved bloodstained earth into wind that blew it back in bits of shit. I dug for days, a week, a century, heard the song of Lorca’s stinging scorpions, moaned and groaned like a captive animal and when I finally struck her clavicle, the shovel clanged.
Since then, a surgical archeological dig, the sifting through ruins, the splintered bones unblessed relics. There in dust and blood, I try to shim her together, plug bone into socket, electrify her brains, shock her into being with frayed hot wires and bring her into a home she vehemently hates, but not nearly as much as she hates me.
She wants to claw my eyes out, sever hands from wrists, drive hooks into my tongue. I am nothing but old to her, a has been writer, my lame footed poems the greatest injustice done to her hot-headed talents. Those I know are only decrepit, their work death warmed over. Even my son is an object of disgust to her as he is the apple of my eagle eyes, my piercing black eagle eyes when all she wants is to train me in her gun sights, hold me hostage till I learn to write as well as she which never will be.
She has already given up on me. This morning she wanted me to heave my computer through the study window the way Lillian Hellman did her typewriter. I am unplugged from it, the phone, other people. I am under her imprudent jurisdiction and she will be sure to make me suffer for writing those lame footed poems, waterlogged books, for not making good on her early promise, for my life in her hag shadows, my word drippings her scurvy.
Imprisoned for life, my pen with its shark’s tooth nibis the very tool of my undoing. Now I must enter her hinterlands, stay there forever and beg for her mercy but she is a ruthless, tyrannical god with ungoldly power and her story, her buried alive story is a tour de force that that ends with a crack of the whip upon my back and although the whip can’t sing, it does know how to howl a Kirschnerian howl that thunders the heavens till even the angels cower.
by Elizabeth Kirschner
In the morning, my father makes runny, scrambled eggs, limp bacon. His eyes are bloodshot as he stares at my mother as she eats her half of a banana, her standard breakfast. I want to play musical spoons, or telephone, but just what message would I broadcast? Love me like there’s no tomorrow? Love me before putting one foot in grave?
“Time for presents,” I announce, then go on, “after all, it’s Christmas and Christmas is for giving and good cheer.” I sashay over to the artificial tree, note that its growth has been stunted, as has been mine. The old ornaments are hanging on its fake branches, bobbing like shiny eggs that might have an orderly holocaust inside them. I touch them gingerly and declare, “Christmas must be magic,” but there’s only black magic at the center of my parents’ twisted existence.
I sit Indian-style on the floor. My father sit down to, opens his legs in a victory “v,” holds a plastic trash bag, ready to field the wads of wrapping paper my mother will punt his way.
“Mom,” I say, “this is for you,” then hand her a package as though it were sacred as the Bible. She rips it open, stares at my gift until her eyes are stunned with tears.
“How could you?” she asks as she holds up the sampler that Grandma helped me make as a child. “Bless this House O Lord we Pray,” she whispers as she reads the stitched words aloud, then traces the neat purple x’s that form each letter. “You shouldn’t have,” she goes on, “it’s too precious for me.”
I go over to her, hug like a tree, one whose root ball is packed too tight and whose growth, like mine and the artificial tree’s, has also been stunted. “Happy Christmas,” I say and her eyes well up again, like dark grottoes.
Then I turn to my father. “This is for you,” I say as I toss him his gift. He quickly unwraps it and a smile warps his lean, elegant, ugly face. “Electric socks,” he declares, just like the king he is of this tawdry kingdom. “Thank you, Tizzy Lish.”
I soften as I always do when he calls me by my nickname and reply, “I know your feet are always cold. These should help.”
“I like warm tootsies,” he responds as he hands me my gift. I sigh, can’t imagine what’s inside. I open it carefully, trying not to tear the paper, which has snowmen on it, just like my nightgown. What I lift out makes me start to cry. It is my father’s favorite cardigan sweater, the one with suede elbow patches, chamois-lined pockets and leather buttons.
“Dad,” I say, “I can’t believe you are giving this to me,” and truth is, I can’t. This is the sweater, the very same sweater, I stole from his bureau for years to wear around the house to somehow feel close to a man who could not let me be close. He scolded me for this, sternly so, told me to stay out of his things, but like a child with her blanky, I could not be without that sweater. It would now become my “habit of art” sweater, one that I wore whenever I wrote day in, day out till the day he died.
Thank you,” I whisper and for a small moment in time, we are gifted by the gifts we have given and received. For a small moment in time, we are no longer the victims of victims, but tremble inside the bodies of angels, those erratic birds of transport. We are deemed, by the small god of our understanding, become a holy trinity while memory, as concentrated as death, sleeps in Sinnissippi lagoon where every one of our monsters, at least for this moment, has been slayed.
by Elizabeth Kirschner
“Bedtime girls,” says my father who is tall, lean, elegant and ugly, a stranger to my heart. Because I am a dutiful daughter, I have already taken on the vocation of devotion, want to light votive candles for both my parents, there on the breakfast bar where the liquor bottles glint like idols.
“Yes, I’m tired,” I say before turning down the hallway to my room to don the flannel nightgown with the snowmen on it, the one I wore as a child while dancing my ballerina dance before the mirror above my bureau. It just comes down to my elbows and knees now, but still I dance my ballerina dance while longing to leap out of a room cold as a tomb.
I curl up in bed, listen to my mother come down the hallway while hitting the walls like a sack of potatoes. Her door hisses closed. “Goodnight, Mom,” I call out but all I hear in return are her gnarled words, “Not now, Bill” before she sinks like a frigid fish in frigid water into frigid sleep. I follow suit and darkness occupies the house like a lowly tenant or a sentry scanning a killing field.
by Elizabeth Kirschner
I waltz over to the black upright piano, the one I played while singing to my mother so she could nap. She never thanked me, but that I could deliver her onto the peace of sleep was the gift God gave me to give to her.
I touch the keys, start to sing, “Silent Night” like an unrequited lover. I play it slow, almost bluesy to my boozy mother. I hear her sigh and the big heart in the fire of creation begins to breaks. She needs the simple sympathy my simple music brings her and I can’t help but think that my mother, even though she has been a cruel tutor, deserves it. Perhaps I am playing for the child she once was, the one I so lovingly looked at in the photograph album her mother made for her, a woman whose only belief was that we all are the victims of victims.
In those pages, my mother is dressed in ribbons and bows and her dark, curly hair is in luxurious abundance, curls that I want to bunch in my hands. Even now, I want to hold that child in my arms like a living dolly and kiss her into bliss. How and when did this girl vanish into the hag mother now before me, hacking on her cigarette? Can I rescue this hag mother, let daughter-love redeem her? Surely the god of her understanding has abandoned her, but I cannot, will not, not even decades later when she dies her hag death. Loving her may be an anguish, but it’s the catastrophic miracle that makes me who I am.
by Elizabeth Kirschner
My father answers the door. “Come in,” he says, like an invitation to a formal dance. “I lead, you follow,” he then commands as we walk across the foyer where slates have been randomly set, like book covers in Storyland.
What story am I entering? Will there be witches and goblins, or a barroom brawl? It is the night before Christmas and all through the house, the cold seeps through windows and sills. It is the night before Christmas and my dark presentiments are my only presents.
I enter the kitchen where my mother sits on her stool at the breakfast bar like a pauper, a puppet, or the King’s fool and certainly my father is King of this tawdry kingdom on Tawdry Lane. Mother is smoking, the flare from her butt is a signal in a war zone while she sips booze from an orange juice glass.
“Hi Mom,” I offer lightly, as if my “hi” could shim her up, but she hunkers down instead in her shrunken monkey body. Her black eyes grow blacker, narrow me into her gun sights. “Have a drink,” she says, then waves to the stand of liquor bottles glinting like idols.
“You know I don’t drink,” I respond, then go to hug her and bestow a kiss, light as a butterfly’s, upon her leathery cheek. She flinches as if she’s been stung. “Why did you do that?” she asks in the voice of a mouse as it slips in its hole. “It’s Christmas,” I reply, “that’s why. Tis the season of joy and love.”
by Elizabeth Kirschner
We pull into the bus station and my memory chugs in, too. I decide to walk home, know that my mother and father are too drunk to navigate their boat of a car down the town’s melancholy boulevards. I walk by old factories that are behemoths with shattered windows like punched-out eyes.
Finally, I come to Sinnissippi Lagoon where I once fed hunks of bread to swans which were pear-colored in the moonlight. I did this whenever I fled from my house, my room in my house in midnight’s blue doom. Led by scent, I longed for the sleeping monster in the lagoon to rear its ugly head so I could slay it because I could not yet slay my own monsters, monsters with many ghastly heads.
Now I bend to touch beheaded flowers, return to Grandma’s garden where the plants were marionettes pulled tight by light. Somehow they partnered me, helped me grow roots and dart skyward while shawled by Grandma’s green shadow. She taught me how to pluck the copper-backed beetles off her double-blooming dahlias and for her I gathered a strange bouquet which sprayed this way, that way, like a jester’s hat as he tumbled through another bright, yet desperate song.
