for my sister
As if overnight, the flowering pear tree
is flowering. A froth of white.
Birds celebrating, the air silky, the sun
suddenly no longer feeble, the muddy
ground giggling with grass. It was
a day just like this, remember? We were
acting goofy, a brook babbling, and me
in my new hat, ribbons down the back, blue
my favorite color, and you, dead now, but,
oh, you would remember. Where were we?
It was after a big rain, that I know,
and there were puddles, and we were
searching for treasure, but I can’t recall
where we were. Or maybe it wasn’t spring—
the trees bare but for a froth of snow
and we were digging, right? hunting
for something we had lost. Maybe
the oriole we once buried in a hole with
soft grasses and dandelions, poor gold thing.
No, that would mean April at Grandma’s
with no snow or puddles, well not that day
anyhow. Oh, can’t you call it up? After all,
you were the clever one, the older one. Look—
see how the crows are calling from the wires.
They know. Black birds, black birds. Funny
how they always turn up in places like this.
The Apricot Tree
Kyparassia, Greece, 1977
I’m walking the white-washed steps
winding the hills into town. The odor—
wild thyme and spearmint. And halfway, look,
an apricot tree ablaze with summer, heavy
with fruit. There is a man, of course, green—
eyed Alekos of the red truck, a yaya leading
a donkey, a girlchild, Roola, who hangs on
my neck, begging me to stay. If the journal’s
ink that tells my story has faded, I’ve held it
safe in my head, as if in amber. Only the tree
has grown bigger, bursting its casing—a tree
of nectar and ambrosia where housewives
come to fill their aprons, enough for everybody.
Not like Eden’s tree or Stevens’ palm at the end
of the mind, aloof, beyond us, but part of the daily
juice that is Greece, the dazzle and the dance.
Where’s the file drawer in my brain that holds
the memory of that tree? Behind which eyelid?
Sometimes when I’m tired, I see double. Oh, how
I wish I could conjure duplicates in my dreams
to take me back to those white steps where that tree
stood, double-dropping its sloppy sweetness all over
the ground for the women to come and gather up
in their aprons, take home and make jelly.
Reserved for Royalty
King Tut was buried with a gold knife
tucked in the mummy wrappings of his thigh
to battle the forces of the underworld. Mother
too had a knife to slice celery, peel potatoes,
cut a package string. I don’t know how keen
his knife was, but I tell you, hers was deadly
as a razor. I saw Tut’s knife in a museum once
gleaming in a glass case. Suspended from
invisible wires, it floated, point down in air.
The hilt, cloisonne, lapis and gold as befits
his royal purpose, for was he not Pharoah—
all that the sun encircled? And was he not
folded in falcon wings, and did he not display
the crook and flail and wear the vulture collar
of Nekhebet and rest his head on ivory? Mother’s
knife was not gold, nor even stainless steel,
being darkly mottled with use. The original ten—
inch blade reduced to two, having been broken,
snapped off sometime in the past. Its ancient
black handle, wooden and worn. But I insist
those two inches also deserve a museum case,
for who was she, standing at the sink scraping
carrots, turning them into gold coin, the pad
of her thumb scored and scarred by each bite
of the blade, if not royalty itself, reincarnated
to battle the demons of the underworld—squashing
roaches, stabbing with her mop. Is she not too
a warrior of the Stygian dark, there where I
put her, buttoned in a sweater lest she get cold?
There are those who are born
loving cruelty, if not to practice it
then to watch it in action. That’s why
we have bullies. What school-
yard doesn’t own one?
But finely-wought cruelty
is a developed art—a masquerade
or disguise to hide intent,
the way a card shark palms aces,
or a slinged arm cradles a knife.
For A-1 cruelty a certain kind
of saccharine is necessary, not the white
stuff stirred in coffee but the crystals
sprinkled over purpose: the melting
smile or wet-eyed look of sympathy
right before the shiv in the ribs.
Once I knew a woman
who took pleasure in playing
sweet old lady, leaving burnt fingers
where a handshake used to be, the victim
left staring into space, puzzling
over what was heard that managed
to cut to the quick so quickly. Words—
cruel words, out-for-blood words,
snob-tinted and dagger words,
wielded as artfully as a surgeon’s
first swipe, knowing just where, under
the ribbon of blood, one’s vulnerability lies,
that soft spot cowering under the skin.
She always wore a red hat, a floppy
doodad on its brim to look quirky,
which is to say “interesting.” And I’m
reminded of the Australian pitcher plant,
its lipstick-red rim or the red-veined
cobra lily, first cousin to the venus flytrap
that attracts the unsuspecting into its
lethal pods. Then eats them alive.
When I stepped down from the train
and he wasn’t there
I didn’t panic. I knew he’d come
for I had dressed in pink—
a morning bud. An invitation.
When I was a child, Grandma
sent me home with armloads of pinks.
Peonies—blowsy blossoms to bury
a face in. Buds, hard as knuckles
and sticky with juice, aching to open.
Sweetness she’d call me, as if she saw
in advance that day in the forest where
he took me—lying together under May’s
first green—pressing himself to my need
as if to absorb me and all my pinks.
A time wished for, hoped for, long
before stepping off that train: an armful
wrapped in blush, a present of pink.
Years have passed since that day,
but despite my talent for making things up,
I can’t spin those hours any differently—
that day making up for so many
before and afters. A bounty that stands
like a lighthouse in memory, sweeping
its bright beam over all the rest, even when
peonies crawl with ants or when they droop—
as they do now—too old and heavy for their necks.