Child. We are done for
in the most remarkable ways.
— Brigit Pegeen Kelly
It would be winter, with a thin snow. An aged sunbeam
would fall on me, then on a nearby summit, until a mass
of ice would come upon me like a crown of master diamonds
in shades of gold and pink. The base of the mountains
would be still in darkness. The snow would melt,
making the mountain uglier. The ice would undertake
a journey toward dying. My iliacus, from which orchids bloom,
would learn to take an infant’s shape, some premature creature
weaned too soon. My femoral nerve, from which lichen grows
in many shades, would learn to take breaths of its own
and would issue a moan so labored it could have issued
from two women carrying a full-length wooden casket, with dirt
made from a girl inside. The dirt would have been buried
with all of the girl’s celestial possessions. Bearing the casket
would demand more muscles than earthbound horses have.
The girl would have been twenty-four. This was my visio.
Sometimes I think of it as prophecy. Other times, history.
For years it was akin to some specific land, with a vessel
that would come for me, able to cross land, sea, the spaces
of the universe, able to burrow deep into the ground.
Anything could summon it — a breaking in cloud cover,
wind chimes catching salt outside my mother’s window,
a corner of a painting. And I learned how to call it, too.
This is the only skill of which I have ever been proud.
When my sister died, from the head of my visio came offspring
in the thousands, armed to the teeth, each its own vessel.
My first, their mother, lived on. For itself and its hoard
it found a permanent home in a cave at the bottom of a lake.
And it waited until I was standing on a mountain to sing to me:
You will call this mountain home until I tell you to move again.
There will always be more of it underground than you
will ever see with your eye. And so it turned out to be true.
And so when I stood on the mountain that became my home,
I beheld a dirt sea, and saw our moon, which has two faces.
I learned that one face of our moon is dappled with maria,
and that the sunbeams here are newborns that lie
on each other, purpling into the fog and outstretched pines.
The Earth spins masses of air until it looks like one of many
irises studding our galaxy. From space, parts of the Atlantic
look like leather, wrinkled and dark, and others look
like iridescent fishes in an old Master’s painting of the sky.
I live in the valley of a crater here, where steam rises like ghosts
in the summer heat. This mountain is made of igneous stone.
Every day I issue a warning to lovers: darlings, I have
in my possession a dead girl deer. Her head is draped
over my right shoulder. I hold her with one arm
encircling her torso. You wake each morning with flowers
shrouding your body, like a corpse; I put them there.
To me, you died when my legs curved around your head.
One of the deer’s eyes has blackened, and her tongue is thick.
She belonged to my sister. O my sister, you were twenty-four.
Listen close. Even to this part. Especially this.
I want you to hear what I say to lovers, because I want to sing
to you, who died a virgin, a few treatises on love and sex —
how flesh and ecstasy are born, what they make,
how they live out their days. As a bodied girl
you feared me, and I met your fear with guttural disdain.
I imagine you wondered what it would take for me to hear
a mortal, human voice: whenever you spoke, a vessel came
for me, chattering like some frail and hissing bird,
pigeon-chested, thin-veined feet. Sister, I don’t listen to lovers,
either, who I call by the same names that were yours:
dear, beloved. But spirits are not like their progenitors.
Their touches can range, texturally, from velvet to bristle.
Lover, each time I kiss you I name after you
a sickly feeling in my own body, as if each ailing
is a previously undiscovered moon orbiting a planet
that can only sustain the strangest of life-forms.
Sister, I know neither goodness nor mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life, as surely that I know the beasts
I inherit or create, of all unions familial or otherwise,
are speechless and brute, and bound to die soon.
Yes, there is much to love about the body.
Too, there is much to hate. I cast off care for pleasure,
and for labor, teaching my body over time that these things
can’t coexist. I fear it has started to believe me.
My body has never sought wholeness the way yours did, sister.
It was always still the dull twilight of early morning with us.
