Photo by Jada Lillo
after Robert Graves’ The White Goddess
The augur reads your body as a map to the stars,
a map to ourselves. Your hollow-leg limp, your
slanted dance becomes our left-handed magic.
What for you is necessity, for us is harvest and a
night’s sleep from which we all wake while you
ache all night, grown too tall for your withered
hips. You whisper into the solstice flames, and
we follow your fixed-point starlight toward the
future. You pivot left then fall, but we rescue
you from the dust. When we stake your torso to
the forked oak tree in the center of the grove,
before we touch fire to the cured wood, you
warn us you cannot die, have already died long
ago, and learned to keep one foot hidden beyond
In the booth behind me, a woman speaks to a man.
“Thank God we didn’t try to have a baby,” she says,
“my tumor would have eaten them, would have gained
superpowers!” She laughs, but laughter faded as gray
skin. The man does not reply. I wonder which
superpowers she means. Telekinesis?
Cancer with wings?
What poisons seed my cells?
What malevolent mouth might my body feed?
Admitted to hospital Monday,
transferred to hospice Thursday, Jana
After, I helped clean out her apartment.
Dust thick as frosting, a sour smell—dog
piss and dirty drains and insane cells
celebrating Carnival in her ovaries, her
lymph nodes, her lungs.
Her words written inside the cover of a calendar five-years
old—THIS YEAR I WILL:
TRAVEL TO DENMARK! PERFORM STAND-UP! SEE
MY CHILDREN SETTLED AND HAPPY!
Her spiral notebooks, scarred by ball-point pen—blue
letters, a forest of upper-cases where her left hand cast
a faint shadow of ink as it crossed the page.
I bagged her notebooks in green plastic bags and threw them away.
The fox’s road-kill teeth etch each afternoon
as I drive home. Sharp white bordered by gums
black as cave glass, black as fresh tar
skinned from the off-ramp closest to home.
Day by day, the fox collapses into herself,
into the dark spaces she left behind in the gutter.
Along the horizon, mountains muzzle
the west wind. Volcanic rock wears down
into brown dust the color of the fox’s pelt.
Why do I crave my daily peek at death—shrunken body,
gleaming teeth, black gums—but this afternoon the dead
fox vanished, teeth and all? Famished, I gnaw my arm to
bone with pointed fox’s teeth.
When my turn comes, I will swallow my prescribed pills.
I will never wear a pink wig, but I will slice off diseased
bits of flesh to toss into the flame.
I will appease the gods. After all this time, we
still believe in gods hungry as ourselves.
Any minute now, the neurologist will open the door & introduce us to the MDA rep. We will fill out forms & sign our name, initial here & here. Each form will read, diagnosis—unknown/in progress. M— dances from square to square, counting floor tiles. Not until the moment when the doctor transforms from work-a-day technician to palm reader, do you fully appreciate the blessings of an unknowable future. Or course, an existential dilemma looms in every instant the proverbial bus misses your vulnerable bones or the apocryphal lightning preserves your tender skin. Yet the absurdity of consciousness amidst the cosmic soup of mystery rests far easier on the mind in healthy times. Listen to the oracle whose voice outlines a vast unknown in a series of appointments and procedures—blood draw; genetics testing, cardiologist; orthopedist; muscle biopsy; MRI; neurologist.
Once home, we comb our digital photo files & compile a timeline of milestones. This age M— army crawls. Remember how he used to roll his toys, scoot after them, playing fetch with himself? We called his game Adventure Time. Here’s the age he crawls—here he pulls himself up to standing, takes steps. Maybe a little late. This age his heels creep off the ground, & when his stance widens, his skinned knees & elbows never go away. He tries to ride a bike & can’t get the pedals around more than twice. For years he can’t skip or hop but see here? Here he leaps, both feet leaving the ground.
In the process, we discover a video from the Airplane Museum: M— in a yellow bi-plane toy, built for toddlers but just big enough for our 5-year-old with his long legs & tiny frame. After an initial push, M— gets the pedals going, his laugh echoing off the concrete floors & metal girders of the hangar’s roof. I film while J— chases her brother & you juggle between our son-the-yellow-missile & museum exhibits—bombers & fighters & helicopters spanning 70 years of American wars. He shouts, I’m in the jet stream! The video bounces & cuts on my, Sh!
