I dreamt a small waterfall
that pulsed and reddened at dusk
and cleared again at morning.
No horses came to drink
from its pool; no birds
dipped a wing before
taking flight. It was
a country closed off from all
but those who'd wandered into
its forests and never returned.
They tended the thinning
orchards there and placed
pillows under the heads
of those who'd grown old.
It was the final country
in the world for all of them.
No one could recall the last
time they saw a cruise ship
on the horizon, every cut-
out window ablaze with light.
Or the last city of fountains
and festivals, before the order
to quarantine. Someone grew
fruit again: citrus and pear,
berries the color of metal.
Everything in miniature,
a harvest of samples
labored over by surviving
bees. We stood outside, heads
tilted to the skies: the only
page that still went on forever.
Glacial in summer, charred
in winter; proof no one
knew how to correct.
A sewing tin with a ship
in full sail on its label
used to hold water crackers—
which I thought, once, were
a type of transparent biscuit,
thin enough to float on the surface
of a liquid. When she suffered
from migraines, she asked me to tie
a large handkerchief tightly around
her head. She asked me to take
handfuls of hair then tug repeatedly
as hard as I could, until she fell
at last into a kind of drugged sleep.
No one in the family ever said
the word "faint," though it's what
she did at the high end of every
domestic quarrel. A sob, a scream,
then a crumpling to the floor
in a heap, unmoving. The first
time I witnessed it, I thought
she'd died. I hadn't yet seen
anyone really dead, nor known
what it could mean to die; only read
sentences in books describing orphaned
children— When the mother died,
the father took another wife who came
and lived with them, along with her
own grown children. When the mother
died, the father took another wife
who said they could no longer afford
to feed the child. Then the child
was led into a wood, where the moon
shone like an uncut birthday
cake frosted with dingy, mottled
silver. Then the birds came to eat
crumbs strewn on the road, for that
is what birds do. They never think
of things as signs for anything else
other than what they are:
cubed crusts of day-old bread,
cream-colored grains as small
and pearled as broken teeth.
In the home, grandmothers sit in a half-circle
under the sun which has come too early or too late.
The newest arrival pulls at a shawl around her shoulders
before entering the song in her head, too early or too late.
She is most garrulous, either from being disoriented or remembering
the importance of making a good impression before it's too late.
The others are silent, but not impassive. Who knows what
dreams the song has stirred in them, long-harbored and late?
But the singer's oblivious to everything but that design
climbing out of her throat. Dusted with melancholy, belated
arrival: her hands beat the air, Kappelmeister to a choir
of ghosts she conjures out of their fluids. Is it too late
to call each one by name, cradle them in tender hands?
Her hair silvers more in weak sunlight; it's not too late.
No one can make out the words now. The song thins to only
pure melody, or garbled signal: longing early and late.
A scritch in the eaves, in the dark
of earliest morning; the tumble of a soft
body I imagine has slipped from a tree—
Whatever it is bounds away across
our shingles. Though I strain to hear,
there don't seem to be any sounds
issuing from a throat, desperate
to loft signals for help into the air.
I tense for them, despite: signs
of a body already in transit, oblivious to light
lifting in the canopy. The bulb
of an ankle, purple-streaked, swelling
with fluid. Walls hardened around organs
that float, islands in a sea of carnelian flowers.
The crown of a weed is its own miniature
sun of reckoning. As for us, we're helpless, pinned
against the fabric, faces upturned. If only
we could hear the sound the soul makes escaping; where
it slips from this net into the unbroken.
How to bear the weight
of what we've passed through,
of what is still to come
whose shape we don't
yet know? We practice
every day: washing
the grime off socks
and underwear; trimming
the stalks, shearing the old
wood from the fence. The cost
of weather is the warping
of the frame. On good
days, screens filter
little pills of light.
The report reads: "moderate dehydration
& malnutrition; hypoalbuminemia;
hypokalemia; degenerative osteoarthritis,
lumbar." Which means she'd gone
months without having enough to drink
or eat; not enough protein, only
rolls of bread she'd furtively stash
below the collar of her dress
in the thin, bowed cavity of her chest,
then take tiny bites from. This same
woman, whose idea of extravagance
was throwing a whole stick of butter
into the pasta sauce; buying two
pairs of shoes at once, or taking
her sweet time at the dressing table
while everyone else waited in the car.
And the people who lived with her
for more than three decades after
my father died: kin that fleeced and
deliberately took from her what's still
rightfully hers, draining the coffers.
She doesn't know they've occupied
her rooms, spirited away her marble
end-tables and who knows what other
bits of furniture and possessions.
It took her more than half
an hour to recognize who I was;
then, drifted in and out of small
lucidities followed by exclamations
and tears. I wrapped a woolen shawl
around her shoulders before I had
to leave again—I'm told even that
somehow disappeared. Now
she's in a home with others like her,
white hair blooming atop such slender
stalks. They wait for a nurse to feed
or bathe them, take them out into
the sunshine. You can see
something proud in her, still;
despite the broken record of speech.
She can hold her head in that old way
so her chin juts out, sharp
as in the days when time
had not yet pressed all of us
like creased flowers in its palm.
In malls across the country,
stores have been closing
one by one, the air
out as if atoms were only
made by the number of people
On the fringe
looking out at the bay, trees face
the wind to let
their hair ripple
They come up to each car, press
their dusty faces against glass, palms
outstretched in the universal sign of
supplication. A girl no older than 10
carries a toddler astride one hip.
His belly hangs like a balloon
distended with water, over the edge
of a makeshift diaper. Her other hand offers
strings of rice seed and jasmine, cream
streaked with taint of sewer water. How
do such flowers grow and still flood
the air with unbearable fragrance?
The streets slice open, lane dividers
white as the fat quilting a pig's
stomach. It's here we press
ourselves into the seams of the machine,
here where we spill our guts daily, borne
by a tide that some of us will breach
and those of us lacking in strength
will go under, mouths open; and oil-
slicked waters conduct us from this world.
In the home, the residents take
three meals a day. There is a large
living room with a big-screen TV
and magazines. Caregivers push
wheelchairs out into the yard
so they can get some sun.
Among them, there is a former
principal; an engineer, an architect,
the wife of a lawyer, a doctor's
deaf father. Here they have
either not much time, or all
the time left in the world.
The mountains are visible from
the windows. They have no need
to tend the garden, to light
the evening lamp.
She clutches a dinner roll
wrapped in a plastic bag
to her chest, under her shirt.
She nods off and then
when she wakens, calls out
for food, for coffee, the real
thing, not water stained brown
and drowning in sugar.
In her mind the world
is still her house, not a house
overrun by termites
and leeches. Rats
walk brazenly into each room,
making away with clothes,
bank books, marble
end-tables. In her mind
the world is still gracious
and runs on love
which no one should have
to beg for, palms outstretched
as if homeless, made that poor.