The Girl Who Didn’t Drown

I fished her out of that river flailing and gurgling,

each wheezing gasp of air not enough in clenched

lungs, carried her into my place, and she retched

water all over the floor. Hey, 19th century men

with dream-tipped paintbrushes, look: her

spit on the linoleum. Try painting that.

Not a wildflower in sight, and this Ophelia

is still kicking, middle fingers firmly up.

*

All those odes in color and ink to the tragic beauty

of dead girls, their soft hair and the gentle pallor

on their lips. What I have here is an alive girl,

giving me looks like a cat in the bath that’s not

liking it there, dripping on my carpet, tracking mud

and sneezing like a cymbal crash. She spills all

the cocoa with bloodless fingers, numb from that

cold cold place she’s been, she clears her throat

and it sounds like a saw through wood, what more

can I say? Put her in a museum, yes, this girl,

sitting pissed off, snotty and chilled, next to

all that tragic beauty, put this: her pulse,

the breath in her chest.

A Day for the Fine Arts

An artist of sorts today, gums still raw from the

toothbrush and from the woman he kissed before

leaving, her barbed wire tongue in his mouth,

the devil on his shoulder in a rumpled nightgown.

He’s swallowing bullets and breathing gunpowder

and then sweating it all out again.

Go get ’em, tiger. Go tear them all down.

*

Succession and survival are basically the

same: time to make an art out of both.

*

A painting with three colors, by this balding

old master with shaking hands. First, a silver

flash of a movement that goes exactly

where it is meant to. Then a red thread

from the Fates’ spindle, unspooling all over

the wall. And then the blackest silence.

*

He feels a part of himself sink into this scene

like a pair of cinderblock shoes, never

to come up for air again.

Swamp Water and Blood

It was dark out when they came.

The swamp was huge and old, secretive and unpredictable. Navigating it meant always being on the lookout, carefully balancing between the bushes grasping at his clothes and the duckweed over everything, never knowing if his next step would be a safe one or his last into the muddy depths. He splashed between silent cypress trees covered in vines, listened to the low hum of the mosquitoes. He’d lost more blood to them and to the fat, shiny leeches hiding in the water than to anyone, or anything, else.

Swimming across the collapsed bridge to the other bank with an axe in his clothes had been hell. The bodies, so it seemed, had been giving him accusing glances as he’d hoisted them into the swamp and prepared to dip himself into it, too. They had bobbed on top of the red-tinged water, their stained dresses puffed up with air, and he’d had to turn away even as he was forcing them down with a huge, desiccated branch. He’d hoped he was getting used this part; but no getting used to this, not at all.

At last they’d sunk and he had walked away from them, tiptoeing across the rotting remains of the bridge that swayed under his weight. And then it had been his turn to dive into the stinking mire. He’d tried not to think of lowering himself into a grave as he’d done it.

The axe had been dragging him deeper, each stroke in the syrupy water a struggle; every time his clothes had snagged on a root, he’d had to force himself not to imagine fingers grasping at him. He’d screamed when he’d climbed out onto dry land and seen all the leeches clinging to his skin.

The old house on the other side wasn’t in as bad a state as it had looked from afar. The top floor had collapsed in a long-ago fire, the jagged walls like the edges of a wound; but the base was still intact, and mostly dry. He made his shelter in the huge, dusty fireplace in what must have been a living room once, now hollowed out and home only to animals. He’d found a copperhead and a dead rabbit in one corner and frozen, trying to remember just how venomous these snakes were, but the thing had given him a long look and slithered out of its nest of leaves before he had been able to make up his mind to move.

He had looked at the cooling body of the rabbit it had left behind and wanted to cry.

As far as hiding places went, the fire-scarred building wasn’t the worst he’d ever had. He went out to scavenge some roots and berries and bird’s eggs to eat twice a day, blessing his mother for buying him all those camping and survival guides when he’d still been a boy. He’d even managed to catch a few fish once, thinking that he was going to eat like a king that day… and then he’d doubled over with wheezing laughter that would have terrified anyone close enough to hear it. Some king he was – king of an empty marsh, of a ruined house, of bad dreams and two dead teenage girls.

