Firstborn

By Kurt S. Olsson
In the end, he has to teach them everything,
even death, as he finds them that night by the fire,
giggling and buzzing more like brother and sister
than father and mother, waiting for him to bring
meat for the evening meal, not noticing
the gore matting the hair to his arms and chest,
no more surprised than the first time they'd laid eyes
on him when he'd slipped like a small, thrashing
gift from the net of his mother. For days, they'd left him
in the same place where he'd fallen, alone, around him
a pile of rotting fruit they kept adding to. His cries
had puzzled then delighted them until he finally
grew weary of their laughter and of waiting and crawled
to where his mother lay by the fire, his nose knowing
the way to her dugs, untended, leaking and already
sour, and he'd clamped his jaw down so hard
he tasted blood in the first warm suck,
this act taken not so much in anger or in hunger,
but as a way to announce his presence. Now,
they blink at him through the flames, and he isn't
sure they even know which of the two he is.
When he explains, they nod yes, smiling,
as if he were the herald of a new mystery,
a coming storm or a fire in the mountains.
When he leads them to where his brother lies
a dry, broken stalk among the rocks, they nod again,
still smiling but unsure now, so he must lift his brother
again, cradle his shallow bones against his chest,
the head worn into the nook under his neck,
and draw the knife again, just as he's done
a thousand times before, always
as if in practice not for the murder itself,
but for this dumb show for mother and father.
The blade finds the wound, flicks past his own throat,
and he hears again the sound a soul makes leaking
from a body, but there is no blood this time,
he must give them all, blood and thunder and retribution,
he must teach them everything, even life,
so only when he hurtles out into the night
does he hear the first cry, his, not theirs, the sobs
rippling out, lapping over and through him, until
they are enormous, pitiless, no longer his, but the maw
of a god who will damn but never devour him.

Source: Poetry (December 1999).

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Family & Ancestors, Living, Home Life, Relationships, Coming of Age, Death, Parenthood

Report a problem with this poem


Your results will be limited to content that appeared in Poetry magazine.

Search Every Issue of Poetry

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.