by Catherynne M. Valente
I. Alular Quills
I made this mouth for you,
stopped up with nettle and wax.
I pulled it out of our mother
just like you pulled your wings
out of her
white and silver-stiff.
She was so full of gifts, that day.
She held out her arms to me,
dripping with your pale feathers,
and I did want to, I am not ashamed to confess,
I did want to be a swan.
But I ran, instead, clutching the mouth
to my breast --
my skin warmed it
until it was soft enough to fit
between my jaws.
I pulled on a dress
of hanging moss and hazel twigs.
I made a cloister of branches;
I shaved a tonsure into my skull.
Huddled in a branch-bound nave,
my kneecaps turned to wood, to stone,
and I crushed the flax for you.
I told no one how she broke
my teeth on the kitchen sink,
how she would not let me eat,
how she split my eyebrow
with her wedding ring.
I told no one how she bent back
my brothers' arms until they snapped
With the mouth I chewed silence,
mashed and masticated
into a holy thread,
and with this I sewed your shirts
blue as flax-flowers.
My thumbs bled under the nail,
my fingerprints were ground into blankness,
and I bled, I bled,
how I bled in those days,
but I never said a word.
III. Marginal Coverts
I was sleeping when he found me.
I had dropped the flax-shirt
onto a gnarled branch.
He climbed through moon-spattered leaves,
climbed over me
put a ringed hand over my mouth.
He needn't have bothered.
It was for you I said nothing,
I let him push aside my stone knees like doors,
I tore open under him like a sheet of paper,
and I bled,
I bled onto the cloister-wood
and I did not even cry:
the mouth wasn't made for crying.
I tried not to stumble
as he dragged me up the mountain,
dropping flax-flowers behind me,
a trail of breadcrumbs
for hungry birds.
I wore a white dress.
You would think I was a bride.
The fire smelled of sage and cedar --
as fires will smell. I burned,
as sisters will burn,
The skin of my seven-year feet
peeled back like feathers,
black and grey,
floating up to thin clouds
and blue air.
But the flax did not burn.
I held it up: the flax
was more precious than I.
Your white wings beat against me,
begging me, pleading:
I promised, I promised my boys --
through the stinging ash,
I stretched my hands, my flax-lashed hands,
and I bent your wings forward
until they snapped into arms.
Only my limbs are wood,
yes, even stone, but not iron --
I cannot come back
good and stronger yet,
from ankles blown red and flaming. I am sorry,
I am sorry
I couldn't bear the fire long enough
to give you back everything.
But I burned
for you --
and I never said a word
when he dragged three babies out of me
and let his horse kick out a fourth,
when he ripped up my hair in long handfuls
and bit my breasts purple and yellow --
I never said a word,
I never said no,
I never told anyone what she did to us,
I made my mouth and I clung to it,
even in the smoke,
even in the fire.
It is years since,
and my house is small,
for a footless crone.
A neighbor boy shovels out
my threshold when the snow
is too high. My brothers visit:
They are busy, I know:
college, law firm, seminary.
Soon it will only be letters,
one birthday card,
signed by all seven.
I take my old mouth out of the cupboard:
we eat without speaking.
The youngest cuts carrots with his left hand,
folds his one pure-pale wing
away from the roast pork.
Catherynne M. Valente
is the author of the recent Orphan's Tales
series, as well as The Labyrinth
, Yume no Hon: The Book of Dreams
, The Grass-Cutting Sword
, and three books of poetry, Apocrypha
, The Descent of Inanna
, and Oracles
. She has been nominated for the Rhysling and Spectrum Awards as well as the Pushcart Prize. She lives in Ohio with her two dogs.
When asked what the word "cherry" immediately brings to mind, she replied, "'cherry' makes me think of firebirds and golden nets, lonely trees in lonely gardens, princes only just bright enough to befriend a wolf, and little glass jars of Ukranian fruit on a white tablecloth under a frosted window." Her favourite fruit is the strawberry.
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