In the new world, as the goddess dictated,
each time a man touched a woman against
her will, each time he exposed himself,
each time he whistled, dropped something
in her drink, photographed her in secret
she sprouted a wing from her spine. Not feathered,
like birds or angels, not cellular, translucent,
veined like dragonflies, but a wing
like a blade, like a sword hammered flat,
thin as paper. One wing per wrong.
At first, the women lamented. All their dresses
needed altering, their blankets shredded,
their own hair sliced off like a whisper
if it grew down their backs. And those
misused by fathers, bosses, drunken strangers
evening after evening were blade-ridden,
their statures curved downward like sorrow
under such weight. But this was not the old world
of red letters or mouthfuls of unspoken names,
not the old world of women folded
around their secrets like envelopes, of stark
rooms where men asked what they’d done
to deserve this. And the goddess whispered
to the women in their dreams, and they awakened,
startled, and knew the truth.
They pinned up their hair, walked out into the morning
their blades glittering in the sun, sistering
them to each other. They searched for the woman
with the most blades, found her unable to stand,
left for dead, nearly crushed beneath the blades’ weight.
They called her queen. They lifted her with hands
gentle as questions, flung her into the air,
saw her snap straight, beat the wings at last,
and they followed her, a swarm of them, terrible
and thrumming, to put the blades to use.
The ferryman is counting up his fares
as blood congeals and stains and spills and clots.
It’s cash or coin. No cards. No thoughts and prayers.
A mother tears her clothes, a boy despairs.
Their vigils litter cities lit with dots.
The ferryman is trembling, counting fares.
He’s had to buy new oars, to make repairs,
stays up nights counting bullets, mopping spots
of blood off of his deck: the thoughts and prayers
just one more thing needs sweeping, extra cares
tossed on his shoulders already in knots.
A better boatman wouldn’t bear such cares.
I have my work, and up there, they have theirs,
he tells himself, but jumps when he hears shots.
So many. He can’t stand to count the fares.
He navigates a river red with prayers.
Hiroshima, Japan 1945
In the final hours of pregnancy, Yoshiko
had come to understand her skeleton.
To a woman’s small hand, the trunks
of great akamatsu trees were hard
as stones, but the right breeze bowed their tops.
A storm inside her rose, the bark
of her body grew soft, bent outward, making way.
The midwife held her hands for balance
as she crouched over old blankets. Yoshiko screamed.
“Think of something else, girl. Think of your man.”
Her husband’s body, soaked in seawater,
littered the Pacific with a thousand thousand others.
She hadn’t loved him, his rough hands, his ugly
fumbling in their bed. He’d struck her once.
He was weak, and it hadn’t hurt, but sending him
to war had not moved her heart. She was able to eat
shishamo again, which he had not liked. He’d never known
about this child. It was hers entirely, hers
for every coming sunrise of her life. “Once more,”
the midwife said. Something splintered
in her spine then gave, split her wide, and slid
between her feet. “A daughter,” said the midwife,
swaddling the girl in a torn jacket. A daughter,
thought Yoshiko. Her husband would have grieved.
But Yoshiko felt a latch inside her open. A dormant flower
bloomed. The midwife settled the girl in her arms,
and Yoshiko saw her own brows and eyes, tiny, mirrored back.
The baby took her nipple. Daughter, she thought,
as the damp palms searched her breast, as the milk
came. Daughter, she thought, the war is ending.
Daughter, she thought, there will be afternoons
of jasmine, braided hair, simple suppers in the yard.
I will feed you from the garden. Daughter,
she thought, I will ferry you. I will be your shepherd
and your help. I will teach you each live thing’s name.
I will name you Asuka: the smell of tomorrow.
Los Alamos, New Mexico, 1945
Elizabeth Graves walks through a contraction
in a sweltering hotel room with her husband
and a Geiger Counter. The bomb she built,
first of its name, exploded hours ago in the desert,
its outcry faint and soft over the radio.
When they’d hired her husband, promised him
mountains and a name, they hadn’t known
the lovelier Dr. Graves, who now willed her water
not to break, had laid the neutron bare, seen through it,
atoms like clay in the hands of a creator. Her husband
exhales on her nape, grips her thin wristwatch,
ever the numbers man. “How far apart?”
She’s forgotten the counting. Any moment,
the fallout will register on the machines, and her name
will be born to the future, and cannot be unborn.
Women bravely bear the pain of birth, they say, because
what is the alternative? A man can flee a war,
desert his unit, keep his hands unbloodied,
but we cannot outrun our bodies. A woman bears
down, brute animal, to do the work
of making. The wave of a contraction rises
and she flattens her palms on the table. “Liz?
I have you. I have you. Think of something else.
Think of a name.” But all she can think of
is what she will be called when this morning
is flattened onto the pages of history, when mouths
open to name her. Perhaps they will call her Mother.
The Good News
Today, 350,000 babies will be born.
