The Last Wife

by Jennifer Crow

Easy to say, “Leave the key in the drawer.”
Easy, when your own house has no locked doors,
When stairways don’t rise to forbidden corridors,
When your handsome and thoughtful spouse
Doesn’t shut that rosewood box
When you walk in the room.
Easy to give advice you’d never have to take,
Like bitter medicine on another patient’s tongue.

I tasted mysteries at an early age, drank secrets
With my mother’s milk and heard her cry
On afternoons when I came in early from the park.
So when he knelt, blue-black beard
Waxed to a fine point, dark eyes beseeching,
I took his hand and his secrets as my own.

No one tells you, at the altar or before, that ‘worse’
Always comes after better, that secrets
Stink like the dead until you can almost hear the stench
Walking room to room, in that hallway
You never enter.  I was weak—not then, but before,
When I sat in the parlor with a book open on my knee
And tried not to look at that rosewood box—I admit
My weakness, for I wanted so to believe the dream.

Truth is its own kind of strength, the biting draught
You take when the lies lose their flavor.  I pressed the cup
Of it to my lips, swallowed it to the dregs, licked my lips
So no drop could escape me.  I drank to the memory
Of a closed box, a closed heart, and then I took
That key
That brass key with its patina of old stains
That heavy, cold key
And I committed the inevitable sin.
Faithless, I climbed the stair.
Heartless, I opened the lock.
Hopeless, I touched each bony brow in turn,
Named them from the diaries on the shelf.

You know the rest.  Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here
With your dogs and shovels, your mistrustful stare.
Yes, I waited for him at the top of the house,
With my dead sisters behind me for courage.
I waited there, and when his heavy tread shook
The house, I raised that iron bar over my head,
And I brought it down.  I brought him down
In the wreckage of his secrets, and my sisters—
My dead sisters, ranged in rows behind a brass lock—
Wept ashy tears.  What, then, will you do to me?
What can you do to me, when I have seen the worst
Men can do to women, when I am witness
To the cruel passions they call love?
You may have a key, sir,
Cold metal to turn in an iron-banded door,
But I have my sisters for company,
And my heart in a rosewood box.

When asked about what fantasy world government she would prefer to live under, Jennifer Crow replied that she thinks the world would be a better place if she was in charge of things. She would bring order and prosperity from her lair beside a waterfall in western New York, and all would worship her and despair. But until that blessed day, she will work on rearranging the lives of her fictional and poetical characters to her satisfaction.

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