in memory of Margaret Greger, 1923-2009 I. Death Takes a Holiday Battleships melted down into clouds: first the empire died, then the shipbuilding, but cloud formations of gun-metal gray ruled over the sea that was England in June. A scarecrow treaded water instead of barley, gulls set sail across a cricket ground. In a suit woven of the finest mist, Death took the last seat on the train, the one next to me. He loosened his tie. His cellphone had nothing to say to him as he gazed out the window, ignoring us all. Had the country changed since he was last on holiday here, a hundred years ago? Like family, rather than look at each other, we watched the remains of empire smear the glass. Had we met somewhere? “Out West last week, I passed your parent's house,” he said. “I waved but your mother didn't notice. Your father must have turned off his hearing aid, in that way he has.” In the rack overhead, a net, a jar, a box, a pin: Death had come for another of Britain's butterflies. He rose, unwrinkled. “I'll see you later,” he said. II. Demeter in Winter Earlier and earlier, the dark comes to the door, but no one knocks. No, the wind scratches at the window. Clouds skate the ice of your old room, Daughter, a cloud falls to the floor and can't get up— or are you my sister? Remember the rope tied from schoolhouse to home, so the blizzard could find its way to us? It climbed into the attic, spread a white sheet and ay down in the dust. Who left behind the army greatcoat into whose cave we crawled that night? Lie down beside me. Under a blanket of snow, something freezes: the mind's gray rag, caught on a rusty nail. Come closer. Say I am not the woman I used to be, just bones turned to sand in a sack of skin. Daughter, if this page isn't blank, turn to the next and read me the part where you disappear. III. Persephone on the Way to Hell Over there, beside the road— is that the letter I should have left you, Mother? The shade of a scarecrow waves a blank page as big as he is. Blond waves of winter wheat roll up to the knees he'll never have, tempting his shirt to set sail for some other myth. He's a white plastic bag tied to a stake and stuck in a field at the end of summer. What's left of a river lies in a bed grown too big for it, surrounded by rocks it carried this far. Mother seems smaller, too. I saw you, my lord of the dark, take her hand as it were just a child's. The door of a room had closed in her mind. “Where am I?” she wanted to know, reigning from her old recliner. You knelt and tenderly took off her shoes. IV. The River of Forgetting Why aren’t you packed to leave town? my mother asked. Why was I holding a rock worn down until smooth, gone dull when it dried? Where was she, who prided herself on being born with no sense of direction? Where were the fifty years of maps my father drew for her? Did she remember her own name by the end? Remember for her, you modest houses, so alike that only those who die there can tell them apart. Cottonwoods crowding the driveway, did your leaves whisper which turn the dead should to take to the water? The ferry that hasn't run for fifty years leaves for the river of forgetting tonight. V. The Azalea Justifies Its Existence Dream of yourself or stay awake, Martial says, and the azalea agrees: fifty weeks it dreams, not the greater green of Florida the rest of us do, but a pink almost red, a shade I'd forgotten for thirty years: a coat marked down and down again, coat in a color not from the desert of subtleties my mother favored but somewhere between magenta and mauve— but coat in her size, and so she bought it. Finding her in a crowd, you found yourself facing spring come before its time. Yesterday she died. She couldn't lift a spoon to the watery winter light of eastern Washington. Azalea, if only she could see you now, the pink of your magnificence like some ruffled thing thrown on in your rush to extend a sympathy so far beyond the pink of flushed and fevered, it’s—what is the word for such ragged, joy-riddled gauds of grief? VI. The Death of Demeter From a distance, a woman's life is nothing a glass of ice water losing its edge. I should know, Daughter. I spent the night in a graveyard, behind a tombstone, trying to stay cold. The trees that wouldn’t stop whispering— they're nothing but chairs and tables dying not to become tables and chairs. A tree cries out to be covered with leaves? A deep breath of dirt fills the lungs. Permit me to propose a few things. I don't want my soul to find its body. VII. The School for the Dead The blackboard's endless night, a constellation of chalk dust unnamed— through the classroom window, I saw a map pulled down like a window shade: continents pushed apart, an ocean blotting out names with tears. South America and Africa no longer nestled like spoons in a silver drawer. The lost mitten of Greenland froze to the Arctic Circle, the empty space called Canada yawned. The new pupil, my mother, hunched in a desk too small, waiting for her daughter the professor to begin the obedience lesson: how to lie down. How to roll over in the grave. How to play dead. VIII. Nocturne for Female Voice I walk the old street at night, the way I always did, I heard my dead mother say. Why didn’t you come? I had to talk to a tree. I talked to dogs—they bark at anything, even a ghost. You shiver, Daughter, but know nothing of the cold. Tumbleweeds roll into town as if they owned it, night shrouds me in darkness, wind wraps me in dust— where's your coat? You've been to Rome with a man you weren't married to, and now you know ruins? If the body is a temple, as the nuns tried to teach you long ago, it collapses on itself, bringing down the mind. The vacant lot at the end of your childhood— which of us rules it now? I lower myself to the puncture-vine, the weed I warned you never to step on. I prostrate myself the way you coax something to grow in the desert of the past. Its pale star blooms a week and then bears fruit. It survives by causing pain. I walk our street at night, the way I always did. Why didn't you come? I had to bark at a tree. I howled like a dog. IX. The Library of the Dead Deep in the shelves of shadows, I closed the book I hadn't read. Who wanted for food when you could smuggle something snatched from the jaws of the vending machine into the library of the dead? Down on my shoulder came a hand: my late mother's, turned to ash. In the house where she died, we would sit, not speaking, even in eternity: she had her book and pressed one upon me, companionably. Everything had shrunk to fit in a suitcase when I left. The past had been ironed flat, a thousand leaves starched and pinned to a cottonwood just a shade of its former self, the only sound its rustle, industrious, leaves turning waxen, unread— though no shelf lay empty in the library of the dead.
Copyright © 2010 by Debora Greger. Reprinted by permission of the author. All rights reserved.