Yesterday, they were all on their way, almost
with us, not here yet, but today, they will arrive.
All of them, three hundred and fifty thousand of them in a single revolution of the earth.
Alone and in pairs, screaming and silent, headfirst and feetfirst, they are coming, another dozen every second, no matter how many forests
we bulldoze or bullets we fire. They arrive
and arrive like a laugh we can’t stifle even at funerals
or faculty meetings, a cup fuller each time we come for a drink. No matter how many barrels of oil
we pump from the desert or dump in the ocean,
how many units of blood we transfuse into soldiers,
they arrive and arrive, the good news
we can’t wait to tell our buddies, the dog’s tail
thumping the carpet at five o’clock, fish
and loaves multiplying in the hands of Christ, unstoppable even after we push back from the table, full to bursting.
And these are just humans. What glut of joy to count, as well, the millions of featherless birds bucking
shells, minnows clumsy in cold currents,
downy puppies with flat noses, or the lowly billion
tomatoes taking root, acorns gaining purchase, moss doubling on hundred-year-old trees
and the just-as-likely infants on triple-distant moons orbiting planets we haven’t named.
But our home, today, before you fall asleep,
will be 350,000 babies richer, 700,000 lungs louder, fanned by billions of eyelashes. And if you’re low, if you’ve watched too much news or fallen
out of love or lost your keys or your faith,
or if all of the sunsets begin to look alike,
just picture them all, 350,000 babies, together at once,
a city’s worth of them in a row or a circle or wrapped
in an acres-wide blanket, an army of innocence yawning their first breaths over the globe, and the promise
that it will all happen again, just like this, just as imperfectly, no matter what,
Charleston, South Carolina, 1864
Lenore had learned to sew skin before dresses,
dress combat wounds in scanty light, lit fires with bark
and sheet music. Her first blood had pooled
in her homespun dress, camouflaged
with the blood of others. After disease or grief
or their gentle natures did the other women in,
Lenore and a slave girl, Adelaide, begged
and learned by heart the body’s fields and rows,
its floodplains, forests, streams, and even
how to set a bone, pull a tooth. They gave the men –
too tired to note their youth – homemade whiskey
before they cut away ruined skin.
They held their dinner down, breathed through
their mouths, sat vigil and sang Josephine’s work songs.
Girls were good for work like this,
she thought, as Adelaide slept briefly in her arms.
The sun rose on some thousandth day of war,
and she, who’d never seen a baby born, had seen
the other way life goes, the slow or sudden flicker
of the end. The girls would wash each other’s faces
in the night, sleep together, quietly agreed
that any good soft secret left unbloodied
ought to be consumed. Girls were good for love
like this, sequestered from the bullet wounds
of war. They smoked tobacco with the soldiers
who could breathe, shared their food, held hands
over the dying and heard their prayers, a woman’s work.
Dublin, Ireland, 1893, 1993
Catherine Grehan, who had only been called “27”
for years she could not count, woke to bells
in darkness. When she was a girl, men looked at her longer
than others, and so her father hid his too-beautiful
fourth daughter in the laundry. She’d never seen a mirror
inside the walls, but doubted her beauty endured.
She dressed and ate silently in a line of others,
food left from yesterday. She counted six mouthfuls
– one for each hour until she’d eat again.
The others counted, too. Counted and measured to stay alive –
months measured by blood on the rags. Their baby’s
ten fingers, two eyes, dozens of dusty eyebrows
thousands of miles away in strangers’ cradles
being called the wrong names. Catherine Grehan
was famous, as much as fame could be
measured in the bitter silence, for trying to escape.
She’d scaled the wall last April when it thawed
but hadn’t counted on the glass along the top.
This morning, she sunk her scarred hands for some thousandth time
into the morning’s wash, sheets and draperies, stained
and soaked and heavier than many men could lift.
By ten o’clock, the water had gone milky like the priest’s skin
she’d memorized when he visited her cell, shaved her
head, made her sorry for her pitiful attempt to flee.
His child kicked her lowest rib as she heaved her load
into the rinsing bin. Catherine Grehan, baptized daily
by ice and reborn into hell, knew what did
and did not come clean.
The undertakers came to Our Lady of Charity
to clear the land the sisters sold to balance out
bad stock bets. When they began their work,
some of the men believed in God.
Then, they lifted one hundred fifty-five women
and their babies from the ground. Their limbs
were crooked, shattered, plaster-casted. One they found
buried separate from her head.
Work stopped for the day when the youngest man,
who still lived with his mother, found the bones
of a woman, the bones of her baby
cradled inside her broken ribs.
Nunavik Region, Quebec, Canada, 1965
Since Yuka had come to love the boy Tupiq,
words had dissolved, useless, many times
in her mouth. Young and small, for instance.
Tupiq was younger, smaller. But when she spoke this,
it was a lie. He was fearsome unclothed,
his hands and shoulders infused with the wisdom
of his grandfathers. But even Tupiq the fearsome
could not stop the helpers – another wrong word –
Qallunaat: white people who came to steal women
with child. Yuka had seen them helping many times.