Just now I long for a basket to line with has-been flowers that want their hour of beauteous blossom back again to carry to my mother as her face, too, looks like a passed-out bloom. I arrive, knock on the door to the house I fled from, the one I return to smelling of the roughage the woods harvest.
by Elizabeth Kirschner
A room blooms in memory, in my infernal memory. It leads me to a trip down Tawdry Lane and my consciousness drifts back, in wonder, to a hotel depot where I wait as though I were a nameless figure in a 19th century novel. Snow comes streaming down, howling with the manifest destiny of misery. I am going home, home for the holidays, which already birds in the cupola of my mind like a garish cartoon. I am still under twenty.
The room is sepia-colored, rich with the antique tones of poverty where lampshades are like old-fashioned hats under which the old light of the diminished barely registers. Here I am among the lame, the defiled, the leprous. Hour after hour goes by and I am terrified. Will my love, fresh, stinging like the blizzard which bleeds openly from the Iowan sky, draw me like a wound within the destitute? These lowlifes, even the sophisticated boys who are miles behind me at school, surround me sublimely—the pitiless in the ranks of hell.
My blue dress, my cowboy boots, my beauty in a tarnished room—little of it, unlike the storm, will pass. After all, I always take the postal route home, glad to see the bus driver hand out soiled packages at decayed towns, like necessary gifts for the dead.
Robert and I are walking and our footfalls are so quiet, we might as well be barefoot. We are walking among a black gallery of trees, which are metamorphic with mystery. The bare, sibilant branches are tuning forks misted by the celestial. We brush hands, pause, brush lips, then bend over rain-tingled twigs cast down by windfall shadow. Before us, two thin trees meet at their darkest points, scaling the woods we walk in quietly, ever so quietly.
“That’s us,” whispers Robert as he points to where the two trees make a tilted crucifix.
“Yes,” I reply, “we do touch each other in deep places, don’t we?”
“Why not?” he answers, “isn’t that why we’re together?”
I nod my head in agreement like a bird intent on where she wants to go, who longs only to nest in the dark appearance of evening air, just now descending.
“I love November most,” continues the man I call my husband, who I wed at sea by the lighthouse I spy on my long strolls each eve, the ones I now take two decades later in too much aloneness.
“When the leaves come down,” he says, “a certain calmness comes. It’s my season,” he says as he draws near me like the flesh and blood female I am, long before I become an abominable snow woman.
“November is the season of saintly sorrow,” I whisper while touching Robert’s earlobe as if it were the pink womb of a lady’s slipper which has long stepped off the edge of earth.
“Here,” he says as he kneels down before me on a plush mat of mulberry-colored leaves, leaves which now keep to deep, luxurious sleep.
I, too, kneel down as though the woods were a confessional in which praise, not sin, is sung.
“It’s all very holy,” I say, under a sky that is a chapel dome.
“Only here, only this,” he whispers, then plants me with his kiss.
I lie down and bring Robert with me. All around I hear the rush and thrum of stellar wings.
“You are my bird of paradise,” he goes on and I wax exotic and erotic at once.
We make love slowly, become unearthed on earth, rise and sigh, rise and sigh. Birds don their sooty jackets in metallic air that falls like smoke rings. Once and only once, I murmur Robert’s name like a mantra. My lips slightly parted with just the dot of a tongue darting within—dark, magic and wet.
“Keep me, my keeper, like a keepsake,” I say while thinking vaguely about the leaves, which do not know how to bleed, or have their blood be let, nor do we, yet.
Robert passes his hand across my face, like the shadow of a wave while I close my eyes, dream in reams of peace. For a moment, we are not those trees scaled like a crucifix, but two trees sharing one mythic trunk. Soon wounds will start to pool, shine like blind eyes. I blink, look up at the canopy which defies time and space.
Somehow we return to ourselves like passengers on a ship that will float across the moon once it rouses itself into a golden globe.
“You know what I want,” I say.
“What?” Robert replies.
“A recipe on how to make tea out of the debris of these leaves.”
“Easy,” he responds, “steep them in this spicy air.”
“And I’ll pour it into my poor kettle which only knows how to sing.”
We get up, continue along the old logging trail, among coral mushrooms, soft as gum, which hold their toxins deep within. I realize that we cannot hope for more, or hope for less because to be means to know all things decease—even the light, I see, is declining. Even so, it manages to leave a hush in its path, palpable as those wings which hummed and thrummed about me.
I cup a snowy tree cricket, green as the delicate morsels which tasseled these branches last spring, and carry it to Robert. He bows before it as the insect leaps earthward with its tiny box of music packed in its miniscule body, that sweet machine. All desire comes from a machine that small, is powered by currents of music, which surge forth from both significant and insignificant creatures, of which we are both.
“To the mountaintop!” declares Robert and I fall into marching order as if in a migratory pattern. We pass by the slender birch I always touch when on this trail, the one I first touched at dawn on our wedding day. I have bonded with this tree in a bond that abides but does not bind and that is just what I want my marriage to be, is a bond that abides without binding over the tides of time. Yet, in time and over time, my aloneness will arc into me like a broken rib.
But not now, because it is the season of saintly sorrow and whatever saintly is beautiful as is what Robert and I share, even in the cold parlors of November. The wounds in trees are but black hearths throwing off, it seems, a little heat, a little passion.
When we reach the mountaintop, there is no vista, but I am visited, albeit briefly, by the long shadows of Chinese mystics long deceased, shadows that dress me with blessings. I see huge limbs that have been snapped like the necks of swans, by dense storms which fell like romance—heavy, mindless, not heedful of the past.
“This is the fountainhead,” I announce to Robert who looks at me in a way that I know needs no explanation.
“You’re my favorite poet,” he replies, an answer I’ve well-schooled him in.
We stand there at the fountainhead from which all things do flow, in air we share with birds, those studious tutors of joy who deliver short sermons on surrender. We stand in the lowering light which falls, like a wild calling, that asks us to trust in God as we must trust till all this gold filigree does rust as will our bond that will bind instead of abide over time.
For now, and it feels like a forevermore now, we are entranced by the moment, which seems to plop like a pebble in a birdbath where the ripples quiver, quake like green haloes. Jarred into awakening, I give half a cry to sky mirage, then surge toward Robert in poem-like reaches, will continue you to do so until we are too far afar for not just human, but even divine intervention.
by Elizabeth Kirschner
I am shopping, as shopping is my forte, more so than writing, or so I think. I work the shop I’m in the way a criminal works a crime scene, the way my cousin, Gil, a three times felon, knows how to rob a bank, is behind bars, incarcerated, as I have been incarcerated, will be incarcerated again, behind the red line, the suicide proof windows in the psych ward, my home away from home, my little getaway.
I rifle through the clothing rack, run my fingers through different fabrics—silks, velvets, cashmere—listen to the tags rustle, fondle tender buttons. A red wool dress flies off the rack and I hustle it into the dressing room, my throne room, strip off my black beaded skirt, wrap sweater. The red dress slips onto to me like a prayer and I am reborn within its folds.
I glance in the mirror, am stung by my winced look, then step out of my throne room and go over to the jewelry case. I scan it with the eyes of a murderer over a gun case, tap the glass, say, “This, I want this.” The woman who assists me enslaves me—my wrists are handcuffed with bracelets and my neck is noosed by bright red Moroccan beads. I whip out my credit card and slap it on the counter, like one who only plays for keeps.
In the corner of my eyes, I glimpse a pair of green velvet boots embroidered with a cosmos of flowers. When I inquire, I’m told they are from Afghanistan, are hand done…
…and I am undone, put them on and yes, these boots are made for walking, so out the door I go to frolic in my new frock, walk in my boots made for walking. I clutch my shopping bag which holds the clothes I bought just yesterday, clothes that will be stuffed into my overstuffed closet and soon be forgotten, like things whispered at Mass.
Outside, the conundrum of autumn is happening. Cars more than cruise by, they nearly screech and I want to screech, too, in an octave above a scream, like the trained singer I am. I practice screeching in an octave above a scream whenever the madness hits, the horrific madness with jackhammers boring into my skull, or with my husband, Dr. Robert Wolff, eating the raw egg yolks scrambled inside my brain.
Autumn is happening—the life blood is leaving the leaves, cell by cell, and in perfect parallel, the life blood is leaving my marriage, also cell by cell and mine are fried, scrambled like my raw egg yolk brains. Autumn is happening—a steely chill descends from a steely sky—and I manage somehow to step in dog shit, a heap of dog shit that clings to the cosmos of flowers on my green velvet boots.
I panic, wonder how to get them clean, pull a tissue from my purse. I want to make a tissue flower for the Homecoming float where I once was Queen-for-a-Day, but I am not Queen-for-the-Day, any day, but in deep shit and confined to the inferior dungeon in my mind.
Somewhere my husband, Dr. Robert Wolff and his elderly father are cruising the streets,
as if in a stealth bomber, their shark eyes fixed on zeroing in on me. I am frantically trying to clean my boots, but now the shit is beneath my nails, smeared on my red wool dress, caught in my hair. Suddenly I remember—and remembering is done through the blood—my mother plastering me with shit because I pooped in my pants.