You were twenty-four, and when you died, I stopped fearing
arson. When I picture us as girls, we are at the base
of the mountain from my visio, divining the summit
as we diminish into spots of light. We are without parentage.
On my mountaintop in midafternoons flocks of wheeling
birds gather around the crescent moon. When the moon
worms its way through the clouds, it fixes its eyes on me
and sings a song that says we live our lives chained to earth,
and that when we die the flesh falls off our bones
so our bones can turn into the driest of riverbed dirt.
Sister, when you died, your bones cast an enchantment.
We made a powder of them, and I named the powder ash,
because ash is a word with neither origin nor afterlife,
and its definition is the look a doe gets when she’s been away
from her herd too long. When a person goes missing
and we don’t know her name, we grant her the surname Doe.
With this christening we name all missing persons
part of the family of ash, which has no family.
Sometimes I think that each speck of ash
previously named Priya hums on quiet nights
in a frequency only the other pieces can hear.
Inaudible to the waking world she hums to herself.
That hum is how my blood became blue; in lieu of oxygen,
my body began to breathe in only the vibrations of the hum.
Blood has to be born into its colors. Or, more precisely,
it has to die into them. In Hesiod’s Theogony, Nyx is born
of Chaos. Erebus, Gaia, and Tartarus are her siblings.
Hesiod couldn’t decide whether Nyx birthed the Fates
or whether the Fates were born of someone else, but he knew
that Nyx’s children, whoever they were, had no sire.
About Nyx’s brothers and sisters, Hesiod writes:
Earth too, and great Oceanus, and dark Night,
the holy race of all the other deathless ones that are for ever,
and one day — what? Tell me. Tell me the song they taught you.
Tell me how you learned how beautiful Nyx is,
how you realized Zeus feared her, and how you first saw
that within her every star, from the swollen to the hollow,
from the living to the dead, is visible, powered by little
but her peerless face. When I returned north for the first time
since my father turned my sister into a powder named ash,
a word born of nothing and with no children, I heard her
from a seagull on the ferry I rode from the harbor to the Cape,
out of a piping plover on the dunes, in a crow’s call on the highway
from Boston to Gloucester, past Folly’s Cove, Prides Crossing,
Rust Island. Then, from my station again on the mountain,
I heard my own voice from a brown thrasher. That night I drove
through remains of a fresh accident on the mountain highway.
The dropping sun lit my back as if heralding fire.
A dislocated red front bumper straddled the median,
singing a song. Nyx was in the wind, and her siblings,
and they bade me sing, too, like Hesiod had asked.
Grant lovely song, celebrate the holy race of the deathless
gods who are for ever, born of Earth and starry Heaven
and gloomy Night and them that briny Sea did rear.
Soon all were singing. The median sang with the deep voice
of a woman who knows how to sing scat, and the mountain,
standing like a moon on earth, responded with a wordless song
of its own creation. Ash sang. Dirt sang. To them I lent a melody,
which is one of the things I do when I can’t sleep. The secret
about lullabies: when they work, it’s because they sound
like something plants would sing in Hades, on the banks
of the river dark. Oh how I wish they worked on me.
When the sculptor couldn’t sleep, she drew mountains.
They were pink, red, ridged and pulsing, and rose
from valleys of blue. Or else she’d draw eyes that held
too many irises, or wombs that bore sweet cysts,
or spindle-legged women with outsized, drooping breasts,
ill-formed and misshapen eyes for nipples, uneven halos
for areolae, made of the same skin as the kind under eyes
that have been open for too long. Those songs I sing
when I can’t sleep are directed to my army of visios.
In return, they give me images of myself as different
creatures: gibbons, a chicken with a plucked-feather neck,
an asteroid, a mountain, a volcano with the thinnest,
most translucent shell. Me, as some fantastical beast with eyes
lining the inside of my body, watching my diaphragm
turn into the ocean I saw from the ferry, watching plumes of sun
flare over it as it comes to resemble a dead animal’s
long-weathered skin. Ghostly ships with dropped anchors
materialize to trawl it, and squadrons of men dismount,
searching for new blooms in terra mountainous and lush.
