Now I’m polishing my saddle with Murphy’s Oil Soap on the floor of the living room, surrounded by newspapers, toothbrushes and jars. The TV shows a white clay figure falling down stairs. His eyes are blue thumb-prints.
Now you’re picking up a wooden mallet, the meat tenderizer, from a kitchen drawer and going to my brother’s bedroom to beat him.
Now my English teacher, Mrs. Ruby, is bending over me, her breasts looming in tie-dye. “Where did you get this?” she asks me. “Did someone write this for you?” I look at my poem in her hands, remember the pencil an awkward stone in my sweaty fist.
Now my first boyfriend is opening his mouth wide to kiss me, drooling all over my chin. I try not to think of slugs, close my eyes and concentrate on touching his arms.
Now my professor is asking the class, “when you say ‘I’, who exactly is speaking?”
Now the skeletal woman who left jail last week – after killing her husband and sleeping for decades with his corpse – trembles and twitches on one of the broken stacking chairs in the corner. She wears 25 metal bangles –her tics make a metronome.
Now you’re telling me you’re in a telephone booth next to a parking lot full of winter. The birds are throwing themselves against the glass, leaving smears like ketchup. You say they’re not real, just puppets with beaks and feathers.
Now you’re ugly crying, telling me how strong I am.
Now my supervisor and I are discussing how to finish my progress notes, which are two years behind, her voice honey-soft. Below us, some homeless women are singing “The Wind Beneath my Wings” for the 50th time in the dining hall.
Now you’re chubby, half-naked, riding on my shoulders. You steer with my braids, whisper into my left ear, but that one’s damaged by the fire-cracker you threw at me when I was 13.
Now my brother is yelling, “No,” and laughing as he slips and falls.
Now I’m riding my father around a dark room, the shag rug yellow and filthy, the curtains tangled with dimming Christmas lights. A girl with huge scornful eyes watches from a Picasso print. The dove in her hands is trying to sleep.
Now your words are faint over the noise of the rodeo: when I turn my head to the left, I don’t have to hear you, only the carnies calling for players, the seagulls plucking and stealing from children.
Self-Portrait as Nine Sisters
* * *
We wait for you in the empty field, pulling at the barbed wire, taking the soft white tips of grass into our mouths. We sit in the field, we knit, we sew, we make wings out of wheat for the baby, we make crowns of flowers for the cows. We write you letters – we try to see your face in the mailman’s face. His horse limps by the time he gets to us. We talk to the horse, feed it beets and walnuts. When the mailman doesn’t stop for us, we run after that horse and throw shoes. And marbles and balls for the dogs to chase. The dogs are no substitute for your tongue. They are warm and quiet at night – sleeping between us, they sigh and scratch. We push them out before sunrise, hoping they will dig you up, that you will lead them back in.
When rain hits the bell by the back door, it sounds like a flock of startled robins or an angry fistful of spoons. We fight over your letters, rip them into shreds and slap each other on the shoulder, the head. Paper is hard to sew back together, but we use sturdy red thread, hang them from wires above the sink and icebox. The pencil marks skew under our fingers: “Darling” or “Daring”, “Water” or “Weather”. The war has been over for two years now, but we wait for your return before we buy more soap or stockings. Every month, the mailman brings a Sears catalog with your name on it. We cut out the clothing we want to wear, tape the pieces together into a whole new city of women.
Christine Hamm has published three books of poetry and many chapbooks, the most recent being, “A is for Absence” from the New Orleans Review. She teaches English in New York City and has a PhD in American Poetics.