She has me pinned down in the windowless bathroom with my pants yanked down around my ankles. She is wearing yellow dish gloves, smears the shit on my face, my bare, bare flesh. Not a single word is uttered. This is her work in the world, to plaster me with shit, to sculpt me with it, be her masterpiece.
Now the stench of shit is all over me, even my breath is shitty and a car slows down behind me. I know it is the stealth bomber, the headlights are flashed which puts me in the gun sights of a trained assassin. I freeze in these headlights, but not like a deer, but a skunk who has just skunked itself.
The window on the passenger side slinks down and out comes Robert’s voice, ever commanding and damning. “Get in,” he says and so I do. I hunch down in my seat, buckle up for safety. My new dress immediately turns into a devil suit and straightjacket. My brains slop around in my head like the water in dear Henry’s bucket and there is a hole in that bucket, dear Henry, a hole in mine.
Autumn is happening, the chill descends from a steely sky and Robert is blasting the air conditioning because I stink to the high heavens. Robert knows all about shit, especially my shit as well as his elderly father’s shit because he constantly loses his bowels, has projectile diarrhea. Robert is both an expert in cleaning up his father’s shit and making sure I’m mired in mine.
We drive in the stealth bomber in stone age silence. From time to time, Robert’s shark eyes appear in the rear view mirror, then disappear. I am in the back seat, the way, way back seat. We pass by a prison and suddenly I believe my cousin, Gil, the three times felon, is locked up in the hole in that prison and I want to go to him, be locked up in that hole, too.
My finger, my trigger-happy finger, starts to lift the door latch. We are in heavy traffic and I want to play in traffic, so up goes the door latch a wee bit higher. I am sure the door is about to fly open and take me with it, when the automatic lock clicks closed. Poems close with a click, but this one is deadly, traps me in. Once again, the shark eyes appear in the rear view mirror, like those of a hammerhead and I feel that hammerhead ram me, again, again.
We pull into our dead end street. I dimly remember that this is the street I have lived on for nearly twenty years and stare at the house that I have also lived in for nearly twenty years, am sure it is one of the little boxes in Vasko Popa’s little box poems. In that little box where I have been boxed in for nearly twenty years, I want to toss an eyeball on a leash, an immigrant’s suitcase that has wings, the one I pack when going to the lock-up where I’m holed up in the hole, just like Gil.
I enter the little box like the lowly tenant that I am. Inside the little box are other little boxes. I strip off my skunk skin on one little box, scrub myself down to the bone in another, know that dem bones are gonna rise again because the foot bone is connected to the leg bone and the leg bone is connected to the hip bone which is my want bone, my cradle of scars.
In the little boxes that box me in, I pay homage to the wolf, Dr. Robert Wolff, by pinning my sterling wolf pin to my left breast. There is a sky inside that breast, a steely sky in which the chill descends and pinned to that sky is a wounded bird who sings like an angel on a funeral pyre.
Although I no longer pay homage to the wolf, that wounded bird still sings like an angel on a funeral pyre, but not in an octave above a scream. Rather her voice spreads like wildfire in a sky where autumn is happening, exquisitely so, while the choirs do cry for that lone wolf trapped inside his little box where, in quiet desperation, he gnaws his paw right down to the want bone, its cradle of scars.
By Elizabeth Kirschner
My mother is on the sofa, arrayed on the sofa like a wretched lady-in-waiting, she has beached herself on the sofa for years and she is waiting for me, her daughter, to pay her homage, speak in psalms, bless her with my beauty, the very beauty she detests. The heavy curtains, like those in a puppet theatre, are drawn closed before sliding glass doors.
Somewhere outside it is summer, large blue puppets descend long blue hills and evening is introducing its mystery play, the puppets, the players who will shadowbox with shadows dense with shadowy souls.
My soul, dressed in such dressy shadows, mixes with my mother’s, its toxic brew and our strings twitch as we speak in voices low as a priest’s in the black coffin of the confessional. I want my mother to say, “We are of the earth’s and the earth is of us.”
I want my mother to say, “What takes the breath away, the wind will keep,” but her words have foghorns in them, weeping foghorns, and they are distant, few, created by the machinations of a brain so black, it is stained with soot.
“Canaries,” I say and she looks at me stupefied. Everything stupefies my mother—the tying of shoes, the fork and the spoon, even the solitaire she plays incessantly, the slap of the cards on the coffee table, the only music she can make on an earth that no longer wants her and never did.
“I love canaries,” I continue, “how they sing even when the hood is dropped, like that of an executioner’s, over their silver cages.” This pronouncement dumbfounds my mother and her eyes flounder like two drowned fish. I want to cup her face, its tarnished relic, in my hands, but if I touch her, she will flinch as if struck by a blow.
She who has played dead for decades is slowly dying. No one knows this but me, yet it is true—already her shadowy soul is tugging its way out of her, knot by knot. Already the River Styx flows in her flawed veins and I am here to ferry her away, assist her out of a body that is a robbed bank.
She does not know this. When she speaks, she does so in mono-syllables in a monotone and her breath carries the stench of burnt cinnamon. She cannot comprehend her own words—language is but a jinx, a bad hoax and when I remind her that I am a poet, she looks at me as if I have cursed.
“Too bad,” she says, then sighs a sigh raspy with wasps and the air we share is alit with stingers, the twitching of strings. Then I do it, that which I never thought I could do, I who have made a pilgrimage of a thousand miles full of a thousand demises to see a mother who despised me as a child and beat me with a meat hammer, the ping pong paddle, pummeled me with the bat signed by our neighbor, Whitey Ford—over the body of this woman who nobody could love, not even maggots or flies, I slowly, deliberately make the sign of the cross.
I have blessed her, am stricken with pity as she lifts her cocktail glass, stares at its gold fire as though it were the very spirit of her one and only God. I have blessed her even though her one and only God has not and she is melting like a paraffin angel. It is I who created the mold for my mother to become a paraffin angel, I who have deified the demonic only to watch her blood flowing with the River Styx be sucked up by the invisible straws in clouds.
“Clouds are cows,” I say and the only complexity left in my mother is her perplexity which she plays like a wild card, a trump. “Cows jump over the moon,” I continue as though telling a nursery rhyme to a young child while my own child is out there, somewhere in summer, playing with the large blue puppets, dancing in between their shadowboxings.
“I’ll box your ears,” she used to say, then assault me like a tyrant throwing a tantrum. Even her hair was the color of rage—black hair that matched the black masterpiece her black brain was so intent on creating and in her black book, she recorded my hoard of sins, both venal and cardinal.
“May peace be with you,” are my next words and there are no weeping foghorns in them, only the clarity of bells and we all know for whom the bells toll for. My mother looks stunned, is the bird who has flown into the window with a dull thud or the window has flown into her. A tear drools from her eye—she quickly wipes it away as if it were one of the flies or maggots that cannot love her because no one, absolutely no one can.
Except for me. She who raised her hand against me has been blessed, has had the sign of the cross made over her dilapidated body, a body only capable of last breaths and each of her last breaths wound me. That I will grieve over my mother overly and utterly too long, that I will become a slave of grief, succumb to it, be its numb drum as I was the numb drum for her riveting violence is something I will cherish, do cherish while she slowly perishes like fruit in dreamy heat.
“Adieux,” I whisper in a barely there voice and somehow I am already diminished by the loss that looms before me of a mother who knew best and what she knew best was how to desecrate me. I hear her cells zoom out of her like tiny, black comets in a room that is still as the eye of a tornado and we are in tornado country with one skirmishing on the distant horizon. I love tornado country, how the sky turns green just before the cone hits and I remember the tornado drills we practiced in school. We hid under our desks or were herded into an underground corridor where we were made to pray.
Right now, I am one made to pray and I do so silently as I leave my mother, there on the sofa where she is a wretched lady-in-waiting who waits for death to wait on her hand and foot. As I leave my mother, I know I will never see her again as she is already more dead than alive. Leaving her is like leaving tornado country, yet in my mind’s eye, the eye of the tornado is God’s eye and with his tornado breath he will blow my mother into smithereens, wreak a path of holy destruction which I will go down, willingly, till I go down on bended knee.
by Elizabeth Kirschner
Encountering a Paul Pollaro painting fully takes both moments and years. It causes a brain chill, a tingle down the spine and is a highly tactile experience. I know this because I live with a Paul Pollaro painting and recently made a pilgrimage to where he lives and works near South Berwick, ME so we could talk and look and think. We did all three.
Paul began by talking about growing up with an artist father who created complex collages out of old paintings, ship canvases, in essence geological time layers. Referred to as “physical skins” whose sources remained mysterious, Paul’s paintings, as well, have many deep epidermal layers, a primitivism and density evocative of hides.
He brought me down to his studio, a room off the basement whose door had to be wrenched open with a hammer as it was stuck shut with paint and solvent. I took a picture of his work shoes which were plastered with paint to the degree that they looked bronzed, like prized baby shoes.
