by Renee Branum
It was not June, it was never June in those days –
letting things fall from our hands only to
measure the space between hand and water.
We used to find the lake underfoot, used to walk the waters
like skipped stones. We used to know the way back,
like knowing the space inside a stone,
how some say that space holds water; how some say
each mouth is a lake, open and sudden-lit
like a road we once saw being built in a length of caves.
In summer, our mother spoke only of heat lightning,
the punch upward of red peonies, like hair
if each strand could burn equally.
A lover of color, of bodies
susceptible to flame:
The water will not save us, dipping her hand, bent in
half on the shore with sparks sliding down
like remnants of Christmas.
In winter, she spoke only of thundersnow:
Avoid sheltering under an isolated tree.
Never stand ankle-deep in lakewater, never
trust the shallows. There won’t be time.
There won’t be time for you
to stand like newborn calf and
shake the matter from you.
It will touch you if it wants to touch you,
like so many others: your Uncle Charles
who was struck beneath an elm, your cousin Lisa
who was struck opening a screen door to look at the weather,
your own mother when I was struck crossing a field at dusk.
Do not let the light echo where silence nods
and drowses. Do not startle when the day cools
suddenly. Do not let yourself feel set apart.
Maybe each world bruises more easily than first you thought,
drawing the water through you. Maybe the cypresses learned
how to breathe underwater by watching you turn,
root yourself, bury your heels.
Maybe the lightning sought our bodies because it wanted
shape in us, warmth that moved toward an edge
like an egg held up to light.
And maybe this was our birthright, all the words
you couldn’t stop saying, like the flavors of blood,
mouth pleased that it could drink itself. And yet
inheritance chose us
under you like depth
when it begins –
the cormorant before it dives.
Walking home there was no sense of knowing.
There was only a layer of clean warm water
laid over everything like a pane of stained glass,
like how once, alone in the city, our mother
went to the Basilica, and beneath
the bloodshot dome, felt a light
rain fall as if through some small
and faraway crack, and wondered
if this could be called a miracle.
From the distant cities –
St. Louis and Memphis and New Orleans –
she brought fireworks, lit them longways,
your ghost on the shore, our mother on the shore,
bent in half from laughing while the flares fell
in palms and pistils and willows – yellow and pink
like a vast ripening.
She warned the waters could swell us,
the sickness of swimming for days with a fever of water
in your pores as every cell tried to stop itself from swallowing,
over and over, each cell a mouth, each cell the lake
of a mouth drinking until swollen
and sore, we’d grip around the space
where thirst once was.
This was a space to move through without weight:
in summer, pretending the water would hold beneath us
as we stepped out. In winter, the ice forked and buckling;
the same bolts we knew from absent skies
now spread in frost.
We used to seek each other’s shoulders, seek
the seams in sleep, the holidays born there,
used to turn to look up through our hair
to the roof of water overhead.
These were breaths held:
your longing for flame as you swam,
a kind of exhale; moon in the water
like otter on its back; lightning that shed
its skin and asked only fear of you; fish
coming to taste your skin then turning away,
disappointed; storms that woke and waited
at edges before feeding fire to the lake,
before cutting the air away from you.
These were breaths held:
the arc your body made as the lightning sighed
its spark, and the line it drew like a comb parting hair,
showing scalp – and the arc of you was like a fish
understanding air for the first time.
There are, you said, fires so small
they give no heat, leave no trace
of their cut heart.
There are fires you lift
like a glass to the eye, the mouth.
There are fires that shed no smoke,
like a moth on the last hour of its life.
This was our inheritance: lightning drawn
to our blood, sweating residual fire, lakewater
lit and lapping. This was handed down, our mother
with her pattern of scars where the glow built its net;
the skin showing maps that know no return.
And now I wonder: how could we know so little
and still be in the world? How could the grass
stay bent in the face of such stillness? How could
sleep not recognize itself as sleep? And now I wonder
at how we used to drop the blind dog from the dock,
watch his thrash and strain as he braced against the air,
its pull. And then, the body understanding what was asked,
he’d meet the water with downed thunder, the fall
like a gift of distance. He was a small blaze held
and lit in warm shallows. He was damp plume of flame
moving shoreward. He was a quivering bolt of black silk.
We taught ourselves to darken, to keep small, to swim
like the dog who could smell the water nearing.
We learned water can hold fire in the arc of its mouth,
that there is heat that doesn’t quench.
We used to be in the grip of things. We thought
all these things could speak to us: waters blown back
like hair caught in a comb; morning and evening tilting
their lights beneath the dock; the boat that is no longer a boat,
but only a space of greenish darkness, still slowly drowning.
We thought the lightning would call out in praise of all it took:
of the women on hilltops and the braided limbs of apple trees,
of the tautness between telephone poles, of good heights
and easy distance, small solitudes that build like stacked wood.
I thought, at least, it would tell of kissing its mouth
to the blush of un-wooed lake, and then, later, pausing
amidst snowfall to remember its taste of you, it might say:
O how sweet and sheepwhite and weightless was she;
little limp lariat of longlegged nightbird, her hair hiding
the blue cut of flame behind lids. O loose your dove in rain
before the flood only to give white back to her eye.
This was all we knew of prayer: a body, not ours,
in the water at our feet. This was all we knew of silence.