My heart is a sky embalmed and bright. When the phantoms
drop anchor, there to welcome their sailors are screaming pelicans
on the rocks, and parades continually wheeling of ugly vultures
in funereal garb. In their eyes, the Atlantic always looks besieged
by hurricane. Lunar maria means moon seas, but when I hear it
I picture horses, torqued female beasts who live on the moon
and whose manes are made of the roots of moon-trees.
I did not want to die, but I wanted to want death.
None of you ever knew how badly. I have practiced at it.
At times I rehearsed like a dancer, surrounded by mirrored walls.
At others I moonlighted with movies set on battlefields
and abattoirs, pausing and rewinding until I could mimic
the motions of actresses who succumb to unexpected poison,
or shove knives into their bellies, or fall like Brueghel’s boy.
I pretended I was standing in a castle dressed like a samurai,
looking through a barred window, knowing the trees
approaching held a promise so annihilative my flesh
would have no choice but to accept. I pictured jumping
from the top of the mountain and I sang Love it Love it Love it.
On my mountain the birds shroud the pines, and the pines
make a spectral outline against the valley of Nyx’s body.
One afternoon here a man said to his son: All this has to do
with eons of time, water over and over, just cutting and cutting
the rock. From where I stand on its summit, I can touch
the Big Dipper and I can see its children, and another peak,
shaped like the back of a horse. It is shadow blue, the same blue
as the dying sky. To the Big Dipper and her children I sing a song
that asks if they are safe, and tells them that on forest floors,
dappled things of glass and light grow from knotted roots.
Sister, could I find you on that horse mountain? I wonder
if I want to. Have I made this world? Lover, a confession.
If I found my sister on any mountain, I would gather her
in my arms and take her from its back, singing lullabies.
Or else I’d take an arrow laced with a drug I’d made special
for her, and, standing close, push it in her unarmed
right flank. Instead of how to die, I ended up studying
how to kill. But the sculptor, she asked nothing of her dead.
Out of visions of them she made formidable metal spiders
she named Maman, Maman, Maman. Maman Maman Maman,
who live after the sculptor has died, have all lost children,
like my mother. Their domains are terrors — land-terrors,
water-terrors, terrors of the open sky. Their hearts are war-
grief. Terrors of trees in the joyless forest, of portent.
Sometimes in their homes are fires on floods, dire wonders.
Their children were all named Doe, which means that the plural
form for children of Maman is deer. For a long time I hated
the phrase I am sorry for your loss. I lost nothing. My sister died.
But loss is less of a euphemism than its users want;
to lose means both to have been defeated and to misplace.
Maman Maman Maman also answers to Demeter Demeter Demeter.
Sister, I could stop no one from taking your head,
although I promise you I fought for it, hand-to-hand
by the mouth of the bone-house. One day on my mountain,
I got to thinking about those other peaks. From a cave
underwater I heard: Find them, like flowers strange
and never before seen. And so it became true.
I found mountains covered in smoke-thick fogs,
and mountains that lied — those were barely hills.
And then I found them: what the mountains in my visio
would have looked like had it been summer in that land.
Summer brought some changes: my body had no orchids
or lichen, and the crown was not of diamonds, but the reek
of sewage, wafting over a field — a prairie almost —
from which rose tens of signal towers, all blinking red.
The base of mountains was, when I got there, still,
and in darkness. It was a sky in which every child of every star,
living or dead, could be heard humming. The peerless
face of the mountain was cragged rock, dust rock, shadow rock.
I stayed until day, to watch the birth of a sunbeam
so I could then see it age. Later in the day an immense heat
came, like another bone-house. I climbed the ridges, which turned
to colored ringlets of cloud and ash at the slightest pressure.
Sunrise and sunset were scant minutes of shadow-play.