I can think of no other painter who is as physical as Paul Pollaro is and he himself noted that he is both “an artist and an athlete” when working. Paul manipulates his materials—he walks through his paintings, presses boards into them, linen, too, will even flip a canvas over, walk on it again, anything to find a way to a new detail. Conscious decisions fail for him as he is visceral, in his depths. Beginning with the arbitrary, Paul then finds relationships between space, tempo, things he couldn’t conceive of while corralling and directing it all. This, according to Paul is very “Id,” decadent and inside the Super-Ego.
Yet there is a profound desire for consistency, for the viewer to have an experience akin to picking up a rock only to discover a salamander, slimy and alive, or to witnessing a birth, also slimy, alive, and yes, primitive. We all must become, or so Paul hopes, Pre-historic, a being seeing a Wooly Mammoth for the first time. He wants his paintings to be like a beast in the room, or a tree stump. Most of his canvases are large 8’ by 6’ walls and Paul claims that people see everything except what drives them as he works with figurative imagery no one seems to get.
In other words, Paul Pollaro creates an abstraction out of an abstraction taken from the figurative to the point where he risks losing his audience. For him, the love and drive exists in the most private places and those private places hold the soul of his enthralling canvases.
Hence we come to his notion of PESO with “P” standing for Particularity, “E” for Engagement (i.e., that slimy salamander under the rock,) “S” for Simultaneity, which contains both exertion and privacy and “O” for Otherness, which is a deeply embedded insistence on how complex we are, that we are what we don’t create simply because the things that shape us most—the monster, the beast—are things we do not choose because they are scary and far from benign. For Paul, it was his mother’s cancer and who among us would choose or will for one’s mother to have cancer? Therein, another concept comes into play, “The Success of Failure” as no one willing chooses failure, but it does comprise us, it even deepens and directs our lives.
Paul also touched upon Joseph Campbell’s idea of “The Aesthetic Experience.” He talked about how when the mind sees a tree, it can’t possibly process all of its elements—the wind, the light, the sheer volume and quantity of leaves—and so, the brain must generalize. Paul insists we can and do have the capacity for “The Aesthetic Experience,” to be inside the moment as it unfolds its finite infinity like a Jacob’s Ladder.
Paul himself described one such experience. He was on a tour with a Lamaze class when the guide suddenly pointed he wanted the group to see. Paul watched every head turn, each slightly differently in a strange, particular way in a single moment. To him, it was like looking at a bunch of Praying Mantises. I, too, saw those heads turn like nearly reptilian insects.
PESO. “The Aesthetic Experience.” Paul Pollaro wants his audience to look closely, to see how many granules there are in one inch of canvas. Multiply that inch till it creates an 8’ by 6’ wall. Think about the moment when the spark travels from the stick of its origin, how a grass bowl can be both grass and bowl, how an image can appear in primordial mud, the birth, the beast and tree stump, of making tools out of earth and water and you might begin to imagine the magnificent and complex magnitude that exists in one Paul Pollaro painting where to see is to be brought into heightened perceptibility so exquisite, it is nearly excruciating.
Paul Pollaro was born in Brooklyn, NY, received his MFA from Indiana University, has had many gallery affiliations and exhibitions, including one person shows at Aucociso Gallery in Portland, ME, Soprafina in Boston, MA and Nahcotta in Portsmouth, NH. Once a Maine resident he now lives and works in Rollingsford, NH.
by Elizabeth Kirschner
Robert and I are at Cold Spring Park. November has stepped into the dressing rooms of the poor, their cold parlors, cold hearths which are cathedrals for the dispossessed. The sky, hard as a chestnut, is one such cathedral and my lips silently move in prayer to the small god of my misunderstanding.
The only small god I do understand is my baby boy whose room is a spring sanctuary full of spongy undergrowth. We have left him in Rosa’s care with the tiny sacks of breast milk I pumped earlier in the day. Rosa is from Venezuela, crossed the border by wading through the muddy Rio with her son on her back while under gunfire.
There is no gunfire in Cold Spring Park, but the wind, like an insurgent, charges in. Robert and I have just had supper out. Such evenings are rare—a gold coin we are afraid to touch, let alone pass between us. The hard sky has been slugged by darkness and the moon has a desolate heart, an abandoned one. The trees assume melancholy poses snagged with empty nests stuffed with dead leaves like brown, rusty crowns.
Already my home, the one my baby, Dylan, was conceived in, feels like one such empty nest save for the plural presences, which I dare not call angels, who flock around his crib. Wing palpitations match his heart palpitations and there is a soft shuffling of bare feet, a courtly dance to court him—all infants are of royalty even if they do not come from it.
In my hierarchy, I toe the lowest rung. In Robert’s, he is above me and try as I might I cannot climb the silken ladder out of the cemetery of self. We are parked on a circular drive in Cold Spring Park. It goes around a towering oak, a grandiose oak with many, many wounds. They are black as the black night and I want to wrap gauze around them, dress them up. Instead bits of toilet paper cling to the lower branches like the dirty underthings of fallen angels.
At this moment, most moments, I feel like a fallen angel and she has fallen from lesser grace to no grace at all. Robert and I sit in the car as if locked in a standoff, staring at the ground surrounding that grandiose oak. Long white feathers, hundreds of long, white feathers have been stuck in that ground. Who, I wonder, had so painstakingly planted them, one by one? This, too—shouldn’t we all plant feathers as talisman’s of who we might become?
I reach over, touch one of Robert’s hands which are at ten and two on the steering wheel like the hands of a clock. On my clock, the hands, as well, are frozen at ten and two in my arrested childhood. Ten and two, two and ten. In between, there lies a girl in an icy chrysalis. In each hand, memory’s hand grenade which will not go off for decades.
When I touch Robert, he remains still as if mesmerized by the island of feathers and I am sailing around that island, sailing while anchored. I move over, start kissing him, wanting him. I caress his cheeks, their high, cool bones. I smooth his hair, try to pull him near, but he keeps his hands on the steering wheel at ten and two, does not glance my way.
In that moment, I am pierced by the long and elegant bones of those hundreds upon hundreds of feathers. They are ivory arrows in my Sebastian heart, but I am no saint, only a poor sinner in the cold parlors of November. No fire roars in the cathedral of its black hearth. Only the ashes murmur, ashes soft as feathers, many feathers.
Ah but for their lean and elegant bones which go right through me. Once again, I wonder about the anonymous one who planted all these feathers around the lonely, grandiose oak, the tree of many wounds, mortal wounds.
A thought flies into my brain: even with all these lordly feathers on this little patch of earth, the island can’t fly. I realize I am that island forbidden to fly by the anonymous one who could be the small god of my misunderstanding. Hence, my sentence to sail while anchored.
I finger my wedding ring, a gold band with the tree of life etched in it. I’m also wearing a dress with a coral tree of life silk-screened on to the front panel. Does this make me the tree of many wounds, wounds that gape open, each a black paradise or living gargoyle? I start making wild bird noises, they up-flutter in dry heave after heave. Robert remains quiet, turns the car on, drives home.
I go into my baby’s room, remember a line I once wrote about wild birds in the aviary of the mind. Mine are desperate for sanctuary, find it in Dylan’s room with its spongy undergrowth, plural presences flocking around the crib.
I quietly close the door, release the long shush of a breath. There, in the baby blue light shed by the nightlight, lies my sleeping son. His hands, soft as peaches, are cupped to his ears, intent on listening to who he might be. I bend over, scoop him up, go to his rocking chair where love tips into fear then back again. Currents of his dream go into me like rounds of musical moonlight.
His candled warmth infuses me with an ambrosial aura. I sing to him as we gently rock. This moment, like so many with Dylan, is pinnacle, a piece of heavenly peace on a very silent night. He is my refuge, I am his safe harbor and with him and him alone, can I truly sail while anchored. My soul, adorned with all those lordly feathers, takes flight as does my baby boy’s. We make a little music as we move and I am moved by it. No one, no one else at all, can hear this music which comes out of us in warm wands of breath.
I stay in Dylan’s room all night. As dawn slowly rolls in on its rosy hinges, he opens his eyes, smiles a sweet, sweet smile. I nurse him till he is sated, till his eyes roll up in his head although he were drunk on breast milk. Over breakfast, Robert is a rock, reads the paper as he does every morning.
It will take days to warm him up again and not long after our visit to the island that couldn’t fly, he will take to sleeping in the basement on more nights than I can count. The conjugal bed, the marital bed will become the flightless island around which I try to sail, but fail, while anchored. There among the silence of feathers, many feathers in the cathedral of the dispossessed, I will remain a poor sinner, lips silently moving in prayer.
by Elizabeth Kirschner
I open the red door. It gives way with a dispassionate heave, a dry suck. Winter moths, clustered on the glass skull of the outdoor lamp, scatter like tiny dunces or the chaotic snow falling, hither-thither, inside me. I step into the foyer with its jagged pieces of slate cemented to the floor and think that this is a map of my mind, those jagged shards cutting deep into brain mass, heart mass. My cement is my anti-psychotics which don’t always hold me together so I squeeze myself tightly, scream somehow tightly while my thoughts scatter chaotically like tiny dunces, cold, cold snow.