In the mothers’ ninth moon, the Qallunaat
descended and disappeared the women on planes
to southern hospitals. Yuka’s sister’s child died
inside her the first time.
“Your midwives are untrained,” they said.
“Our doctors went to school. This is the better way.”
They left the women in stark motels with battered Bibles
phonebooks in the drawers. They called it “killing time.”
Tupiq woke Yuka in the night, wrapped her
in his furs, and hid her in the Aanigutyak,
the hut where children should be born.
He is young, after all, Yuka thought, but she let him
hide her, let him stroke her belly under her clothes,
let him feed her from his hand one last time
before the planes came and then there would be
only lukewarm food on plastic plates. Love, too,
was a useless word for this, the charged space
between their bodies – akkunaptingni. “I will return,”
she spoke into his shoulder as the baby rolled
to the drum of their mating. She fell asleep and dreamed
the baby came in the night – here as it should:
her mother between her legs, Tupiq singing old music,
the days after in her own clothes. But they were discovered
by the helpers early in the morning. The Qallunaat
peeled the lovers apart as if skinning an animal,
although, Yuka knew, almost laughing, they would not
know how. All of their animals
lived in cages and died
far away from their kind.
Unnamed Hamlet, Oaxaca, Mexico, 2004
Ines’ eighth baby died inside her.
Her waters long broken, she was too far
from town, from the doctor, from the knife
she needed to rescue the child from herself.
It struggled at the end, then stilled, drowned
just as it glimpsed the shore it knew it would never reach.
Tonight, another child threatens its own death,
pressing hopelessly down between her legs
and will not come. Her husband is far away
in el campo cutting illegal lumber, and she almost laughs.
He could not save her anyway. “Benito!”
she screams to her eight-year-sold son.
He comes, solemn and steady. She presses
her last coins into his hand, tells him to buy a sharp knife
from the tiny shop nearby. The boy,
who has seen death before, runs too fast to see.
Ines rocks back and forth on her knees, remembering
the child who had lived and stopped living in her body.
Grief felt like contractions in reverse. First, it came
in waves so close together that they all seemed like one
long storm, one that would level a woman. Then,
as time went on, as the welcome burden of everyday things
returned, the waves spread out. She would be pounding corn
and feel it coming, feel it rise, peak, sting her, and ease away.
The baby thrashed under her navel and she knew
that she would die. She lay against the wall
of her rough, empty house by candlelight and tipped
homemade mezcal back into her throat. Benito returned.
“Mama, a knife,” he said, closing her fingers around it.
“Take the others away,” she croaked. “Find help.”
When she was alone, she finished off the liquor, spat the worm,
and pictured every pig she’d slaughtered in her life.
Flesh was flesh, animal muscle, vessels and veins.
She leaned back and pushed her hips forward
so her womb was pressed against her skin. The child kicked
and she opened herself. The blood was black
in the low light. She cut again. She cut three times,
hands slipping, screamed, and went limp. Her intestines fell warm
outside her, blood like a blanket. But then the dead boy’s fingers ghosted
across her brow, and she recalled the unmoving weight
of him, the cold stone of her child who never breathed.
She inhaled and found the thin film of her uterus, gripped the knife.
She slit her uterus and found the child’s ankle, pulled him
into the world. He cried. He cried and she inhaled it like a drug.
She named him, had barely time to love him, and she lay him
at her side, sliced the cord that joined them, and began
pressing her organs back inside her the best she could.
Her vision flickered in and out. The candle died in the night.
Later, after the tailor came and sewed her, after she was carried
in the hills to a lorry, her insides still contracting, after the hours
in the dark, after the doctor at last, she saw the boy open his eyes
and knew it would be a long time before grief would visit her again,
knew that her body, which had been a coffin, an ocean, a tomb,
was also a doorway, a candle, a weapon, a ship.
At Last, She is Finished with Emptiness
After slow months of healing, night
nursing, the breast pump, burying
the old, faithful dog, board meetings, cursing
the monitor, the hurrying, three-minute
showers and half-hour naps and instant
breakfasts, finally, her husband who can wait
no longer leads her up the worn stairs
to the sanctuary of rumpled bedding, guides her
mouth onto him, tilts her backwards,
reopens her softly, a storm door creaking
in sunlight after long darkness. She hears the crack
of a bat; a crowd cheers at the ballpark
down the street. She imagines the sweating
fans cheer for her, that the jays and robins
herald her coming, that she is being urged,
egged on by the whole waking universe. Yes. At last,
she is saying yes again, summering, ready again
to belong to the boy and to the man.
Afterwards, she tells him a year’s worth
of secrets. Then they hear the blankets rustle,
babble over the monitor. Sirens sing
their songs from both sides, to hold them
there, to make them rise, promise such silence
and noise and thirst and wetness, more than enough.