The place was mostly silent around him, all animals except the ever-hungry bloodsuckers avoiding him like the snake had. He huddled between the cobwebs in the fireplace, eating whatever he could gather, waiting for… he didn’t even know what. Salvation, maybe.

And then on the third night, they came out of the water, their clothes dripping and dirty but not a mark on their skin, not even wrinkles from soaking for so long. And he had to run again.

One day, maybe, he would manage to lay his sisters to rest, extinguish the spark that kept them going, smother it for good. A spark still as bright and vicious as on the day he had flipped the switch, and brought them back from that murky land only the dead go to.

He had meant well that time, and he still meant well now. Sometimes love was easy, sometimes love was righting something that had gone wrong. And sometimes love was trying to right that wrong and failing horribly, trying again and again and again.

Sometimes… love was the stroke of an axe.

This Man Is Not Going Home

His feet ache and his bones are swollen, the gasoline in his veins keeps him going but not much else does. He’s moved past tired a while ago.

He is his own ghost, hammering fists on the walls of an aging body, he is a summary of the cold ponds he bathes in and the dust of the road and the stale taste of old pretzels he chews on in bus stations as he waits, of the way he’s stopped being embarrassed about pissing under bridges and the way he really needs a haircut. The other day he saw a man on fire sitting on the side of the road, and all he could say was: I get it. For fun, he kicks at pigeons and old beer cans. Not much else to do.

Where is my curse? Is it in my toes, my gut, my head, or hiding behind my lungs? Where is this thing that keeps me from stopping and catching my breath? I’d try to cut it out if I knew what to cut, but I don’t want to waste anything. I feel like a starved dog already.

He stretches his thumb out on highways like an offering, like a dead branch. He tries to go home, only he’s not sure anymore if home is a place or a feeling, or just something people invented to feel safer under a roof while wild animals crept past their windows.

I remember a woman with eyes of iron and a straight back, I remember I was called king once.

But I don’t know where.

A Letter Home

All the late nights and the reeking back alleys and the knife fights and the ruined sheets, and I tried not to think of you, mama. It was trying not to think of the switchblade in my side, the hole in my tooth, the gum I choked on this morning, the wasp I stepped on with a bare foot, the gun pressed into the small of my back. I carried you with me everywhere, a dead body filled with bad blood and the shrapnel wounds of good intentions.

Been a while, hasn’t it? What can I say, being the family disappointment is dirty work, but someone might as well do it; and the contrast makes my cousins look better at the reunions. You don’t thank me for that, I know, but I made money, and I had fun. I had so much fun I’m sick of the candy taste of it.

Fuck Freud, sincerely, but all roads do lead to the hands and the eyes of mothers. So do mazes and highways and bridges and forgotten forest paths, and the circles I keep running in. I’m dizzy. I just need someone to hold my hair and not complain.

So be glad, my mama, raise your head and let go the hard clench of your jaw. Go find that wine bottle in the cellar, the one from your wedding you’ve sworn never to open, and drink deep. You don’t have to cook me dinner if you don’t feel like it.

Just get the tears out of the way before I get home, okay?

It’ll be bad enough anyway. I’ll trip on the threshold and stub my toe and the first word I’ll say, back in the house I grew up in, will be a loud “Fuck!” That creepy porcelain cherub I broke, and hid from you for years, will come out from under the raised floorboard when I step on it to sing my shame, my homecoming.

One little girl grown old, with nowhere left to sleep in this big big world, is coming back to you, mama; coming with smoke-stung eyes and sunburned cheeks, and bloody knuckles that don’t even carry the pride of a fight, not this time. Right now, they just match the shape of a hole in the drywall above a dirty sink, in a restroom behind a gas station, getting smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror on the bus.

