by Clayton Arble
“The Dead Father’s head. The main thing is, his eyes are open.”
– Donald Barthelme, The Dead Father
It’s Wednesday. I’ve been given the burden
of guiding mom’s corpse across the ocean
to its final resting place.
Her body is a continent. Civilizations will spring
out of the split seams of her skull,
and slowly, through the centuries,
languages will develop
from the songs she sang to me
when I was in the womb.
Meanwhile, grandma’s tottering in the kitchen.
She’s hasn’t been as healthy since she died,
with her vanishing memories:
a picture of grandpa, smiling
sixty years ago, a family bible
with the names and dates
of our dead in it, a tangle of pulleys
and cables in a cardboard box.
If she’s not careful, she’ll die again,
this time for real.
She can’t help me carry her daughter out to sea.
My dad, who’s there but not, said he would,
but I know I’ll have to steer that ship myself,
drag her face-down to the middle of the ocean
and let her body bring new life into the world.
That’s the tradition. When she was young, she did it too.
Using the present tense
five years later,
my sister who was never born
tells me about grandma:
“You weren’t there for it,
but Papa once met Jean Paul Sartre.”
“Mhmm. She had a dream Sartre
had dug a tunnel in the Earth,
because people, as humans,
needed to understand their condition
as essentially primordial and subterranean.
The next day, grandma found the tunnel, and he crawled
through this muddy, rubber intestine
into an apartment where an old man
and an old woman were laughing at her,
and she laughed too. This was Sartre’s apartment!
And it was identical to hers.”
This is my sister.
She is the smoke around a fire.
When grandma was in the hospital
with a hole in her brain,
we ran away together. I wanted to be caught
in our old school, where we’d go sledding
every snow day, where I’d push her
down the hill
or off her sled, and she would push me back
even though she pinkie-swore she wouldn’t.
“Tell me one about mom,” I ask.
Here’s a picture of mom smiling
fifty years ago. She’s still smiling now,
keeping her eyes wide, trying not to blink,
holding her breath behind her lips. I am in love with her,
her mother, my secret sister, my unborn daughter and
a girl named Em who shares my birthday.
For each of them, both their years are written down
in the back of a photograph
that was buried with my grandfather.
“—Stop calling her your wife,” she said. “She’s not your wife.
She’s your second self, your sister for this lifetime—”
“And in one dream
you were my daughter
laughing on a swingset.
You cracked your skull open
when I wasn’t looking, when a bush of flowers
just long enough
for you to leave again.
Look at you: needles of ice
dapple your fur—pulsing blood
rises and falls
from an open wound—”
When my voice ends
you will leave again.
This is a simple and straightforward thought about introducing myself to a girl who is the reincarnation of my first love.
If you’re not me, or if you’re me and you forgot, you and Em were in love in preschool, but one day her mother burned her to death with a pot of boiling water and you couldn’t be in love with her anymore. Now you’re a senior in high school, and on your very first day of college you saw someone so similar to your memory of her that she might as well be her. It’s simple arithmetic that it somehow is her, or the reincarnation of her, or the mytholization or manifestation of her. She has her bleach-blonde hair, her big smile, that country personality you knew came from another life. There’s no way she isn’t the same girl.
Like foreign countries in summer,
I don’t know where she came from—if she was born, if she’s always existed, or if she was invented five minutes ago—but something’s telling me I need to introduce myself to her. It’s like Maud Gonne trying to conceive the reincarnation of her brother: the world works on continuity, and the world will find any way to preserve that continuity. I only thought this girl into being today, but it feels like we were children together. It reminds me of The Wizard of Oz, or mom being rolled out on a stretcher, or remembering a dormant dream as if it was there all day: these are the deep memories of our lives.
Most of your memories are dreams;
Your first dreams are your only memories
That can’t be forgotten.
And better yet, I caught her in a hallway putting a bandaid over a hole in the wall that was injured by a doorknob. Did she come out of my skull, or did she spawn from sea foam
What was it? You’re awake.
The dream is irretrievable
But I’ll admit I don’t know the roots of things. Just like I didn’t choose to be born, I can’t help but think that introducing myself to this girl will fulfill the life I started with a dead girl a decade and a half ago. But I know it isn’t her. I know it’s a strange life. But it’s ours.
And your windows darken
As clouds sail by.
[Clayton Arble is a poet from Holyoke, Massachusetts.]