But at least not for now. I breathe in air that is thin, flat, like blood without cells, champagne with no bubbles. It is the only air available the way the shadowy light in the foyer is the only available light and I borrow this thin, flat air, shadowy light as if I could give it back. In the kitchen, a drawer opens and closes. I remember, without knowing why, that I love the spoon better than the knife because spoons can make music and knives cannot. Knives long to slit the delicate skin on wrists, to make the blood without cells can bubble to the surface, go from blue to bright, bright red. I know this because I have done it, went down on my hands and knees to sop up the blood flowers, legions of them, prolifically blooming.
That I survived slitting my wrists was just another injury, an injustice, but I was only nineteen and believed that all I would be delivered onto was darkness darker than the darkest dark. That darkest dark clings to me as I stand in the foyer on this early December evening. The shadowy figure of my husband moves from the granite kitchen counter to the granite kitchen table. They say that diamonds win the hardness factor among gems—does granite win the hardness factor among stones? It is terribly unforgiving, as is my husband.
“Hi,” I say—yes, “hi” is a word that cannot be ridiculed, but no “hi” comes back, only a dull hello like an echo inside the shell of a bell. “I’m home,” I cry as I take off my coat of many colors, my animal hide boots and slip on my boiled wool slippers. I move quietly in my slippers—quiet is good, cannot be ridiculed, even children understand this. In order to please the shadowy figure I call my husband, I would willingly bleed silence, blood flowers of silence, legions of them that would not need to be mopped up.
I go to him. I always go to him to receive his ghost kiss, let out a dry sigh. My husband is tall and so I must look up to him—he wants this, all men do—and when I look do up, I am penitential. “Forgive me,” I want to say because I say this often in my sorry little voice. Instead I whisper, “did you?” Fear, like a well-kept secret, wallows in me, fear that is always the harbinger of tears.
My husband rolls his eyes—hazel eyes with tight black pupils—hard as granite, that winner of the hardness factor, then shrugs his shoulder as if they itched. “I forgot,” he says and that fear which is always the harbinger of tears, comes up as a dry heave. Dry heave follows dry heave, followed by a combustion of tears.
I cover my mouth to stop the dry heaves, but I cannot stop the tears, never the tears, so I run into the bedroom, hit the floor, go into the fetal ball and bang my head against the radiator, hard. I bang my head again and again, vainly trying to end the pain.
No gift on this darkest of dark December eve. The one I shyly, no apologetically asked for, the gift I wanted for staying out of the psych ward for one long year. I did this by walking with winter, day after day, hour after hour, minute by minute. Yes, I walked with winter, day after day, for one long year even in a summer of a thousand Julys.
As I bang my head, chilblains grow in my fingers and toes. I suddenly understand that I have been freezing to death for nearly a decade. That is when the death head of madness and illness first reared its hideous head, became my Medusa. O how my Medusa loves me. O how my husband does not.
My heart mass is breaking and I whisper to myself, “sorry, sorry, sorry,” as if to forgive myself for the wanting of a gift for staying out of the psych ward for one long year. Slowly, very slowly, I sit up—my bones are but dog bones and I have begged like one before my husband who now stands in the doorway like a scarecrow with the hall light shedding bloodless cells on his itchy shoulders. He stands there the way my father used all those nights, snapping his belt while saying, “Shut up or you’ll get this.” Even if I did shut up, I got the belt anyway.
Would I get it now, the belt instead of another ghost kiss and which would be worse? “Elizabeth,” he says and I remember, distantly, almost ironically, that this is my name. I am proud that I have remembered my name, the way a school child is when she recites her numbers properly.
My husband goes on in a droll, troll voice, “Elizabeth, of course, I didn’t forget.” “Forget what?” I return in a wisp of a whisper as I have forgotten what he has forgotten because my husband always remembers to forget everything. He even forgets that he no longer loves me.
“The gift,” he answers. He pauses, then adds, like a weary parent, “I was only teasing you.” I sigh a dry sigh because teasing always makes me cry. Father teased me relentlessly, told me I was his lucky rabbit’s foot and pet me until I bled.
“Okay,” I say and start crawling like some prehistoric beast, move from crawling to standing, from standing to walking. I go to him because I always do—he is my husband and it is the work of wives to go to their husbands, especially wives who have stayed out of the psych ward one long year.
I take the gift, say “thank you” in my sorry little voice. I open the gift, it is in a jewelry box, and there it is—a necklace upon which hangs an onyx pendant studded with faux diamonds. What, I wonder, is the hardness factor of faux diamonds? Surely my husband would know this as he is a scientist and all scientists know about the hardness and he is brilliant the way diamonds are brilliant, even faux ones.
I do not ask him about the hardness factor. Instead, I return his ghost kiss with a ghost kiss of my own, put on the necklace with the onyx pendant, which will become the last gift my husband ever gives me. That was nearly six years ago and I no rather walk with winter or take anti-psychotics to cement the jagged shards of my brain mass together. Rather, I summer in a summer of a thousand Julys, live on my own without fear, that harbinger of tears, and I have turned my Medusa into a beauty by loving her and that beauty is me.
Yesterday for one still moment in a still point in time, a hummingbird hovered so close, I could have plucked her out of the air, let my fingers be nipples so she could feed, feed. Tempting hummingbirds into gardens, plotted here, plotted there has been a lifelong quest of mine and now I am aging, quietly so. This hummingbird—and for once, I was her garden—transported me to the hummingbirds of Costa Rice, throngs of hummingbirds in an array of iridescent species where here, in the cold Northeast, we are lucky if we are visited by one, the red-throated hummingbird.
I remember little of my travels in Costa Rica, except for its lush rain forests, and I do love rain forests—how they are filled with the sounds of mossy flutes—those quixotic, exotic hummingbirds, the bumpy bus I traveled around the country in with my then husband, son and sister-in-law. All was as things are supposed to be and we all know that supposed to be’s are thin scrims behind which shadow-dances are played and in my shadow-dance, my husband is lifting his sweaty shirt like a turkey vulture airing its wings and we consign ourselves to sleeping in separate beds where our dreams are but a bloody aftermath. “Not good,” pronounced my sister-in-law when she saw the tussled sheets in the twin beds and she was right, it was not good at all. We lay ourselves down, night after night, as a kind of ungodly offering—death demands gifts and the death of a marriage is horrifically demanding—more, more, more, it cries, more, more, more.
Yet in the midst of ruin and decay, an orgy of hummingbirds, feeding, feeding as we all must feed and it is my father’s death, not of the marriage, that I contemplate while the sun simmers in mist thick as boiled wool. This summer I have been drinking in the mist, drinking in vats of it like milk and yet, my thirst is never slaked.
My father. From the bridge I cross each day, I peer at what I call Bird Island. It is always peopled with birds clustered like angels on not the luminous, but black pinhead. This morning, I thought, “my father is out there” and intuited it as truth. He’s rutting among cormorants, omnipresent gulls, among turkey vultures, but no doves and certainly no hummingbirds.
His death was slow, painfully so. In a coma for four months, my father was in a room like a fish tank in the Neuro-Intensive Care Unit. Think winter. Think the cold pressing its frosty lips upon the windows and although he tried, my father could not, would not die. One night his feet turned black and the sound of dancers filled the room. One day I, from too far afar, visited him with my then baby son. My father’s toenails were long, curled. The TV was on as if he could comprehend what a golf match was. He was, as I said, in a coma, on a vent, feeding tube, could only blink his eyes. His hair was long and wavy, skin clear. I brought my baby near to him to be dear to him. Ah, Father lifted his index finger. Ah, my baby touched that index finger with his, a finger soft and healing as a salamander’s tail.
My father, my abuser, came out of his coma, at long last and when he did he was brain-damaged, put in a nursing home that smelled of horse piss in hay, given a spelling board he could not fathom. One night, he yanked out his breathing tube, climbed, or more likely, fell out of bed and crawled, determined to find his high school sweetheart, Susan. I wish he had. I wish he and Susan could have kissed, held hands.
Instead, wheelchairs lined the halls like antique sewing machines that could not mend a stitch. Instead, he did not recognize me or my baby, his youngest grandson. All that summer, I wrote my father letters, epic letters teeming with the details of what seemed like an extraordinarily ordinary life, our trips to the seashore, a description of a clam shack he would have loved. I wrote on and on, desperate to reach a man who, even when well, could not be reached.
I dreamed a dream, a glorious dream. In it, my son and I were in the old cathedral where I first became a soldier of Christ and a soprano, up in the choral rafters, was singing the Ave Maria. It was during my father’s funeral Mass. She stood close to the organ I played as a child, straining to reach the pedals, to pump the pedals hard, the chords gorgeous and deafening the way God was and is gorgeous and deafening.
My father did die that summer, at the end of August, but not in that nursing home smelling of horse piss in hay, but in a rest home at dawn with a nun quietly praying over him. He needed those prayers. And many more, mine included. That he trespassed against me is an understatement I must live with for the rest of my life. That he is forgiven is another truth I must live with for the rest of my life and I have forgiven him even though I probably shouldn’t have. Even God doesn’t forgive everything and I am but an aging woman who courts hummingbirds, those tutors of high lyricism, tiny prophets delivering breviaries on brevity.
