Archives

Misericordia

The man forced Álvaro against the blacktop
and shot him. To Álvaro’s bloody hand,
the last inch of yellow-painted asphalt

felt like God’s skin, plastic
under the rosary. Beyond road, desert.
A kind of burning love filled him.

Prayers blocked the low sun from his eyes:
his wife gardening, an illuminated snakeskin,
the coyote lifting stones

to sip at the water pooling in the desert night.
The man still stood above him,
watching him pray.

Álvaro saw suddenly that the man was God.
God’s silence, God’s bloody hands, God’s unflinching eyes.

Álvaro realized he had been waiting for this for years.
“I forgive you,” he whispered.

Around them, the sunset blushed mercifully through the desert.
The sirens neared, drawn by the stain of Álvaro’s blood

on the uniform of God, by the copper toll
of sacrament. Within the lacerated chamber of his heart,

Álvaro whispered, “A ti te perdono.”
God nodded. God reached down

to grasp Álvaro’s joined hands.
Together, they arose painfully

into the blue dark
that lives in the desert

outside of heaven.

The Hyacinth Gardener

In Chestertown, I was a murderer,
killing the lovers of all my lovers;

I borrowed shovels and lye from the farmers,
made fertile the earth, chastened the dirt;

I planted chrysanthemums and lungs
and ladyfingers and painted tongues

and delphiniums (which are normally blue
but which turned—with iron—a violet hue;

it’s easy to soften beds for two
when a third softens into blooms);

and planted a rose for every one of my unkindnesses,
of which there were many, and a daffodil for every joy,

and in spring I was a lover again,
flowers in hand, jealous and smiling.

Little Lies

In Storms

Near the end of 19th century, when the child was chubby-cheeked with wild curls and a sensitive red nose, Maryanne cried during storms. One particularly stormy night, she wailed in Mother’s lap and screamed when thunder cracked in the sky. Mother hushed her and sighed gently. She said over and over that the storm wasn’t going to hurt her and to stop crying before she dribbled everywhere. This helped the child about as much as salt on a wound.

Finally, Mother whispered to her that storms were angels fighting the demons away from the heavens. The battle couldn’t reach them so long as they stayed inside. Maryanne wiped her red, puffy face with her wrist and demanded an explanation.

“Lord have mercy, I’m not supposed to tell you this. The priests don’t want us scarin’ you young children, but I’m telling you ‘cause you’re scared enough to begin with.”

Mother revealed to the child how fallen angels occasionally marched to heaven to force their way back in, but the angels of the Lord guarded the gates against them.

“Why?” Maryanne asked.

“Because demons are wicked,” Mother whispered.

The child sniffled the dribbles back, deeming this answer good enough. She perched herself on Mother’s lap, and they watched the storm together, while Maryanne covered her ears and braced herself when lightning flashed.

Almost every time a storm rolled in, Maryanne sat in her rocking chair next to the window. Her big blue eyes blinked the blinding lights away. She imagined every lightning bolt was a spark from steel upon steel. Every thunderclap exploded from the roar of cannons. The angels’ and demons’ horses tumbled together into gray storm clouds, and demon bits rained back to hell.

Then, one day, a few years later, Maryanne dashed home from the schoolhouse crying, her pinafore spattered with mud. Although a wild storm had run rampant in and out of the town like bandits, the afternoon now glowed blue and gold. Maryanne had peered out the window, announcing, “The angels are fighting. Come see!”

The children snickered at her. Ms. Tinkle sent Maryanne to the corner, squawking, “That is not what’s happening! Who gave you such a violent idea?”

Mother sighed and spoke softly to Maryanne, having heard from Ms. Tinkle about what happened.

“I must say it’s not natural, going around making up lies about our religion,” Ms. Tinkle said. “I believe that’s irresponsible on your part, ma’am.”

Mother had turned the teacher away with a stiff, “Well, ma’am, my Maryanne’s a perfectly normal child. They’re supposed to have a little ‘magination at her age, or what’s she gonna do? Listen to your prattle for all those hours? Good day, Ms. Tinkle!”

The child sobbed in her room all afternoon. When it was time for dinner, she trudged downstairs to the tiny kitchen. Her face burned red from tearstains and the sound of the children’s laughter in her head, but she said nothing.

In Milk

At age eight, Maryanne began tugging her curls and straying frizz, hoping to make them straighter. She pinched her eyelashes with her fingers to “make them longer.”

Mother would say she didn’t have to be beautiful. “You’re only a child.”

