I was in sixth grade when I twirled Stephanie Comb’s
hair around my colored pencils in English class.
My teacher, Mrs. Ward, tapped me on the shoulder
with her orange fingernails. “Come with me,”
she hissed, pulling me into the hallway.
“You have to stop touching that girl’s hair.
I’m beginning to worry you’re a lesbian.”
She sent a note home that day carefully
tucked in an envelope with the inscription:
A private matter for Mrs. (not Mr.)
Heyward to discuss with Nin.
“All little girls are lesbians,” my mother said,
tossing the note in the garbage.
“Were you a lesbian?” I asked.
“I was—a little lesbian,” she said.
“I had crushes on girls.
But I wasn’t really lesbian.”
“How do you know?”
She shrugged, “It’s just like the heifers.
They start humping each other in springtime.”
“Cows are lesbians?”
“It’s genetic,” she explained. “Everything is.
Some of us get more of the lesbian,
some less. Time will tell
how much of a lesbian you posess.”
“How will it tell?”
My mother sighed. Her pink glasses sliding down her nose.
“If you are in your twenties,
and you still want play with Stephanie’s hair . . .
Well, then, you’re a lesbian.”
The Mating Season
Come spring our farm turned green overnight. Peepers started to sing, and the flowering began, the hills turning red and pink and white, petals spinning in the air like wings. Our male beagles escaped their pens and ran off, following the scent of bitches in heat. With no bulls or stallions in our fields, the heifers humped one another; the geldings bucked and ran along the fence line as mares sidled up to them on the other side, lifting and swishing their tails. The neighborhood carpool driver, Mrs. Humphries, wouldn’t give us rides anymore—not after she stopped her station wagon one afternoon and waited for Tigger and Elaine, our two tabby cats, to finish mating in the middle of the road. “Cover your eyes, Catherine,” Mrs. Humphries said. She didn’t want to expose her daughter “to all the indecent goings-on.” University students drove up our dirt road day and night, pulled over by the fields, tore off their clothes as they ran through the tall grass. Abandoned shirts hung on barbed wire fences; panties dangled from cattails. My horse stopped just short of trampling a couple on an afternoon ride. The pier on the trout pond was a favorite spot. If I wanted to swim, I let the dogs scare lovers off. Usually, they dove into the lake’s cool green water, swam around naked til I asked if they were getting bit yet. The trout were always hungry. They nibbled pendulous body parts.
Sex Education according to my mother
is a total waste of time.
If the heifers can figure it out,
then surely, you girls can, too.
I lazed in the tall grass and watched buzzards float overhead, wondering whose carcass they’d pick clean next. I listened to cicadas sing, pulled their hollow shells from the bark of hickory trees. I built hay forts, and once, stole the burger out of Trig’s, the farmhand’s, lunch sack, replaced it with a cowpie (this was the day after he gave me a black eye). And I got more whippings than I could count. After a while I didn’t feel a sting. I learned not to look my father in the eye. Not to beg. Not to cry. Before he even asked, I said, “Nope, I didn’t do it. I wasn’t in the hayloft. I didn’t touch Trig’s burger. Of course, I didn’t steal a lollipop from the candy jar,” even if a chewed stick was hanging from my mouth. I said, “My friend, Penny Sue, gave it to me.” Or “my swim teacher, Miss Patsy, said it was mine—for swimming the butterfly. “Is that why I saw you climbing on the stool, fishing in my sweets jar?” he asked. “Must have been someone else,” I shrugged. “Must have been,” he smirked, a way-off look in his eyes. Like he was trying to decide how much he wanted to smack me. And how much he admired a liar like himself.
The Summer My Childhood Ended
There hadn’t been a drop of rain since April when a hot wind blew into town after the dogwood blossom festival and coated the streets in white petals. If you had been riding in a plane and just happened to look down, you might have thought it was snow, but in a few days all the petals turned brown and smelled like rotten apricots. I’d never smelled rotten apricots before then, but when I smell them now, I think of that year when everything went south, the year I first understood my parents’ marriage wasn’t like everyone else’s, the year the chickens stopped laying, the cows’ milk soured before it reached the table, and the corn barely came out of the ground before the earworms and the Japanese beetles moved in, and all their tassels turned to slime. It was a year folks called a good year to die since no one was having any fun being alive. In fact, the local paper had to hire extra staff just to cover the obituaries. Or that’s what my father said. My mother said, “He always exaggerates. You can’t believe a word he says.” My father didn’t even bother to defend himself—he just sat in the corner chair, reading an old Watchtower, left on our doorstep. Said he hoped the Jehovah Witnesses were right—we were living at the end of time.
The poems in this portfolio are from the forthcoming collection, Son of a Bird.