My father’s funeral was grueling. My baby placed a white rose on his coffin. The priest, like all priests, sermonized on his goodness as though goodness alone were binding, which of course, it isn’t. Evil is more tenacious and, somehow, willful. My father’s crimes against me were defiantly willful. So were my ex-husband’s. During that grueling funeral in the old cathedral where I became a soldier of Christ, I nursed my son to keep him quiet. Then, suddenly, a soprano, and once I was a soprano, started to sing the Ave Maria up in that choral rafter where I pumped the organ pedals to make music that was gorgeous and deafening. The voice of that soprano was excruciatingly beautiful and beauty, to me, is useless if it is not excruciating.
At the moment when the priest turned the Host and the wine into the body and blood of Christ, in the midst of that highly consecrated moment, my baby popped off my nipple and said, in a big voice, “other side.” My sister and I, though weeping, laughed and a ripple went through the congregation.
“Other side.” Oh my God how I long for that other side. I practice getting there by crossing the bridge, drinking in mist like milk, peering at Bird Island where the indigestible dead birdwalk in memory. Although my father is out there, I cannot get to him as I have no boat, no wings. Only a pen I wield in utter solitude. No husband. No son with me. No Father, no Mother. Only a dream of an other side, my insatiable loneliness and a hummingbird, quick as a wish, then vanishing.
It is dark and I am driving down the highway under a sky full of crows caterwauling, cawing, a crazed crowd of crows in their black priestly robes with their flawed claws and I think, yes, there is a flawed, black claw in my flawed, black heart. In the distance, my husband has closed the door behind me, slowly turning away the way he has for months, years, centuries. It is his genius to turn away and at the dinner table when I whispered, “I have to go,” he silently laid down his knife, lifted the paper, opened it as though it were a newspaper angel stained by his fingertips, the ones that have not touched me for longer than I can remember.
But this I do remember: a night on an island we ferried to on a boat with gypsies who had gold teeth, children like thin ghosts whose lips moved in prayer. I did not know this ferry would ferry us to the end of our marriage, to where I floundered on the hotel bed under mosquito netting that sizzled in the heat while I cried, pitifully so, an almost inhuman cry, like a bird whose throat has been slit. A hollow whistle went through that cry, my cries while my husband began to seethe. Then I heard it, the whoosh a guillotine makes as it drops. Did moonlight glint on its blade? Did the air start to bleed? I tell you—it went through the bed. Then the sea swept over the balcony and into the room. Suddenly, we were stranded on separate islands in that sea and I, not he, would be the one carried away for good.
Haunted by a past I have barely exited, I build a house out of books, fling seed off the bridge of sighs till red poppies bloom on wavelets, sign poems while sleeping, my hands working like the wings of origami birds. Fold by fold I make them—one thousand paper birds will save someone who is dying and since it is the human condition that we all are, foremost and always, dying, why not devote a life to the making of origami birds?
That a marriage will die, must die a long and ghastly death is not, however, a part of the human condition, except that it involves suffering and we are destined to suffer. To suffer is to die a spiritual death, but my marriage died during the battery march of staccatos, each note a bronze bullet or a pellet of brass hail and its death was not spiritual, but reptilian. In its aftermath came the music of mute doves, red poppies blooming on wavelets.
Da Chen tells me to “Dive deep shallow out,” when writing, so I go into dark libraries of water beneath the bridge of sighs, volumes of water green as psalms. Epithalamiums whisper in my ears, but mine is not among them, the one I wrote and recited after my husband and I exchanged vows. I am searching for a wrecked ship, the one we were married upon in these waters while the lighthouse swung its eye beam. Where is the ship’s ribcage, buried treasure, the deitrus of petals strewn from my bouquet? I dredge the silty depths with my fingernails, bring up warped boards, a decayed mast and boom, a wounded sail and how could I have known that sails could be wounded?
Now it is time to shallow out, to dive out of the wreckage while clutching my broken ship. Now is the time to mend the ship, tap in ivory nails, bathe the sail in my marble sink till bubbles of champagne surface, pop, the champagne I drank from in a glass, the champagne my brand new husband sipped from my satin slipper. All the while, the lighthouse swung its eye beam into us until we became two visionaries sharing one heart, one heart sweet as a peach and just as soft.
It would be a long time—months, years, centuries—before I learned that each day could bruise or that the only sacred heart is a broken one, a communion wafer snapped in half. I didn’t know then how to dive deep shallow out. If I had, I would not have walked out so abruptly, shattering mirrors and doors. If I had, I would have departed gently, lovingly, left with a kiss instead of a sting.
Haunted by a past I have barely exited, I build a house out of books, sign poems in my sleep and tend to mending the ship. When that ship is mended, nail by ivory nail, I will wade through eel grass, kneel down at the water’s edge and release it with a sigh along with one thousand origami birds. The music of mute doves will be my ovation, my long lost epithalamium, my green psalm singing in an uproar of wings because I do not seek the music, the music seeks me.
by Elizabeth Kirschner
3:44. I can tell time. I have been able to tell time for a long, long time. Time will tell, they say, time will tell—just what? I want to know just what. Will it tell me I am just a passing phenomenon? That I’m suffering from deeds done in a past life? And that’s exactly where I want to be now—in a passed life, passed right through life and out of life as though I were a transparency, my words hardly an outline. Black reflections and dead low tide. Empty Redemption.
I was shocked when I first saw that sign on a highway here in Maine. Empty Redemption. That’s where you redeem empty wine bottles for fifteen cents and O Good Lord have I gone through a lot of wine bottles since moving to Kittery Point. I’d be rich if I had redeemed all those bottles as only the wine quiets my unquiet mind, the one riveted with nails.
Black reflections, empty redemption and me about to go down to the sea. I will walk with eyes half-closed as though I were a humble novice about to take holy orders, but really my eyes are half-closed from all the crying. I will go walk the walk, talk the talk, say hi and yes I’m fine and tell no one about the black sack and the nails because what would they think? How can I write about all the body parts—an arm here, a leg there—or of things put in and out of my holes—a bullet, a poker—especially in my stink hole because only bad girls have stink holes. And only bad women who are in a bad way get choked, then put in a body sack. And because I am a bad woman in a bad way, I’ll drink wine tonight, have more black reflections full of Empty Redemption.
by Elizabeth Kirschner
3:31. It is Sunday and I still know my date of birth: 7/3/55. And the D.O.D? Tomorrow, a month, a decade away? My shadow is giving off black reflections and my words are just black reflections. Create scenes, one friend advised. Scene I. Being Choked to Death. Scene II. The Body Bag, nails driven into the back of my head the way Mother rammed the bat into my head.
I wish I had an hourglass, could watch time slip away the way I want to slip away. Quietly slip away, just go from the material world, the corporeal world of my mortally wounded body into the spirit world. Maybe I would make a better spirit than mother, than wife. Doctor Susan says, “It’s amazing you survived” when I tell her the memories of Father putting things in and out of the holes in my body, especially the stink hole. Mother brandishing the bat, using her fists. Right now I feel her jamming her knuckles into my tightly closed eyes. Why, why did I survive? Why, why, why?
Susan says, to write and I have written, every day I do. Five books and the only one I care about is My Life as a Doll, that hell tale of my mother’s violence written before I remembered Father’s. It’s a horror story. So why tell it? Who wants to read the nightmares, see the bad film?
by Elizabeth Kirschner
Gradually the meds start to work. Now there’s the sobbing to do, barfing out the pain. Merciless, God is merciless, has eyes in the back of his head just like Mother did. She was always watching me with the eyes in the back of her head and now the back of my head is riddled with nails.
I crawl out from under the vanity. Debilitated, I can’t do a thing. Not a thing. I am a ravaged woman, a haunted woman. Outside, I believe there is an outside somewhere, but I am afraid of that black sack, that it might come back and what can a woman do with nails in her head? Dead low tide. Okay, I got that right, looked out the window without lifting my head. Dead low tide and my life, too, is at dead low tide. Ebbing, ebbing slowly away, sob by sob. 3:28. 3:29. I can record the time and it is passing on as I am passing, an impermanent dream. That’s the Buddhist concept: all phenomena are but an impermanent dream which makes—does it really?—my madness an impermanent dream. It’s awful just plain awful being a phenomenon of impermanence and who can live with an impermanent brain?
by Elizabeth Kirschner
Stop, I scream, stop! I’m clutching the door handle to the fridge. Is it time for the deep freeze? Husband who gave me the silent treatment, again, again, is now going to give me the deep freeze. He’s giving me the deep freeze by staring into my black, beady eyes with a frozen stare. He’s staring me down while scaring me to death. Where the hell are my meds? Should I take the whole bottle? Will that send him away so I can be back in kitchen with the party lights on. Is this a funeral party? It must be. I’m attending my own funeral party.