Then Maryanne would remember the book of collected fairytales that once belonged to Mother’s mother—how beautiful and therefore good the ladies were.

She had been watching a girl in her class, Jennifer Battenbrook, with her silky locks, long lashes, and pert pink lips. Whenever Jennifer strolled into the schoolhouse, Ms. Tinkle’s eyes lit up.

“Good morning, Ms. Battenbrook,” Ms. Tinkle always squawked.

“Good morning Ms. Tinkle,” Jennifer chirped back.

Ms. Tinkle never calls me “Ms.” or by my last name, Maryanne thought. Maryanne yanked the brush through her hair five times a day. The child even threatened to use scissors to cut away the frizz and placed them on her bed one day.

Mother sighed in the doorway and snatched the scissors from the bed, stuffing them in her dress pocket.

“You know what’ll make your hair grow longer?” Mother asked (for long hair was apparently the key to beauty). “Drink more milk.”

Maryanne scowled and demanded to know how milk of all things helped hair grow. Mother explained that milk was good for you. The child frowned and bumped her head against the mirror, unsatisfied with the answer, but then she pushed the brush aside, strode into the kitchen, and poured a glass of milk. Every morning and night, she choked down the thick, sour-sweet liquid that froze her gums, never quite getting used to it.

She endured this for four years. Her hair changed about as much as a scar. The color darkened, but it still curled and frizzed. It grew with split ends, so Mother had cut it to the same length as before: just below Maryanne’s shoulders. Maryanne still gagged on the milk and she still wanted to throw the chalk from her slate at Jennifer Battenbrook every time she saw her.

Maryanne frowned at her reflection one morning with dull eyes. She sighed and braided her hair back. When Mother poured her a glass of milk, Maryanne waited for her to leave the kitchen before pouring the milk back into the pitcher.

“Fairytales aren’t real anyway,” she grumbled.

In Love

At 16, further into Edward’s reign over in Britain, Maryanne became friends with Jennifer Battenbrook through her friend Laura Bennington. Jennifer grew even prettier and wore her hair in up-dos without frizz. Maryanne ignored Jennifer’s golden locks and braided her curls back. Laura, the tallest of the three, wore her black wavy hair up and played with Maryanne’s hair.

They attended festivals and picnics that the Battenbrooks hosted on their plot of land by the pond. In the distance, they could see the emerald rafters of the Battenbrooks’ Victorian house gleaming like sunlight on the trees. Maryanne fiddled with small plates of food or danced reels with Laura while Jennifer danced with the young men. Later, Maryanne escaped to the pond with a hardcover book. Laura joined Jennifer to tease the boys who were in their class. The girls would eventually interrupt Maryanne and collapse next to her in fits of giggles or chatter. They always peered at her books to read the tales of medieval romance together.

“They’re in love all right,” Jennifer swooned after they finished the chapter. “It’s the greatest force there is.”

“This coming from the one with a new love every month,” Maryanne commented. Laura snickered. Jennifer shrugged her shoulders like a dandelion swaying in the wind.

“You’re just jealous because boys like me,” Jennifer joked with a pursed smile.

Maryanne rolled her eyes and exhale slightly, going back to her book. She refused to admit that Jennifer was right. She observed the way Jennifer smiled and lifted her shoulders when talking to a boy. The young man would grin and gesture at her with subtle hands, though Maryanne could only imagine what they talked about.

It wasn’t until spring when Jennifer started flirting with William Harding. Maryanne watched from the pond’s edge. Laura stood by the lemonade table with another boy, Joseph Walden, though Maryanne caught Laura’s honey-brown eyes flicking longingly to the handsome pair.

Maryanne gazed at William and Jennifer, but she made Jennifer disappear entirely. Maryanne wore the same blue skirt and light blouse as Jennifer with a white collar and decorative broach. William’s hand touched hers until he asked her for a dance. Then both hands held hers. He had strong work hands that were hard, long, and perfect. He flashed his white smile for her, maybe even because of her. Her heart raced as his hand made its way to her waist. She inhaled when it felt like her chest was caving in.

The dance ended. His green eyes gazed deeply, adoringly into hers…why? He barely spoke to her. When he did, she wasn’t sure what he said. His lips moved. He gestured to her. She faintly heard his deep, flat accent. He spoke words like “Miss” and “awfully nice,” making her face turn pink. What for? About what?

…And what did she say back to him? Her lips pressed tight in a smile as she blinked at him. In her tales of romance, the hero and heroine rarely spoke about anything but “love.” They didn’t teach her what to say to someone she barely knew. Then again, love was a force.

