After so much time you think you'd have it netted in the mesh of language. But again it reconfigures, slick as Proteus. You're in the kitchen talking with your ex-Navy brother, his two kids snaking over his tattooed arms, as he goes on & on about being out of work again. For an hour now you've listened, his face growing dimmer in the lamplight as you keep glancing at your watch until it's there again: the ghost rising as it did that first time when you, the oldest, left home to marry. You're in the boat again, alone, and staring at the six of them, your sisters & your brothers, their faces bobbing in the water, as their fingers grapple for the gunwales. The ship is going down, your mother with it. One oar's locked and feathered, and one oar's lost, there's a slop of gurry pooling in the bottom, and your tiny boat keeps drifting further from them. Between each bitter wave you can count their upturned faces--white roses scattered on a mash of sea, eyes fixed to see what you will do. And you? You their old protector, you their guardian and go-between? Each man for himself, you remember thinking, their faces growing dimmer with each oarstroke.
From The Great Wheel, published by W. W. Norton & Company, 1996. Copyright © 1996 by Paul Mariani. Reprinted by permission of the author. All rights reserved.