Somehow, I get away and he disappears like a genie back into its bottle. I’m crawling, sniffing like a dog for the scent of my meds. I’m in the bathroom now. It’s dark in here. Shaking, I open the drawer where I keep the good medicine. The good medicine that will keep bad medicine men like my husband away. Down the hatch they go, under the vanity I hide. I have to hide. I hide all the time. There’s a lot of hiding to do to keep away Mother, Father and now my husband. I’m cupping the back of my head, reeling with the pain from those nails. Christ was nailed to death, now me. Wait it out, I think, wait it out till the meds kick in.
by Elizabeth Kirschner
Suddenly—how does this happen?—I’m out of the black body sack and oh my God, husband is driving nails into the back of my head. His face looks chalky, grey stubble on his cheeks and he is way taller than me. Has he had a growth spurt since I moved away? He’s got bulging muscles, like a boxer’s, and his once sweet hazel eyes have turned into broken crystals that stare hard while he drives in those very long and rusty nails to kill my rusty brains, turn them into brain dust. He’s using my pretty hammer with the flowers on it and my skull is cracking—I can hear it—booming like a crack in an iceberg. Now I’m howling with pain, the very real pain from those very real nails. It’s riveting me while my head is being studded with nails. He’s really got me this time and he’s been trying to get me for years. There’s a lot of blood. Ugly black blood clotted with my hair. I’m in a pool of it, am sinking into to. Surely I’ll drown in my own blood, in my very own bloodbath.
Is this my baptism? The last sacrament for the dead? When did Dr. Robert Wolff become a priest? He’s Jewish, I know he’s Jewish, it’s a well-known fact that he is Jewish, so how can he be a priest? I used to go to priests, tell my sins. That’s it—I committed a sin by running away from him and this is my punishment. I’m getting nailed, getting hammered with the pain.
by Elizabeth Kirschner
Twenty-four hours. It takes twenty-four hours for my diamond mind to reset itself. Or so says Doctor Susan and Doctor Susan knows best. I feel like some strange nocturnal animal being shocked by the light stalking through the windows. There’s water out there. There’s sky out there and a very bald sun. I’m trying to ponder my madness. Why now? Why is my husband hurting me in these very bad scenes when he never, ever laid a finger on me? He who barely touched me at all, even affectionately. He’s many things, many complicated things, but violent? Absolutely not. He rarely even yelled at me even though I yelled at him. Will the madness ever stop? Its orbit orbits me to outer space and in most of them my husband is doing me harm. I have been experiencing—is that the word?—no, done in by the madness for six years and before that, four years of completely debilitating seizures. Hence a decade lost to illness. No down time, no vacation time, but a decade and it surely isn’t over yet.
Next day and he’s back. Dr. Robert Wolff is back. I’m standing in my little kitchen with the party lights on, the old, peeling wallpaper and two types of cracked linoleum. I’m holding a mug of water and zap he’s back, fast and furiously, very furiously. He’s got a black body bag. Where did he buy the body bag? It must be a crime to buy a body bag, but he’s got one and he is zipping me up inside it. The zipper nearly sings or is he whistling while he works at getting me inside the black body sack? The whole world, the universe, heaven, hell is going black. I’m flailing my limbs to get out of that sack. Black sack for a very bad girl. Good girls don’t run-away from home and I ran away from home. It was a getaway and God knows I needed a getaway, but now Robert is back and I’m reeling in my body bag sack. Limbs creaking like trees. Hair like an octopus’s legs. I try to stuff it in my mouth to stop the screaming. There’s not any air in here, screaming uses too much air and I am suffocating to death, slowly suffocating. I’m trying to punch my husband, but he’s dancing around me like a boxer and I can’t even land one.
by Elizabeth Kirschner
I am fathomless under the fathoms. My body parts—an arm here, a leg there—are going numb. It’s cold in here, but I’m not sure where here is. How could that be? How can I exist if I don’t know where here is? Give me back my house. Give me back my seasick mind. Enough dying for a day, a very long day. After an interval of interminable time, I start to come back. Brains plastered back together, but I feel like a billboard, a cold still billboard. And just what is my message? Am I broadcasting, in live time, my insanity? The coming back is hard, real hard, like swimming without limbs, but I’m doing it, holding my breath till I break the icy surface. Someone wants to hold me down, but I escape and here I am on the study floor. A lucid lunatic. Exhausted, I crawl over to my chair. I open my sticky eyes and see that the sun is shining, shining really hard, like a diamond. That’s what the sun is, a brilliant diamond, and that’s what my brain is, a brilliant diamond that gets shattered again and again.
by Elizabeth Kirschner
Something is happening with time. It’s frozen solid or is a rock face and me without toeholds or footholds to cling to. What does one do without any sense of time? I am begging time to come back while I wait, wait, wait for me to come back. I see myself in a heap on the floor. The carpet my only landscape, a desolate moonscape. My mind is blanked out, just an Etch-A-Sketch.
Time to sob, that’s what time it is, it’s time to sob. I’m clutching my gut, sobbing very hard, a dry heave of sobs, the barfing out of pain. Wave after wave, an ocean of sobs and I’m sinking in that ocean, salt stinging my flesh like a thousand tiny bees. Eyes still closed tight with that crazy glue, I am alone, totally alone, the only one left on the planet. Where did everyone go? Did I scare them all away and if so, why couldn’t I scare Mother and Father away?
by Elizabeth Kirschner
Words are turds so I don’t say a thing. I crawl back to my study, try to write Doctor Susan. I’m dying. Robert is at my throat. The word are misspelled, me on my knees using only one finger. Now the floor is sweeping me away, a magic carpet. Now I go limp, my head a Mr. Potato Head. Can’t hold a thought. Insanity is wordless. No brain, no speech.
My eyes flutter closed, stuck together with crazy glue. Now I stop breathing. Husband is kicking me around like a soccer ball. Game over, winner announced. How long will I lie here as more corpse than woman the way I was more corpse than child? The minutes are riddles and try as I might I can’t solve them. I’m silent now, dead silent, my body a sack of potatoes made to match my Mr. Potato Head. Will those potatoes be mashed? Will Dr. Robert Wolff gobble them up?
by Elizabeth Kirschner
I’m crawling all over the house searching for my meds, still screaming like a child in a burning building. My brain is on fire. I can smell its stinky smoke like seared meat. Where are the firemen? Who’s going to save the very life my husband wants to kill? Should I call 911? No, too hard. My hand is in my purse, I’m throwing its contents everywhere—checkbook, make-up mirror which shatters like a fallen star—searching for the pillbox. Now there’s shooting stars in my head, zapping me like a bug zapper. I’ve finally got my meds, swallow three without water. How did I do that? Swallow my pills while my husband is choking me? I don’t know, I simply don’t know.
by Elizabeth Kirschner
His hands are at my throat, choking me, slowly choking me to death. He’s squeezing me so hard I can hear my neck break–snap, snap, like a chicken bone. Will he pluck me, too? I see feathers, many bloody feathers on the ratty grey rug. Each of them has a bone in it, this I am sure of. Now I see my husband’s hands, the reddish hair on his hands, how it nearly bristles. Now I see his long boney fingers, the cracked nails bitten down. The hiss of his breath is pissing down my neck. I’m trying to buck him off, but he’s strong, like a wrestler, and I’m just a lightweight pinned to the exploding floor. Where are my meds? I’ve got to down my meds. Gobble, gobble. Gobble, gobble.
Bones. Decapitations. The tip of the knife running down my jugular vein as if de-veining
a shrimp. Bones, my bones, delicate as the spines of feathers, taped to paper, hung in old musty museums. The decapitation of my beloved, his face like that of an elephant gouged of its tusk, my fingers dabbing the blood like fingerpaint. The rock face of memory, its bald cliff so shiny it’s a mirror and in it I see the ghoulish visage of the child I once was, the harrowing, chiseled cheekbones, sickly grey complexion of the complex young woman I couldn’t help but be, whose dreams haunt my dreams like swirl art.
Where did that young woman go, she who mothered the angel of all poverty, whose fox-colored hair cascaded down her back, her tears like shattered jewels, her shadow encasing her, her ratty garments, buttons missing, holes like ghost eyes, her tragic pen, the words scorpions with stinging tails?
Men cloyed to her like flies on sticky paper, coils of which hung like ringlets from her water-stained ceiling. Flies can turn into maggots and the many lewd fingers prodding her here and there did, each a bloodsucker while man after man grew fat on her sweet fat, pricked her heart with one of Sebastian’s deadly arrows.
I see her walking into the sea, head hung low, the sun a lion’s head, clouds on the prowl. She looks down, hunched over, shoulders shaking as she takes off her long blue dress, the one with seams worn, torn, fetal birds folded deep in its pleats. She stays there a long time, in monolithic loneliness, her lips moving as if speaking in Penecostal tongues, but she is stuffing silence down her throat while longing to sink in the empty deep that roils around her.
Hours are time bombs, days rear themselves like Leviathans, years bleed along the bleak horizon, veer into steerage where she is stricken, starving. When she writes and she is always writing, she is in a mud hole, the walls slick as shit, the words being mucked up in the muck. She cries out, but her voice goes up into smoke. She cries again, but no one cares enough to hear her and she chokes on that smoke. It is though she were invisible and all who she knows walks through her as if hers were an existence made only out of absence. She is a doorway in the demise of her sighs, the hinges her shackles, her mouth a keyhole fit for the skeletal key her demons crank all night long.
