What Begins with Bird
University Press, October 2005)
I start the bulbs in the window the day she
flies in from Mississippi. I stand them up in the bowls of
gravel that I scraped from the driveway with a spoon—hours
ago, when the ground still showed. Now the yard is a blank
of snow. The crocuses are buried and broken.
The bulbs have gone spongy or peeling and split
from sitting in paper sacks too long. I should have planted
them in October, picked a hole in the pebbly ground. But back
then I had things to do yet, things I could do, and I can’t
now. So I force hyacinth on the sill.
I sit among the brocade chairs and wait for the
smallest changes: his lazy eye to open, a sound at the name
in my mouth. We have named the boy after the city we succumbed
to marriage in, in a storm as freaky as this one: wind from
the north for Easter, the sky a pink velour. Our trees are
as black as the shadows of trees, pressed flat in this light
and moaning. Reno, Reno, Reno—without thinking, when we thought
of his name, what a trial they are, those r’s. Weno, we know.
But we didn’t know it then.
My sister will call the boy something else,
no doubt, as soon as she has seen him, not sweetpea, nor pumpkin
(I do) but by her weekly sweetheart’s name, or somebody lost
or dead. The die off early, turn up their toes in babbling
sleep, down where my sister lives. She will arrive with photographs,
mangled faces, folded into her pockets.
Or it could be the snow has stopped her, turned
her back for home. We call it that, all of us: home. It is
a family habit, this turning away, a lie we began her lifetime
ago, gathered over her, immobile: a lump, for months, in her
My sister lives in an institution. The place
is built in the dusky bottomland of the Mississippi River,
among stands of trifling hardwoods overrun by the south’s
Great Vine; even in winter, the trees bow their heads to that
gray roving appetite, a great hunger—acres consumed by the
pestilence of kudzu.
Nothing grows as quickly here. The ivy is slow
and civil. Our trees bend their heads for hours, a week, and
then toss off their burdens of snow. This can’t last. A day
of melt and the goose will be back to jab at the grassy patches.
Only the rabbit, in the surprise of cold, keeps
to her routine: brazen creature, fixed as stone, at the foot
of the leaky birdbath. Frost has split the concrete bowl,
parted the fluted column. These rotten New England winters.
But everything else is calm: our one raccoon, the fat goose
in our yard most mornings.
I tap at the glass. Not a flutter. Even the
rabbit won’t scare. She will keep to her place at the birdbath
while night comes and day again, waiting—who can say for what?
Instructions, I suppose, a murmur, a nudge, from her sack
Small as he is, my boy trumpets, stiffens his
back a little. These are my instructions. But there is nothing
I know to do for him, nothing to do but cluck and drift and
wait here for my sister. We pass such liquid, unmoored days—no
sleep—with only outside the seeping beech, the rising tide
to mark time by. Love, love. I want nothing.
My boy draws up again inside me, nights, small
body rocked shut, sweet thrill—to feel him pitch and tumble.
The sea at night is yellow cream, a tongue from the waking
Too soon—to be asked to speak, to rise and walk.
They are slow, my tribe, by habit, to come (it is a birth,
after all, not a funeral) but even so this is too soon for
me. I am still jerking awake at night and dressing for the
hospital: the chalky, sudden sky, the gray road, salted, gritty,
slush hissing from our wheels. Still bleeding, the stuff dropping
from me in great gobs.
I say none of this. What use? We are found out.
There is no saying no to my sister. I hear her grinding her
teeth over the phone, heels dug in, and her father, ours,
our father has bought her the ticket to come. So we ready.
I start the bulbs in the window—something more to watch for;
I buy wrapped chocolate eggs. My turn—it has been decided,
and there is no getting loose from my father, either, even
He calls ahead to say to me, “They say she’s
been funny lately.”
“I don’t know.”
We move on to weather, because this is also
our habit; I am given the nationwide report before he asks
about my son.
“Our Mr. Sun,” he says, when he has embellished
the heat in the Middle West with stories of rotting bodies,
the elderly done in by stroke in the tenements of Chicago.
This is when he seems to remember—that he ought to ask, to
have already asked. We are both quiet, quietly breathing,
and then my father plunges ahead.
“So how’s the baby? Baby okay?” he says.
“Yes, yes—“ he must be, though I wake him as
so many mothers do to be certain he is still breathing. He
grins in his sleep—these are dreams, I say—and startles. An
arm flaps up. The lid of one eye heaves open. Dear lump. I
could round his pointy head, work the flat patch where he
sleeps on it, the notched resilient plates, the bone still
spongy as the bulbs I found to force in the gloom this morning.
But I don’t; it won’t last; I leave him be.
I leave the plastic band on my wrist where Nurse
Jane wrote my name—how strange, that you cannot at first even
pick out your own from all the other babies. Mine has eleven
dimples—dimples instead of knuckles and one on each side of
his nose; in the fat of his leg is a pucker the color of pencil
lead, a stitch drawn deep and tightly and tied off at the
I knew him in the dark this way. I felt for
the stitch in the dark of my room where the big windows looked
at the Merrimack, the viscid fenced canal; I watched school
children pasting up paper eggs and tousling in the hall and,
once, one boy swung his lace-ups up to catch in the branch
of a tree. They dropped, and the other boys spat and hooted.
I kept it dark inside my room for him so that when they brought
him to me I knew him by his smell. He smelled of lanolin,
clean and old and animal and bitter to me then and now and
I knew him then as I do now by the feel of the stitch in his
leg, not a stitch, nothing that will heal.
There is this, and the plastic band I will leave
on his wrist until Sister has come and gone, my name, we had
not named him yet, and there are too the ways in me to say
as I do mine:
The cut in me, seeping still, the grinning stapled mouth:
proof that he has been here, proof that he is gone. Here is
where they found him, red and bawling, lifted him plumply
My belly skin a lizard’s, shrunk to shimmering and scale.
And here—this dimming streak, gray as ash, that marks me thatch
to sternum; this line drawn through my navel that darkened
as we grew. We grew, we grew.
I would have carried him in me for years.
University Press, October 2005
5 1/2 x 8 1/2, 167 pp.
Trade Paper; ISBN 1-57366-125-2 / $ 15.95