The Collegian

Volume 26, Issue 3

Perhaps nothing needed to be said. She could feel her heart beating. It beat for him…why?

He leaned in for a kiss. She hesitated but leaned forward too, closing her eyes. She felt nothing—no press against her lips, no jolt of her heart. She opened her eyes. William was walking away. Her heart sank. That’s it? The lover never just walked away.

William Harding strolled away from Jennifer. Jennifer rolled her shoulders and smiled. Laura hurried to her side, putting her hand on Jennifer’s arm and leaning in for gossip.

Maryanne looked to her romantic hardcover, then back to William. She swallowed. Was this all the words “in love” meant? False reality? A fantasy as real as magic milk or angels in storms?

Suddenly, Maryanne felt an iron plate subdue her flinching heart. She couldn’t help but to smile.

She knew something Jennifer Battenbrook did not. march 2015 growth 31 32

Musty Morning Blues

Gray film filters through
faded curtains into
an every-day confession booth.

The overpowering steam
around these hard walls
resembles the dark and misty
morning beyond the tile barriers.

The light unravels me,
like a haircut, or a scab,
or a change of address.
The clouded mirror reflects
layers of my sweat and stain.

Suds, embodying the grime
of whispered prayer, slide
away, down rivers
between ribs, currents
through hip bones.

Away, downward, rinses
the fog, scrubbing
at muddy afterthought.
Clumps of dead skin
mirror dead intentions.

Thundering ribbons, beads
spray harshly against
a bare back, bending,
forcing the spine
to crumple, until
knees are circling
down the drain.

Wash off the regret,
the shaking knuckles,
wash away the “I’m sorry”
I’m sorry, I’m sorry,
I’m slipping down
into the pipes.

I Tried To Eat the Ashes

I can’t hang you from my ribcage, can’t let you swing about.
I am sorry about that. I tried, but there
was too much there, too much organ, too much lung,
prittle prattle tongue. There was too much air,
too much bird, feather and tar, too much mountain
and stone and river bone made white to shone
and it ran cold and cold and cold and there was
too much! too much in the lung, and even stripped
it still skipped its hum, and the heart skipped, too,
and we threw it askew, and it grew vines,
and with vines came bees, and bees be like
flowers be like thorns in that to mourn
is to hold and then the river is cold cold cold!
so cold you bleed, and you need room but
there’s no room, there’s too much! and you just
need a little room, a little room in lieu of loom
of what’s skipping tunes, and the doom is! and the doom is…
and the trouble is, there’s so much of me, and so little of you.

Answered Prayers

it’s still raining and the air creaks
with sighs and groans, questioning
how long it will take for this ungodly storm to end.
forty hours past and still the air bends
like noah’s ark without the flood;
arch my back, but this time
my arms will reach for the heavens
to pluck the stars from scars
in a cracking concrete sky;
pull them from their resting place
to find a home in moss covered veins.
the air, clean and heavy,
fills my lungs and lingers,
drifting from a sky that sparks and splinters,
charged with duty to one god or another—
a bruised and blackened
love note from the heavens
to the earth,
the sea…
see I’ve always loved the rain
and in return it’s drowning me.

And Then the Attic

Chloe brought two things to her mother’s house: coffee-stained breath and a ferocious impulse to swing on the railing at the top of the stairs. Whenever Chloe returned to her mother’s house, the place where she grew up, she had the urge to slap doorway frames and brush her fingers on the ceiling to show the house how tall she was, how small it was, and as she touched the worn wood in places her fingers found often she felt her younger self zap back into place.

But she restrained herself. Chloe deemed the nostalgia inappropriate—one last act of defiance upon her mother’s rules didn’t seem like the right bookend to her relationship with the house. Her mother Lydia sat in the living room and stared through the wallpaper as deeply as her old mind allowed. Most of the house was packed already; Lydia had prepared herself for the move to the adult’s home.

Chloe restrained herself from exposing her mother to too much exuberance and, instead, said, “Mom, I’m here.”

“What now? You’ve come to visit your mother?”

“Yes, Mom,” Chloe said. “Every Tuesday and Thursday.” She unwound her scarf and tamed the frizz that rose from her collar as she scuffed the snow from her sneakers. With her toes under one heel at a time, she crowbarred her shoes off and lined them up next to her mother’s loafers.

Chloe imagined the younger version of her mother materializing in the loafers, rising from the leather first as a smoke tongue then liquefying out: insta-mom. The arms wiggled from the torso, crossed over the body, stayed, shielded. Chloe nudged the shoes and the mirage melted into the soles.