Mute, beautiful, brilliant, her octopus brains squirm in the crustacean of her skull, each tentacle a liquid muscle greased with slime. Her desk from the junkyard is up on cinderblocks, she wears old sweats, a worn chemise and when she pushes the pen across the page, the ink is glue.
Everything sticks to her with sticky tape—the stinking kisses of the stinking men who toy with her, her body an old shoe or a Chinese junket adrift the River Styx. No one wants her, no one will keep her, even dream ever so remotely that she is anything but worthless. She is destitute debris, tossed asunder, scattered like torched seed into winds so fierce they whip her hair against her face with a slap.
Even her words are slaps, the endless rejection notes her only wallpaper in the dungeon of her rooms. Still she sits at her desk, her back an iron rod, the sentences sweating from her skin and she is entombed in her stories, boxed up in her poems, the blue lines on the yellow paper, bars in a cage.
Outside her window, there’s always heavy weather on the move, the air she breathes is waterlogged, her gaping gasps marble the glass with fog and her pages, her many, many pages do not bear the news that only poetry can, they are gobs of moldy newspaper she wants to form into spitballs, the letters smudged and smeared, illegible, irretrievably lost.
One day on a day I do not remember, I walk out of her, go far away from her, leave her for dead. Why I do this I do not know, but there she remains, a still life at the writing desk, staring at the chained dog next door as she turns in frantic circles, yanks against the cold cuff of her metal collar, digs in dirt. Years go by and I do not even think a wink about her, years that for her are like being in a war camp where her blood slowly, ever so slowly starts to freeze. I forget her entirely till the echoes of her nightmares fully fade.
Such abandonment is a courtship dance with damnation. Her long ago cries fall like curses and I deserve them the way I deserved Mother’s head-on blows, Father’s dirty worm. She is my most terrifying nightmare, my dangerous chimera and to bring her out of hiding, which I must do if I am to survive as a grown woman, as a writer, is something I’m not sure I’m brave enough to do. My bond to her is bondage and yet I call to her as if into a cave out of which the bats out of hell will fly.
Slowly I am coming to know I need her beauty, her brilliance, that she is my true mouthpiece and that even in her Ice Age isolation, she is stronger than I am. Everywhere I go, I stumble into the gauntlet of her shadow which I want to strip off her like mummy rags.
We must teach each other to speak in a big, big voice, we who have been voiceless for decades, violated far too often, but never again and assaulted by pain so gargantuan, its has blown our head off. Even now, I hear it thud down the stairs, decapitated by yet another searing dream. How do I search and rescue someone who is a hole in an empty pocket, whose brainwaves are electric shocks too hot too touch?
I shall lure her with bread and milk, leave it out as if for a scraggly stray, open my wallet, jingle change in my hands, show her my leather writing chair in my room with a view, give her my fountain pen studded with a diamond heart. I will wash her feet with my hair, open my wardrobe, let her fondle my clothes-horse clothes. Then I will gently lay her in my big iron bed, open the dormer windows, let in billowing sea air, light that is always swimming upstream.
She will sleep for days on end, wake only to eat and put down words that are now power plugs. No man will touch her without my permission and just now, I permit no man to do so. No one will ever use her again, break her like a rubber band stretched until it snaps.
I will tell her she is golden and we will walk, arm in arm, by the sea she will no longer long to sink in until someday we finally enter the dawning of my golden years. I will pay her the homage long overdue her because I am destined to do so. I will shower her with accolades, turn my home into her grotto, plait garlands in her hair and if I’m lucky and truly earn it, those curses will turn into blessings one hundredfold.
by Elizabeth Kirschner
The floor is exploding and I’m on it, hiding beneath my writing desk. Scraps of brain scattered everywhere, chunks of meat for vultures. The sunlight is scared, also hiding, everyone is hiding, terrified by my terror. I’m screaming really loud, the dog is barking also really loud. Screaming like an animal whose throat has been slit and that’s what I am, an animal, mammal animal and my husband, the one I am divorcing, is upon me the way father was upon me, husband who doesn’t even know where I live. Did he screech down the chimney, fly through a window, shattering glass everywhere? Is my violated mind also shattered glass and will it be stitched back together with a glass needle whose threads are spun by spiders, many spiders? Poisonous. I’m sure the spiders are poisonous, I taste their venom on my tongue—it’s burning, I’m burning like a house on fire. Is my house burning? Will I be buried in its ashes? No, it’s my husband coming at me like someone who’s come back from the grave.
The house I grew up in was a blue aquarium, my mother and father, the tanked up animals, and I was a child of the hinterlands where winter was always howling like a pack of hungry wolves. A baby veteran, I was always under siege, the attacks brutal and my screams from being beaten or preyed upon were my only arias.
All I wanted were animals, my own little Children’s Zoo. I dragged them home—the injured, abandoned, skittish strays—I who was perpetually running away, getting lost in the forest on purpose, a fairytale child in a living nightmare. Half-starved, I sucked down the yolks in fallen eggshells, wanted to stuff my mouth with fireflies, even drink up bugs like the bats swooping through dark summer skies. Terrified, nocturnal with red, red eyes from crying so hard, I wanted to suckle baby squirrels or raccoons, even salamanders, soft as my pinky, but Father had turned my nipples into nail heads and pain was pounded, driven into and through me.
Abuse is crucifixion, but the animals I adored were my little Christs. Some were savage—I would pull apart the bloody guts of murdered creatures like taffy, watched my guppies be devoured by bigger fish and believe me, in this world there are always bigger fish, circling, forever circling. I stared at my fish tank for hours through the slime of algae on the glass, longed to be a mermaid, have shimmering scales glitter my battered flesh. The underwater world was the one I wanted, me a girl Ophelia buried in her bed of water, water everywhere.
Always the little mother, I knew the animals would come to me in the dark, be my only suitors. Clouds were infant elephants, an army of ants a parade of tiny pilgrims and I was not the only orphan in my Dantesque orphanage. There were the turtles I won at Turtlle Races, their hard shells like lacquered green roses that I would press to my chest during nights so long the walls turned into scrims behind which was a shadow dance of monsters.
I sat on the cement stoop for hours, hands cupped, thoroughly believing if I sat still long enough a bird would build its nest there. This, too—I hung peanuts on string from the clothesline for chipmunks, planted watermelon seeds in dirt, waited for the magic stalk to plunge up, burst into blossom for the honey bees to feed upon. I wore skulls on my fingertips, my own cracked up with fault lines from Mother’s pummeling with rocks, pots or my brothers’ baseball bat and my stinging anus, burning from what Father jammed in there, crawled with snakes.
I watched flies turn into maggots, studied spiders weaving webs on rotten garbage and the sticky sweetness inside honey hives was the cloying saliva of the vampire who sunk his teeth into my juicy fruit neck. I could not lick myself clean, wanted a hummingbird to thrust her beak down my throat, pump me with the red sweetness she stole from sun-stunned flowers, I who forever flung myself against the windowpanes that held me in, ready to fly, far, far away even in the wildest storm-stricken skies.
Instead, I lapped up the sour milk I left out for the critters, knew my cells were rotten fish eggs stinking to the high heavens. Surely I was not one of God’s little creatures—rather I was Melville’s little bitch of a child, echoed the cries of whales, which one by one, were slaughtered and their blubber was my animal hide, I who longed to live in one of their bellies, scribble by candlelight the initiations of the damned. I was runt, cunt, had hooded eyelids, pretended that I could sink poisoned fangs into the ungodly ones who had begotten me.
Bestial in the worst sense, I made rubbery creepy crawlers from a plastic kit, was bait, carcass, a hairball caught in a kitten’s gut. Once I snuck a lost one home, hid her in the milk box in the cellar, fed her milk from an eye dropper, gave her crusts of stale bread. When Mother heard her squeak a piglet squeak, her rage was outrageous. She snatched the kitty from my hidey-hole, broke her neck, then plunged her into a dirty toilet bowl, flushed again and again.
It is Mother’s Day and I can still hear the snap of that cat’s neck. Mother long dead, I try to mother myself, fail far too often, fall into myriad forms of self-abuse. To the left of my writing desk, is my brand new kitty, a creature who has attempted to nurse on me more than once by latching onto my nipple in the middle of the night. On the other side of me is my dog nestled in the Portuguese shawl my once-upon-a-time husband bestowed upon me as a courtship gift. My only son is probably still asleep in his bed miles upon miles away, each one tiny heartbreak, and of how I long to bestow the waking kiss upon his cheekbone as I did on so many years of school day mornings.
How I learned to mother both animals and my beloved boy is a mystery I will not solve in this lifetime. It has meant being Super Woman when all I wanted as child was to be Super Girl so I could rescue myself, get to the homeless shelter I imagined Limbo to be. There I would be in a family of other battered children, be mothered by Mary, fathered by God.
Instead I was a butterflied angel, pink as a cold shrimp, its entrails gutted.
Now my dog is learning to be a little mother and I am a childless Mother remembering the half-strangled wildflowers my once young son gathered for me on Mother’s Days past, his crayoned cards, his gleeful cries at my delight. No such flowers or cards today, no call, no sound of his voice. Although it’s May, the Ice Man Cometh to sink his pick into my heart and gut me once again.