Carrion Birds

There were four of them standing at the edge of the open grave. Lucinda Wilson, white-blonde and gaunt, almost skeletal, with that maddening, mysterious smile always on her lips. Peggy McDougal, stocky, grim, with a curly chestnut mullet and a sweated-through flannel shirt, holding a muddy shovel whose handle was worn shiny with use. Rat-faced redhead Chester Lee, his fingers clenched on the handle of a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire. And next to him sharp-toothed Ariana Rossi, with a limp black ponytail and a thin mustache above her upper lip, a shotgun slung over her left shoulder. They were all staring down into the hole. Peggy leaned forward and spat into it.

Continue reading “Carrion Birds”

Red

My grandmother was a wolf with yellowed teeth

falling out one by one.

*

(I once saw a boy wearing one around his neck

& he told me he’d killed a vicious beast for it)

*

My grandmother was the forest & the grasping roots

of trees sucking at the drops of water in the ground

& a wrinkled mouth sucking at marrow from a deer rib.

*

“Do not fear the unknown

as long as it does not fear you.

You will smell it when it does.”

*

(the smell of blood on a fresh hare pelt around his waist)

(& on the hands he touched me with)

(was all I could)

*

Grandmother, beloved, his skin is warmed by yours now

& who knows where he scattered your bones?

*

(I once saw a baker cutting bread with a

bone-handled knife & I did not know for sure

oh I did not know)

*

The red of a sundown

& the red of a flayed body

& the red behind my eyes

& the red of my cloak.

Once every full moon,

I prowl on two legs.

*

What big teeth I have.

I will need all of them.

Collateral Damage

“Oh, Wendy,” Sara said, and the tone of her voice made me pause and sit up straighter and put my Scotch down, very slowly. Something was coming for me, I heard it in the way she pronounced my name.

I had just finished giving her my big it’s-not-you-it’s-me breakup speech, the two of us sitting with a pair of drinks in the ugly living room of my ugly mansion under the too-big chandelier my husband still thought was a good idea. I was expecting tears, a scene, or no scene at all, just heartbreak. Fucking hell, mine was already in pieces on the floor.

The one thing I wasn’t expecting was what Sara actually said when I told her I wanted to keep her unhurt, far away from the family I’d married into. “Are you just not paying attention at all, or are you honest to God this fucking clueless?”

I thought I was hearing things. “I beg your pardon?”

Sara looked at her nails as if they were the most interesting thing in the room, all porcelain blonde and athlete legs and a sharp face that still drove me crazy, only with a smile that didn’t sit right on her mouth today. And she told me just what she’d been up to behind my back… this entire time.

Undermining the business, gathering enough dirt to bury us all, bit by blood-soaked bit. She spared me the particulars, assured me it was too late to stop our house crashing down on us anyway, both Samson and Delilah peering at me above a vase I never liked. God help me, her eyes were almost kind.

“Cozying up to the big man’s wife is not the safest way to do it, no, but one of the oldest tricks in the book,” she finished as my first tears started to spill. “I honestly thought you called me here because you’ve caught on, but… Oh, well.” She shrugged almost delicately. No idea if the knife strapped to her belt that she was flashing me with that movement was meant to be seen. It probably was. “All never mind now.”

When I spoke it felt like someone else was talking with my mouth. “What…”

“A house of cards, love, that’s all. You didn’t build it. I didn’t either.” Sara smiled, this time warm like a ray of morning light, leaned over the coffee table and kissed my numb lips with a mouth still tasting of bourbon. “My boss will be pissed off if he finds out, but I’m giving you a head start: get out of the city while you can.” Her eyes bored into mine as she pulled back, like a drill driven into wood. “Don’t try to save him. He’s not worth it anyway.”

With that she stood up, leaving her drink unfinished. She turned and sauntered out of my house, only stopping in the doorway to give me the coup de grace.

“Don’t take it personally. If that helps… think of what we had as collateral damage.”

And she left.