Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
This poem originally appeared in Waxwing, Issue 10, in June 2016. Used with permission of the author.
Dear Saint Patrick, this is Peggy, Or maybe it’s Pegeen to you, Well, I’m really Stella Mae. Peggy’s my nickname, But anyway, will you please tell me What to do about the rattlesnake That’s in my room? I know it’s there, But I can’t find it anywhere I search. I’ve ransacked the closet more than once, Because that’s where we found the skin it shed. I even put the cat in there and shut the door, But he only went to sleep on my new dress Which he had clawed from a hanger. My grandma, Maggie, says you drove the snakes from Ireland And they came here to Arizona. She’s right, you know For didn’t a rattler kill our cat, Blackie? There he was beside the porch, stiff as a board And baby Florence saw it. She’s only three and doesn’t need to see death like that, not yet. If you can, let her believe for now That we will live forever. Anyhow, I’m pregnant again. I know I’ve sinned But I am paying for it. Don’t make my girl suffer Because her mother used poor judgment And got herself in trouble out of wedlock. My mother’s disappointed in me. My father doesn’t care And says I don’t have to marry Just to have a name for this one in the oven. Father says there’s nothing wrong with our name And will serve the babe as well as any other, But mother is determined to give this one a legal father Like Baby Florence has, but only on paper. She doesn’t have a father either, But she’s got her granddad, he says And goes to work. He is a barber. Mother is a cook and she works longer hours, So I’m here with Baby Florence And that infernal snake all day. Outside, the new cat, dogs, chickens and hogs Roam about the yard, But they can’t help me, can they? I keep praying, but you don’t answer. I guess you’ve got no time for me, So armed with a shovel, I go in the closet once again And succeed in smashing a wall. Bits of plaster fall on my head, But I don’t mind. I’d rather be dead than never find the thing That crawls about the room Without fear of discovery. This morning, I woke up to find a coiled imprint At the foot of my bed. They say I am protected from harm Because the Virgin Mary put her heel Upon a snake’s head and crushed it For the sake of all pregnant women. I am safe, I say to myself and pray for mercy And recall the dead baby diamondback we found last fall. It glittered like a tiny jeweled bracelet And I almost picked it up, Before I remembered my own warning to my daughter To never, ever pick up anything suspicious. I wish I’d done that with the man partly responsible For the mess I’ve made. The diamondback was like the lust I felt for him. It glittered so beautifully I had to pick it up and wear it for awhile, Then like some Lazarus, it came to life, By striking me with its poisonous fangs, Leaving me to pay for my crime Once by lying to myself And twice for good measure. Now I must suffer for my pleasure. I curse, slam the wall again And feel pain radiating from my navel Down through my bowels And am not able to get to the telephone To call my mother. I hear a splash and all of a sudden, The snake darts from the hole I made in the wall And crawls forward to slake its thirst. I grit my teeth, but stand stock still As the pain gnaws at my vitals. I try to show no fear As the snake takes a long drink of my water Then slithers away, But not fast enough to escape, As screaming with pain and rage with all the mother instinct I can muster, and in the Virgin Mary’s name, I raise the shovel and smash the snake, Crushing its head, As I double over and fall beside it On the red, concrete floor. For awhile, a ripple runs through its body, Then it is still. When my pain subsides, I fall asleep And dream I’m dead And hundreds of baby snakes are gathered at my wake. They crawl all over my body And I try to shake them off, Until I realize they’re part of me. At Saint Mary’s Hospital, the nurses and my doctor Tell me how courageous I am And the nuns even come to visit me. They claim I have performed a miracle And should be canonized. Saint Peggy. “How does that sound?” I ask Saint Patrick aloud When left alone to hold my child. I smile at her and tell her she is blessed. The nuns have gone off to light some candles And in the chapel. They say they’re praying for special dispensation But I don’t need that and neither does my girl. Back home, after a few days, I realize That I made a mistake in thinking I could take away my sins When Mother tells me my new daughter is cursed Because I killed a snake the day she was born. “What a cruel mother you are,” I tell her And she says, “Yes, I’m just like all the others. I should have smothered you when you were born. I was so torn up inside, I nearly died for you And you repay me with not one bastard, but two. I never thought I’d call a whore my daughter.” When I protest, she says, “There’s the door.” After that, I decide to ignore her And in a state between agitation and rest, I remember something I had forgotten. As I lay beside the snake. I saw a tiny bunch of eggs spill out of her And realized she was an expectant mother too And simply wanted a drink to soothe herself One desert afternoon When mothers must decide to save Or execute their children.
From No Surrender: Poems by Ai. Copyright 2010 © by Ai. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.