“Let me buy you some new shoes,” Chloe said. She walked into the living room and sat on the couch opposite Lydia.

Lydia filled the cracks of the armchair; her old body slouched into itself. Her hair floated whitely around her crown, overpowered by the redness and liver spots that populated her scalp. Her hands trembled at the knuckles unless she latched them to the arms of the chair. The arthritis rusted her joints until her fingers bowed and hooked towards a crookedness that prevented her from cleaning the house as much as she wanted.

Chloe slouched forward on the couch. She adjusted the frayed hems of her jeans and her smoke-skunked hair fell around her face.

“I should have straightened up before you came. I should have cleaned,” Lydia said.

Chloe glanced around the box-lined room. Furniture blinked back along with the crested eyes of the knitted quilt that hung from the wall. She looked back at her mother whose jaw worked back and forth.

“Do you want a drink?” Chloe asked.

Lydia nodded a couple beats, scraping her teeth forward, then said, “A drink? From what?”

Chloe stood up and straightened her shirt. “From, uh, from the tap, Mom.”

“Don’t touch my sink,” Lydia replied.

“So you don’t want water?”

“Sit still a bit. You’re stirring up all the dust. Look at this dust.” Lydia hooked with an arthritic finger across the end table, and Chloe furrowed her brow at the streak left by her mother’s skin.

“There’s no dust, Mom,” Chloe said. She scratched the corner of her eye; she knew this exchange by rote.

“No dust,” Lydia said. “You never knew anything about it.”

Chloe sighed, looked around the room, and planted her gaze on the bookshelf and the empty, open-mouthed box that waited to devour the last of her mother’s possessions. She thought of ways she could pack her mother’s books away without her noticing, without her mother preventing her from cutting the last root to the place.

Lydia coughed a wet cough and Chloe met the corner of her mother’s eye.

Chloe said, “Let me get you a sweater, you’re trembling.”

“These are things I do,” Lydia said. She cupped one bramble fist into the other.

Chloe got up and adjusted her shirt. She went into the hallway and at the top of the stairs saw a miniature version of herself, shrunken, with the pimples that littered her face before they dug her cheeks with pockmarks. The small body swung above the steps, wrists locked, hands fastened to the railing—a reliable mechanism until her mother’s shout had startled her back and onto the top steps.

Chloe watched the girl examine the rug burn on her hands, then scamper down the steps. Chloe lifted her arm to let her pass, but her hand brushed the indent of her waist and the vision swallowed itself into the sharp memory of her mother’s voice. Chloe placed a hand on the railing and made her way up the stairs.

She plucked a sweater from the disheveled mass in her mother’s drawer. The one thing Lydia had not kept clean over the years was her bedroom. Lydia proved herself a magpie; she consumed all the crumbs everywhere else in the house, but collected all the shiny bits and trinkets for her nest. She had filled it with objects, lined the mud-colored walls with clothing and paper.

Chloe marveled at how clean the room looked now because the only inhabitants were the clothes in the box next to the drawer and the photograph of them in front of boughs pregnant with cherry blossoms. Chloe noticed that the picture’s wooden frame was faded as though it were rubbed like a worry stone. She folded the sweater over her arm and made her way towards the staircase.

Chloe’s desire to swing on the railing ebbed as she remembered her younger self scurrying into the kitchen. Each step down, Chloe could hear the echo of her mother’s shouts, the clatter of each dish she washed and re-washed, the grating of the silverware drawer, the stark glitter of the too-clean appliances.

She turned into the living room and, projected from her old mother’s chest, was the young, buzzing version of her with hot suds down her arms and reddened, chafed hands: the version whose lover had her wrists and begged her, “Please stop. Lydia, please, please stop.”

“Let go, let go,” was Lydia’s elevated chant.

Chloe’s brow wrung the memory from her sight, and she presented the sweater to her mother.

Lydia stroked the sweater in her lap. She smiled at Chloe, and then she slowly hid herself in the fabric.

Chloe had always shoveled the blame on Lydia, piled the debris deep in her body, her attic chest. Her father left, the lovers left; she was always too embarrassed to have friends over to her house. All of it she blamed on Lydia.

Two ghosts rose from the floorboards, one shaped like a mother and the other shaped like a college student. Chloe recognized the shape of her own back, and her neck bristled as the teenager stormed from the kitchen where the apparition of Lydia scrubbed a dinner plate. Scrubbed a dinner plate. Scrubbed a dinner plate.