Then I’m weeping into your T-shirt. You hold me & ask, What is it? I say our son’s name, only his name, but your grip tightens. You looked it up, didn’t you? I nod. The doctor told us not to look it up! An already-written future at work inside his cells shapes his body whether we know its name or not.
Waiting for the Turn
We tread the wave. The Pacific yearns landward and the
tide rises. Once the wave passes, we settle on the long
shelf of sand and holding hands, we balance beyond
the break. My son watches the wave
crest and crash into gauzy white foam, but I
watch the open ocean, timing the swells
until we can leap into the next wave.
Here he is, my boy, singular offspring of countless kisses.
Inside his body history coils, which is to say he contains
the future as the ocean contains us and a sea of air contains
this singular gold-and-blue bead of October afternoon.
Swells build and my son clings to my shoulders
when our feet float free from the sand.
In a time of transition, no amount of time
makes you accustomed to the taste of grief. How will we survive
this suffering? Variants of unknown significance
perform their invisible, broken work inside the membranes
of his cells while another wave pulses warm water
closer to shore and we buoy ourselves in this warmth, my son
and I. We laugh, delirious in the sunlight, and my son touches
his crooked finger to salt drops beading on my face.
He believes the drops are broken bits of wave.
How you will learn to ride a bike:
1) Press your thumbprint into your cells’
structures until you don’t know
what will happen yet; 2) Round the shape
of your head with my soft sounds; 3) See
ahead, the horizon of a new
structural bend in the happenings
of boys & dragonflies; 4) What flies
is not time but belief in time’s promise;
5) Forget all I’ve ever said; 6) Discover
within yourself novel repetitions with wings;
7) Fly along the horizon:
try to remember you’ve always known how.
Spaceboy, I Miss You
You dance across the ceiling.
You wrap arms around my neck, a hug, a plea
for rescue. I hold you to me. You curve your
body into the spaces between us, and hold me
until you’re full then you float upward to
dance. Under your feet the ceiling’s white, flat
paint wears away.
Nightblue pajamas outline your body, like the sky
your fragile arms, legs, hips, tummy and back, traced by
constellations— Ursa Major, Orion, Castor and Pollux, the
Scorpion, the Forgiving King glow in the dark.
Your walls grow thin.
Rhymes told slant, your tiny narrow fingers stretch
back and fold until they nearly meet the tender skin
binding your hands. You shake and sinew over the
ceiling, and I watch your joy in body, your star-
sprinkled pajamas. You twinkle through the space
between us, and I want you inside my arms, held
close. I wish to speak, to call you back to me, but you
move high on your toes and dance.
Knees jut, hips swizzle,
elbows and wrists and hands knot the air like wings.
From the twisted knots of your ankles, always lifting
you to your toes, you fashion ache into song,
into dancing stars, ceiling not strong enough to hold
Come back to me. Come back
to me. I’ll rewrite your constellations.
I’ll repair the scrambled syntax. I will hold you,
stronger than the ceiling, my star-walking son.
I will not lose you to hollows.
I will not forget how you dance.
after The National, “Graceless”
I am invisible and weightless, fine bone
powder voice dissolved in water you
caught inside the vase to feed stems of
goldenrod and firewheels, California
poppies and bluebells plucked from
Colorado meadows rescued from my
childhood summers. Bluebells.
My grandmother calls them witches’
thistles, her voice transparent as water.
As water I will rise up stems because
there’s a science to rising through
windows and my grandmother’s voice
calls through glass—witches’ thistles,
not for malice but for magic—listen, all
my thoughts of you become orange, red,
yellow, blue blooms in the vase
up on the shelf where you will say
it is the side effects that save us,
scars give us grace.
In addition to writing, teaching, and parenting, Erin Lillo reads too much and listens to music too loud. She also has an ongoing competition with her husband to see who can work the most lines from The Big Lebowski into everyday conversation. Currently she’s losing. Her work has appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review and The Tishman Review. She has an MFA in poetry and fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts.