The yellow mouth of the school bus opened 
to eat him, and he slumped into the fractured plastic 
of his seat, knowing at the next stop the boy 
with the fingers chopped off at the knuckles 

would climb into the bus like a panther among squirrels, 
take the seat behind him, and grind the whitened stumps 
into the back of his head, while he flinched. 
What combination of starry omens and planetary dread, 

of boxcars and snake eyes, could have spun the world 
inside this child’s heart to such daily vicious thrill 
at the despair of other children, the ones with perfect hands?
At lunch, huddled with friends by the mahogany-stained 

folded-up bleachers in the gym, he tried to ask them, 
but they studied dented apples and plastic-wrapped sandwiches
in wincing silence. In their minds the awful hand was reaching 
over the ruptured and taped upholstery again 

and scraping like a bone bow across their resisting bodies,
grating out the thin music of their screams, these beautiful little 
boys and girls who flinched away from the stumps of his loss.
They also had suffered the knuckle torture, also had avoided 

the bus home, preferring to stumble through the cut black
stubble of the cornfields and be late for dinner, 
but they could say nothing. He was a fact of life, 
like brain-eating bacteria. So the boy came up 

with his own scenarios for what violence 
had severed that hand. A bad cut on a table saw 
that spritzed the sawdust red. Freak guillotining 
by falling glass. Psycho stepfather with a hatchet. 

And often he wondered, what did they do with the severed
digits? Did they keep them strangely preserved 
in formaldehyde, floating and pointing everywhere 
and nowhere in the green liquid of a screw-top jar? 

Or did they bury them in a small box, out in a field 
somewhere, or in the backyard by the oak tree 
like a time capsule floating in earth through decades 
in which that sad and terrible boy was fated to be 

the asshole of every story?—a tiny coffin in a makeshift 
graveyard where those fingers wait for the rest of him 
to join them, those pallid fetuses, those curling orchids, 
those question marks, the pale nails growing into hooks.

Copyright © 2022 by Tony Barnstone. This poem was first printed in MQR: Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 61, No. 1 (Winter 2022). Used with the permission of the author. 

All houses wherein men have lived and died
Are haunted houses. Through the open doors
The harmless phantoms on their errands glide,
With feet that make no sound upon the floors.

We meet them at the door-way, on the stair,
Along the passages they come and go,
Impalpable impressions on the air,
A sense of something moving to and fro.

There are more guests at table than the hosts
Invited; the illuminated hall
Is thronged with quiet, inoffensive ghosts,
As silent as the pictures on the wall.

The stranger at my fireside cannot see
The forms I see, nor hear the sounds I hear;
He but perceives what is; while unto me
All that has been is visible and clear.

We have no title-deeds to house or lands;
Owners and occupants of earlier dates
From graves forgotten stretch their dusty hands,
And hold in mortmain still their old estates.

The spirit-world around this world of sense
Floats like an atmosphere, and everywhere
Wafts through these earthly mists and vapours dense
A vital breath of more ethereal air.

Our little lives are kept in equipoise
By opposite attractions and desires;
The struggle of the instinct that enjoys,
And the more noble instinct that aspires.

These perturbations, this perpetual jar
Of earthly wants and aspirations high,
Come from the influence of an unseen star
An undiscovered planet in our sky.

And as the moon from some dark gate of cloud
Throws o’er the sea a floating bridge of light,
Across whose trembling planks our fancies crowd
Into the realm of mystery and night,—

So from the world of spirits there descends
A bridge of light, connecting it with this,
O'er whose unsteady floor, that sways and bends,
Wander our thoughts above the dark abyss.

This poem is in the public domain.