Blood Memory

Hunched in the bath, four ibuprofen gulped
         too late to dull the muscle cramping
                  to sate a god who thirsts
         monthly for his slake of iron,
I am just a body bleeding in bad light.

But after an hour, as the wrenching wanes,
I run more water in, remembering
         when I was a girl my mother knew
                           one cure for this pain
                           and, while I cried,
         carried me mugs of tea and whiskey
                  clouded with sugar cubes.

In a palm of pinkish water, I scoop up
         a burl of my flesh, almond-sized.
                  The tissues settle, livid
red to nearly black as I tilt my hand
                  against the light to see it
glistening like a ruby cabochon,
                  appealing as it appalls,
            recalling one future, years ago,
            that would have borne itself on my blood
                           had I allowed.  
                  The question swims into view:
would I harbor another life now?

Last spring, I sat above the harbor in Naples
                  with three friends whose children,
         after a week’s vacation, were all
safely back at school. Palpable,
                           the holiday mood
         a morning freed from offspring brought!
(I’d felt a guilty pleasure I’d go home
         not to cook someone’s lunch,
                           but to read.)
Still, it wasn’t long before our talk’s
         compass needle trembled north
                  toward the motherland:
soccer games in the Flegrean fields,
                           ancient sun
            reborn and swaddled putto-pink
            in mist above the fumaroles;
                  messes of gelato;
first words, whose honeyed gravity
                           weighed on me
                           like a toddler’s head
         snugged below my chin in sleep.

                  Then, Serena described
         troubles at her daughter’s school.
Their new principal refused to pay
         the local gang’s protection money.
                           And so, the teachers
         arrived at work one day to find
         the hutches where the children kept
rabbits and a little clutch of chicks
                  From the playground swings
                  the throat-cut animals hung.  
         Next time we come for you
someone had written across the door in blood.
                  Now the parents wanted
                  the principal to pay:
            that was how these things were done.  
                           Screw her ideals,
                           Serena heard.
That bitch is going to get our children killed.
         A blade bossed with oyster floats,
the harbor glinted below Serena’s voice.  
         Into that water, Apicius wrote,
                  the Romans tossed slaves
         to glut the eels they’d later eat
with tits and vulvae, succulently cooked,
                  of sows who’d aborted their litters.

                           And from that water,
                  fishermen pulled a girl
                           who’d been under
                           at least a week.
         She may have been the missing one
         the papers were reporting on  
                           whose photo showed her
         lippy, grinning, seventeen.
                           A week in that wake.
She was scoured of identity.

                  Water’s thick in Naples
                           as martyr’s blood
         rusting in ampoules in the cathedral,
where it liquefies on schedule
                           —and it does;
                  I’ve seen the miracle—
                           to show the city’s
            still protected by the saint.   

         I can’t remember, six months later,
         loggy in my cooling bath,
if some net had hauled these images
         writhing up at me that morning
                           as we sat together
                           near the harbor,
         or if they’d tangled in my thoughts
that same evening after Serena’s dinner  
                  honoring Women’s Day.  
                           Across Europe,
lapels flickered yellow wicks of mimosa,
                           marking the feast.  
                           And in Naples,
                  flowers fumed for women
burned on the flank of Mt. Vesuvius
                  where they’d been sewing
         sweatshop zippers on fake designer bags.

         But as it did with everything,
the city managed to transubstantiate
         horror into carnival.
                  With Theresa and Ellie
         I’d walked home late along the harbor.
Fireworks seethed above the bobbing masts.
         Mirroring those harrier stars
         the water seemed to flame, while
                           drowned in lights
         the Lungomare phosphoresced.
                  Scooters rippled through
                           the reefs of cars,
         barely slowing for schools of boys
                            and women in flocks,
                  stiletto-heeled, who stalked
         screeching over the cobblestones.
                        From an alley’s mouth
                        a gobbet of men disgorged.  
One, drunker than the others, loomed
         over and bent his face to mine.
                  Where are your babies? he hissed,
                  spit pricking my skin.
                           Get home to your babies.  
         Not just drunk but whetted, his glare
         stropped beyond seeing and testing its edge.
                           You’re over-the-hill
                  for trolling—is that what he meant?
         Or was he putting all women away,
                           including the vampire-
                           lipsticked teens?
Whatever he meant, he meant to make us bleed.  

         I wince, drain chill water out,
                  drizzle in a little
                           more of the hot,
         and wonder at this habit
of holding others’ words as worry stones
         to fidget absentmindedly
                           when thought goes slack.   
         Agates of fury, quartzes of scorn.
                  Cold in my ear’s palm,
the hematite heaviness of a final no.

         And I still turn over my mother’s words,
                                    costly pearls,
                  handed me years ago
in a college project on oral history.  
         She took my assignment seriously,
         agreeing to an interview
                  as if it would allow
                  her, too, to wash
through the wrack of half-forgotten truths.  
         Painstakingly on tape
                  she recorded her life,
         lapped by sluices and hesitations.  
Her years in the Women’s Army Corps,
         screening films on safety and hygiene
                  to bored enlisted men.
                           Her depression.
Decades as a secretary. Marriage.  

         Until, near side B’s close, there gathered
                  a final, muscled wave:
         how, when she was well past forty,
                           her bleeding stopped.  
         At first, she thought it was her age.
                  Then—slowly, sickly—
                           she understood.
                           She’d tried to find
         a doctor who would help her, but
                           (her voice cresting, breaking)
five months along, it was too late,
         even if she’d had the money.  
The tape’s hiss like receding surf.   

                  So here I am, at daybreak,
                  adjusting the taps with my toes.

         I think we are shelled animals,
hauled at by tides, sleeking invasive grit
                  with our nacre. I think of her
hiding in the tub for half an hour
                  to read; think how pleased
         I was, finding her, to pull her
                           back to me.

Little plumes of my flesh rock in the swells,
                  but my body is bland now,
                           yielding as kelp,
            and with my toes I pull the plug.   

Drained, I need a couple hours of sleep,
         then I’ll start the day again.
                  And maybe, if I’m sleeping late,
                           the dream will come,
                  one that intrigues me almost
         more than it disturbs, in which
                           I’m falling, bound,
into a bay of blood-threshed water.
                  Fear ties me; brine
            bites my lungs and I can’t breathe.
            Then, with a clarity I mistake
                           for waking, I wake
below trees, at a table laid
                  variously with meats—
                  meats I realize,
from a shudder in the grove’s air,
                                    are human.
         It should be awful; it is awful.
                           But with a calm
         familiar only here, a calm
I’ve never known in any other place,
         I find myself longing to taste
                           the dish’s savor,
braised and stuffed, as Apicius writes,
                           with larks’ tongues.

More Poems by V. Penelope Pelizzon