The prairie grass’s rustle, each blade sang in a different language.
There I learned the names of four of the lunar mares:
Catfire, Osiris, Blood Oath, and Early Morning.
This is who I am. I harbor secret loves, and I do secret work.
Catfire, Osiris, Blood Oath, and Early Morning are teaching me
how to finally chart a course through time, how to carve
journeys in space: they descended from their moon to the crags,
followed me home to my moonlike mountain. Lover, my body —
you won’t be able to keep up with it. Soon you’ll have to leave it.
You’ll have to leave me. Or else I’ll leave you, because my body,
it invents definitions for the word sadness, like noun, the feathers
on a bird’s back. You’ll do nothing for me. On my mountain,
it’s midafternoon, and the wheeling birds are landing
steadily, even though no stable ground is here to be found.
When they sing, it is a song that I, who know no prayers,
imagine to be gospel. A man comes up the mountainside
and sings along with them as he walks in circles on the rock.
Robbed, sister, was your breath. Robbed, lover, is yours, too.
Sister, I wish you could know this feeling: if sung perfectly,
pressure on each nerve cluster can make bones irrelevant, whether
those bones are living or dead, whether they are ash or dirt.
At the base of my mountain is a lake where creatures go to die.
Water slides into their spiracles and fills their tracheae.
Their tracheae stretch into bellows fit to extinguish the fires
in any volcano. When my body showed me sadness
and began there to outline and diagram the word,
another definition was noun, a chorus of brass instruments,
like upward-turned mouths forged of metal, and another was verb,
to shake like chimes flanking a rock-hewn shore, barely alive
and almost imperceptible for a flash. Sometimes I picture
my sister underneath one of the sculptor’s spiders.
Her head barely reaches the first joint on the spider’s leg,
and when she looks up, she thinks that the whole sky
is the spider’s stomach. Maman, she says, I am hungry.
Food. Food. I am hungry. She runs her shrunken finger
from one tagma to another. Her stroke makes lava run faster
in all the volcanoes within the tectonic plate on which she lives,
and she, unawares, suckles at every ridge she can find.
She rests both palms flat against the metal, closes her eyes
and cries. What would the world look like with enough lava
to fill the Atlantic? I know that the Earth’s temperature
has risen, and I know that all of its ice will melt.
I know there will be no more purple from the sun, that the spider’s
iron underside is one of the few things that, like my mother,
does not sing. At the lake today is a flock of feral cats.
Though they’re in front of me, their song comes from below,
so although I can see them, I picture them swimming in a river
that separates mortals from the planet’s heart. In this river floats
the phantom of a dead doe. Listen to me now, darlings:
my sister did not live long enough to see the moon
turn red, but I did, and despite those who wish otherwise,
myself included, I will see it again. Sadness’s fourth definition
is conjunction, bees, forests of them, devotional and thick enough
to knot together human dreams, or human bodies, even when ghostly,
or lovelorn. The underground river gives me no passage,
despite my dreams of the phantom that dropped anchor
somewhere, and of its amassed pelicans and vultures.
Each ghost is filled to the brim with flowers whose scents
describe the places they were born, just like mine does,
no matter how hard I try to cloak it. On the top of my mountain
a man says to a woman: I like how there’s just trees. Trees trees trees,
she replies. Each time she says the word, her voice makes
a new species. I recently tried another way to die: could I fall
from a tower filled wall-to-wall with twenty-four thousand
living flowers, each planted in the soil covering the tower’s floors,
six inches deep? The flowers would have heavy-branched
spikes for blooms, and would release a powerful smell
of bone marrow, and spew a pollen that fills the air until
it becomes oppressive. When I opened my mouth to sing
of this, instead of a sound my mouth expelled gnats and fog,
which is what a spider’s milk is made of. The word Nyx
tastes like sister and means both night and flower. I worry
I won’t rest again. Do you know how a naked Titan looks,
sister? He’s swarmed with shadow, but he holds light deep
in his stomach, like an electric secret. Dear love,
I can’t give you what you need from me. All I’ll do is take.