Chloe watched as her younger self said, I can’t wait to leave. I can’t wait to get away from you. I’ll stay in Arizona. I’ll stay there.

The choke from Lydia’s ghost cracked the dinner plate and snapped Chloe back into her body. She remembered how her stomach had twisted with the doorknob when she had come home after her first year of school, and she remembered her mother in the living room on a stepladder. The cracked valleys of Lydia’s knuckles had whitened as she turned, gripped the quilt, and saw Chloe.

And Lydia saw her daughter for years.

Chloe, her mind still whirring, said to her mother, “The picture of us is back on your dresser.” The mention of it lifted her, let her thoughts swing.

“What now? Oh, that? That never left. The picture never left,” Lydia said. “I keep it close to me.”

“Okay,” Chloe said. She eyed the flaky wrinkles on her mother’s hands. “Mom? Did your nurse come?”

Lydia nodded and said, “My nurse came each day this week. She’s a good nurse.”

“Did she give you your lotion?” Chloe asked.

Lydia hummed. She met Chloe’s eyes and rose to go to the kitchen.

“You don’t have to get up, Mom,” Chloe said. “What do you need?”

“Oh, just some water.”

And Lydia waddled into the kitchen.

Chloe followed her mother and said, “Wait. Mom.”

Lydia turned to her from the glow of the fridge light. She lifted a juice container and placed it onto the counter next to the sink.

“Do you want some juice?” Lydia asked.

“Sure,” Chloe said. She exhaled in relief, ignored the equipment placed on the sink faucet because the original lever handle had ripped off at some point in the house’s history.

Chloe peered at her mother in the kitchen and then directed her attention to the bookshelf.

No one had been allowed to touch Lydia’s books. They always lined up in the living room, and Chloe had spent plenty of time as a girl reading the spines. Her mother used the books as a refuge from her cleaning, as a dry and steady place to put her hands, but Chloe had never actually seen her mother read the books.

Chloe bent over and folded back the flap of the box next to the shelf. She looked again, towards the kitchen, and reached for the books.

Chloe remembered herself crouched at the bottom of the staircase looking into the living room. She remembered the intention: to read her mother’s books. Instead, she had found her mother cross-legged in front of the shelf, a book flattened on the floor, her hand working vigorously against the page. She had lifted her thumb to her mouth, wet it, and then rubbed the book’s text. When she had gone to dampen her thumb again, she had noticed Chloe and startled, slammed the book shut.

“Chloe,” Lydia said. Her fingers trembled with ink on their tips.

Chloe watched, again, as the little girl ran away, scurrying, mouse-like hurrying up the stairs to cover her head with a pillow to drown out her mother’s embarrassed tears.

Chloe closed her hand. The books that rotted on the shelves issued their musk, the furniture gleamed with tooth-like wetness, the wallpaper tangled Chloe’s vision until it blurred in and out. Guilt clotted her throat.

Lydia shuffled into the living room, sat, and sipped her juice.

She noticed Chloe and said, “Child, what are you doing?”

Chloe rubbed at her nape and offered her mother a smile. But it got stuck in her teeth.

“Mom,” Chloe said. “Would you like for me to help you pack these up?” Chloe gestured to the books.

Lydia worried her bottom lip, and then said, “I would like that. I would love that.”

Chloe jerked in place.

She stepped over the vision of her mother cross-legged with her red-raw hands gripping the binding of the book. She turned from the wispy outline of the little girl at the foot of the stairs, and felt a chill as she selected a book from the middle. The girl-shaped mirage lifted across the room and fell into a vacant spot within Chloe as the heavier books tipped over into the space her selection left.

Returning to her mother, Chloe sat on the arm of her mother’s chair.

Lydia tapped Chloe’s belt loop and said, “Why don’t you read some. Maybe just one. Just one and we’ll pack them.”

It was uncomfortable, Chloe’s leg dangled over the side and her butt cheek wedged where it shouldn’t, but the closeness to her mother wore the discomfort down.

And she read the book aloud, the words slow and clean, the text on the page bothered and peeled from the times her mother had tried to pull them from the page and fill herself. Lydia drifted in and

The Collegian

Volume 26, Issue 3

out, and she helped Chloe with words that were no longer there, both of their fingers brushing the pages.

Chloe squinted back tears as they read, as the house widened out from their breathing, as Lydia hummed between lines of Chloe’s voice, as the sound of their sharing shrugged the little girl and watery mother from their hiding spots and polished them until they rocked from their dull attics and tumbled outward into the snow. march 2015 growth 19 20