Death Enters a Mother's Service

by JoSelle Vanderhooft

In Death's arboretum
where each tree bears a human name among its lustrous fruit,
where sun and canker interweave like snakes
a mother kneels in winter. Her throat
blistered as a dying pine
she tells him,
"Take my voice, grandfather.
Bitter winds have tattered it like dandelions.
Once heart-songs, hearth-songs,
now milkless dirges, dry and too much autumn.
No more lullabies.
Take my stillborn croakings, sir,
take them, good gardener. You know a rocking song
has no use for an empty rocking chair.
Take my mother's songs, my grandmother's,
and hers, and hers and hurl them to the marsh.
Feed them to bullfrogs, let loons snap them up.
Only, grandfather,
give me back my child.
I will be so silent,
you may pull my hair, suck out my strength,
I will not cry -- no complaints, not even breath.
My chair will be the wind."
Hands on his hem she tells him, "I can live
without my voice,
but without my baby, all -- all voices
even sparrow songs are drowned."
Her knuckles strain against his hemline
even to the tearing.

In Death's arboretum
where worms suckle each fantastic root
Death sweeps her fingers from his smock.
"Go, woman. Sleet-time has not ended. Spring's neck
snaps with cold -- cherry petals blood pour
-- what did you expect?
Winter likes to touch; not all trees survive.
Go home, woman. Tend your garden.
Leave some things to compost."
Stealth as a crow, he glides through the trembling trees.

In Death's greenhouse
where each strange flower bends to icy light
or shrinks to fists of tattered lace,
a mother kneels among the marigolds,
dark geraniums, shy purple lucerne.
Her braids
tangled as tempests,
she tells him, "Take my hair, grandfather.
Sheer me like a sheep.
Once he clutched it, sickly sleeping son,
pulled fish-line, reeling me upon each sigh.
Now, it whips me -- vanity of silly girls and apple must.
No freeze or rake of rain can chill me more.
Good sir, take my corn silk.
Take it, good mower. Weave it in a net.
Let me drag still rivers for my son.
Please, grandfather.
Give me back my child.
I will be so good.
You can shave me, spit
upon me, carted, naked, ugly.
I will not cry -- no nails, no flinching.
I will be a mouse."
Hands on his hands, she whispers, "I can live
without my hair,
but without my baby
all is bald and ugly.
Wheat fields smear in mud."
Her fingers clench their prints
against his flesh.

In Death's greenhouse
where light shines through petals hale and frail,
Death snaps his wrists.
"Go, woman. Early frost boy,
violet-boy, hail-ragged, slight as dew.
What did you expect?
Bud and blossom
share their stems. Some open,
some do not.
Go home, woman.
Tend your garden.
Leave some things to compost."
Worm-slick, he twists away.

In the center of Death's greenhouse
where the stone well shimmers, fish-deep,
oceanic, strange as prophecy,
a mother stands, her eyes drought-sharp.
Hands on his leathered face
she tells him,
"You do not like my gifts.
So, take my eyes.
No use anymore, just memories:
his little face reflected in the moon,
his hands, the windy leaves upon the pane.
No more, Death.
No more.
I cannot bear --
Eggs hatching, trees spreading peaches.
Springtime burns, grandfather.
Take them. Useless things. No good
without my little never-was."
Hands on his skull, she tells him, "Take my eyes.
But give me back my son.
Break me like a hickory stick,
Just return what you have stolen!"
Her fingernails aerate his ancient cheeks.
Flesh, blood, grist down to the grinning bone;
Death blinks, but does not speak.

In the center of Death's greenhouse
mothers seek. That is their way.
So, too, Death's way to pluck

their eyes like wild grapes. "Listen," soft as poplar wind,
"Listen," he says simply.
"All heaven's water will not revive
roses when December howls; some apple blossoms fall
unfruitful, storm-quartered and sad.
Would you wish otherwise -- miscarried pippins,
wounded in their ripening?
Flowers for no lover but the snow? Spine-knotted boy,
fish-lunged, distended, faceless little love --
He will choke upon the world.
Already cracked, the world will rupture him.
Would you wish that
Upon your stillborn child?"

In the center of Death's greenhouse
a mother bent into a willow,
shook her head like rain.
Surgeon-skilled from all these centuries,
Death thrice-blessed her eyes in night's cold well.
They blinked at their replacement.
The wind tonight is high in my trees,
a shudder in my gardens – morning ever brings
wilt and wither to my mortal crop.
I want my children, too."

In the center of Death's greenhouse
he touched tears
against her now clear eyes.

JoSelle Vanderhooft's poetry and short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Jabberwocky, Mythic, Aoife's Kiss, Star*line, Not One of Us and others. Her first novel, The Tale of the Miller's Daughter, was released in June, 2006 by Papaveria Press. Her second novel, Owl Skin and a number of other books will be released in 2008 also from Papaveria. For more of her poetry, be sure to check out Ossuary (2007, Sam's Dot Publishing) and Handless Came the Maiden and Other Tales Twice Told (2008, Sam's Dot Publishing), which includes several poems that first appeared here. She lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, where she works as the assistant editor of a small newspaper.

And with my debt to Shakespeare, do you really expect a fair answer to that question?! Why can't Sappho and Will just let George Bernard Shaw and Homer duke it out and go out for drinks or something?

But seriously. Shakespeare would break his left arm and Sappho would severely wrench her right shoulder, thus calling an end to the match for health reasons (so sayeth referee and major domo John Skelton). So the match would be postponed until a later date. It's kind of like the eternal struggle between Yin and Yang, Light and Darkness, Coffee and Decaff, really.

I think this answer is creative enough for me to dodge the question.

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