Bearing the Names © 1998 Michelle Murphy

The second-hand despair of family histories hover over us like a village of superstitions. We spit over our shoulders, spill salt, kiss the sky with our coins. Our mouths pucker into exclamation points as we light another candle, dismiss the smoke shaped like a boy's head hovering over the flame.


How tidy gravity seems at a distance, how plain our sinking into any beginning. Dissolves on my tongue before it can be fractured by speech. I've become this scarred elbow and row of untidy stitches. If I could climb into a little flame, take this sunlight, its accidental wreath, sear it with a leaner word.


Yes, I brought my hips to the table, the smells of wet animals, listened for footsteps to turn simple, woke the house from its sleep & hung your shirts from the clothesline. & yes, I dyed all your shoes black.


Whisper of climbed trees. Pears, bitten, chewed, left to fall and rot. Among the rubble of talk, gopher snakes chew through crushed grass. The sprinkler runs for hours, spits like a baby over the twisted tomato vines that threaten to smother the fence. Long ago I pulled near your heart & embraced another September. Learned to eat artichokes, intuit meaning out of these restrained seasons. I would never ask in public what lies down with you at night, undoing my love.


Your face rains as the sky approaches dusk. Leaning on the stairs, the moon seems small, torn on the streets below. Did you ever improvise your own mercy? It's as if there are more fingerprints on our lives than we can recognize. Our bodies hunched into an insinuation of bodies, heads cushioned in question marks, we bear the names we are given. The original shape of our future is a wilderness we never outgrow.


If you wore yourself more upright then this day would feed our names all it needed to survive. That would be enough. But I am a woman with so many addresses & nothing like the sour grass I once peeled transparent between my teeth. Forgiveness in the soaped mirrors that no image can mock. Love of a life. Then this, your whole skull tipped back to receive rain in your mouth, your bowl turned upright to receive my earliest face.


I lean into this story only to have it rise like flood water in my mouth. The stairs hold, fleas hop from the neighbor's white cat, into the chaos of forgotten vines slit across the broken garden. If I stop watching, my hands grow old without me & I forget to use them. My brothers heard electricity in anything that moved, couldn't stop the buzzing in their ears. I popped corn, leaned wooden against the daylight hours, pointed into August, into September, traced the dropping temperature with my tongue. An aftertaste of pears rooted between my teeth.


Mornings of straight edged white sky, the strict angles of a harpsichord then inside the snapped strings, the keys absent of notes, an invisible requiem played to no one in particular.


I begin to see shadows in pots & become them. Hushed. Combed. There are things I'll tell no one, for instance – that I'm afraid of ugliness, how it drowns inside me like so many rocks in my pocket, that I have failed loving & can't get away, that my memory is loose & fury chews my dreams, that I want to believe in love, its mouth, sleep without light. & I don't know how to say goodbye.


Black shoes laced on your feet, the polish not yet dry. A woman rocks her heels back and forth over the floor, obliging her grief. No one needs to write this down. It's the self running backwards, retracing the crooked line of spilt gasoline, staring at the water stained ceiling, counting ventilation holes, the seasons a body undergoes, the penances, and dread of being covered eye, knee, mouth of dirt. Our legacy of doubt combined with our wish to outgrow it.


I name my children braver than myself. Permanent initials memorized in my heartbeat, outlasting this house. If I have to, I'll polish their grief until it shines like a pair of intricately etched boots. As if any terror could withstand us, prompt us toward our own peculiar listening.