After my sister died, I learned she always wanted a warm island,
garlands draped around her neck. There was no mountain
in her vision. Instead, in it she was singing what she imagined
was an island song in a language I don’t know. She was dancing
badly, and breathing with great labor on burnished sands.
Sand bores me, sister; I need rock and high altitude.
When I am cold, I hear wolves. I think they live in the carillon
beside the mountain’s lake. Sister, it was always true
that I would outlive you. I know exactly how many times
my family wished me dead. Don’t look up, says a child
on the top of my mountain. It makes you want to fall.
It will always be still the dull twilight of early morning with us.
This is one of the curses of living. In the end, my visio alone
will sing and dance, breathing heavily. Every day the sunbeams
in it turn a brighter pink. Dears. Beloveds. All of you.
Your blood is bewitched, and bade to move into places
it wasn’t meant to go, steeped deeply in poisons
it can’t purge. You share the look on your face
with all the others, whether deer, child, or man.
If you look deeply enough into any other pair of eyes,
your heart valves start to change allegiances. Your body’s lakes
fill with the other’s want, until all you want, in turn,
is what the other wants, which rises in you like seawater.
There are species of flowers and invasive weeds that live only
in another’s gaze, whether lovelorn, hate-filled, hopeless,
or hungry. I am looking into your eyes right now,
and in my mind are two girl deer. Sisters. With thin-hooved
legs steady, digging into grass. They disappear into the woods,
which are part of a forest in a painting. When the novelist
saw this painting, he thought that there he could see men
turning into birds and birds turning into men,
and those same men turning then into sea creatures,
and then back into birds. From this final change
scales and tentacles would linger on their backs
as they wheeled through the air, as would the dream
of filling their lungs with the sea, for which they would ache.
The definition of deer is lost. The definition of beloved
is dissolution. On the top of my mountain I hear a mother
call to a faceless child, Where are you? The chattering
and thin voice of a boy from the top of a tree cries back,
In the woods. And then, beguilingly: Come into the woods.
Around the orbs of light in the forest that I still don’t know
if the Dipper’s children can see, new trees grow beside the pines:
elms, birches, willows, one strange Western juniper.
Each creature in this forest was once something, or someone, else —
the novelist was right. The top of one of the elms
is a sprig of radiant blood. Sister, I was very young
when I found out you were cloven-hooved. I did what I could.
I want to say that you can trust me, that I am listening to you,
and that you can speak to me and that I will speak to you
at last. Tell me about the beasts that got you. The beasts
who carry me when I am too weak to carry my deer alone
are Catfire, Osiris, Blood Oath, and Early Morning.
I would like to believe that I carry this deer for you,
that I’ll be able to tell you what it feels like to have
a hungry mouth on your lip or nipple. I want to say:
Sister, I promise. But the definition of myth is noun,
the idea that any one creature can ever hear another.
And while I beguile you to betray yourself to me,
like lovers do in their sleep, I am lying to you. No, death
did not bring this to us. It has always been true. I, sister,
am a selfish woman, and you, sister, were a mute one.
My body invents words and swells with prophecies.
Its effort shows in insect bites and rashes that don’t heal,
in my peeled hands, bleeding groin, wistful gut, misaligned jaw,
mole-like left eye, lump-riddled womb. Dears. Beloveds.
You’ve been asleep a long time, but we all return
to the waking world someday. And when you do at last
come back, you will find me spent and alone, ugly,
wounded, ungrateful, ill. Shaking and calling to you for aid.
Loveless. Without a soul or even the memory of pleasure.
The last lover to desert me will deem me rancid.
The last thing I hear my sister’s voice from will be dirt.
Of the mares I will have left only Early Morning,
who won’t know that I will soon take her hide,
turn it into an ocean that will, at last, cleave open my skull.