My brother shot himself in the foot.
No, he shot himself in the other foot.
We kept saying the names of things:
Tequila. Henry. New Moon.
We believed there was a story in there somewhere.
Maybe it was hiding in the purse
of the prostitute who was eating
chocolate chip pancakes
at the diner where the short order cook
was thinking about robbing himself again,
this time at gunpoint in the back alley
at the end of his shift. Or maybe
there was a tired gray river running through the center
of the city, and no one dared to look at it.
They could hear it—which was bad enough—
especially since the rest of us kept trying to drag
the drowned people out of the river,
kept trying to give them mouth-to-mouth,
but every one single of them would roll
around or cover their mouths
or refuse any help whatsoever.
Which was why the rest of us kept falling in love
with the first person we saw on the way home
out the southside bus; but still we dreamed
we were being interrogated every night
by The Unlaced Boot, which is why my brother
shot himself, right there, there, in the foot.
Her prickly ash is dying. Her toothache tree,
the leaves of which she plucks and grinds
to make her ointments, is bare this spring.
And because the body always whispers,
she gathers goat’s rue, hoary vervain,
and downy skullscap. She would search
the woods for discarded snake skins
if it would help. She would expel two-hundred eggs
like a cricket frog. In her vegetable garden
the small stream trickles past
then disappears like human wishes.
Her grackles rasp and watch
with yellow eyes. Once she cut her foot
on a sharp rock then bled into the water.
The water transformed itself to pink.
She dreams sometimes that blood is trickling
down the bark of the prickly ash, that blood
is pooling and strangling on her tongue.
-both previously published at Mannequin Envy
She lays a trap of pixie cups, ladder lichens,
toadskin lichens, split-gilled mushrooms,
milky caps, pig's ears, stinkhorns, fairy butter.
She ventures deep into the woods--slipping
out her bedroom window after midnight--
and searches everywhere for rotting wood,
holes punched like sorrow in dead trees,
leafy dreys, decaying smells of forest loam.
The night is restless and moldering
Her father first took here there in moonlight.
"Watch," he said. "Watch this.
"He smeared rotting collybia, sulphur top,
inky cap, and bitter bolete on the tree trunks.
"You'll think they're bats," he said. And stood
in moonlight until the clouds came by
and swallowed everything away.
"Tell yourself he died," her mother always said.
"Imagine he can't come back
because flesh isn't capable of digging out.
"So when one lands on the tree she always aches
that it were him. "Watch," she says with loving sorrow.
"Watch this." And takes her brother's pellet gun,
lifts it to her shoulder, and shoots
the flying squirrel dead in the eye.
Wild geraniums claw through the forest floor
with open mouths. And all that we have loved--
this fumbling, canting mask of memory--
closes around us in a familiar undergrowth
of loam, filling our lungs with its dense,
intoxicating brew. This is not safe ground.
We hike wordlessly beneath the canopy of
branches, and what pours out of us is leaf
river--it soaks the earth with a moist, wild
ache. At once this slough of green marrow
overtakes us, the wet air and the undulating rhythms,
the forest sunlight flooding from the branches.
We steel ourselves against its breathless current--
we pretend we do not know where it will carry us.
August Sunday. My great-aunt, nearly blind,
sits at my kitchen table and instructs me
how to cure insomnia by mixing wild geraniums,
purple avens, musk mallows, toothworts.
Later my grandmother makes us tea and tells
about her latest dream that a five-lined skink
climbed into her ear and whispered she
would die before the winter. I step outside.
My bitternut hickories have survived cankers,
white heart rot, witches' broom, leaf blotch,
anthracnose, nut weevels, twig girdlers.
Mornings, sometimes, driven restlessly from bed,
I hike before first light to the bottom of the mountain.
In the mottled gray, I listen to the pileated
woodpecker and the wood thrush, or I think
about the hickory nut custard pie my mother
might make for us on Sunday. My grandfather
insists our mountain speaks to us in great
and mystical voices. He believes that the secretive
red-bellied snake will appear to us in the hour
before we die. Sometimes he hikes with me
high into the mountain laurel--in case, he says,
our snakes have need that they should find us.
-three poems previously published at Poetry List