The Mansion

It all changed
when the daughters of  men
began giving birth to us.

We had no hair.

Our mothers held us
against their thick hair.

It tickled our throats
as we suckled.

There were more and more and more
of us.

The hairy said,
“We want your smooth.”

We said,
“We want your hairy.”

We all wept
because no one
had what they wanted.

We escaped more and more
to the beach.

The hairy hated water
but it was different for us.

Our hips swiveled
as we climbed
deeper and deeper.

We held our breath.

We told our hairy families
that we belonged in the water.

They clutched at us.

One day
one of us
found it.

Our first pearl.

So smooth.

So strong.

So perfect.

We raked our fingers
through the sea bottom.

We stuffed coral with pearls
and molded it.

Among the seaweed and shells
our mansion rose.

One day
one of us
went back to the shore.

She showed
a pearl to them.

They said,
“We will give you
five bags of hair.”

Some of  us became traders
while the rest built.

The more magnificent our mansion became
the more pearls they wanted.

They said to our traders,
“We will give you
ten bags of hair for each pearl.”

Our traders brought back
bags and bags of hair.

We raced
through our winding passageways
to deposit the bags.

We loved rubbing along
our smooth bumpy walls.

Food grew on our walls
and we suckled the pearls.

We kissed.

Some of our bellies grew
into enormous pearls.

Some of  our babies
were hairy yet so slick!

Then we found
fewer and fewer pearls.

We raked the sea bottom
farther and farther away.

The traders pressed for more.

They pressed and pressed and pressed.

We convened
and said no.

Some of our traders said,
“But we have to have hair!”

We laughed and said,
“For what?”

Then we found
a hollowed-out wall.

Another wall swayed loose.

And in our storage cavern
hair began seeping
out of the bags.

Hair crawled
all over our walls.

Suckling the pearls,
hair got into our mouths.

hair got in between our lips.

We awoke
with strands around our necks.

We tore them off.

We gathered hair off
our precious walls.

We told the thieves,
“Stop bringing back hair!”

But they could not help it.

They stole more pearls
and returned with more bags.

They said,
“We must do it.”

They said,
“The world demands it.”

They said,
“Hair is the only way.”

We convened
and decided.

Thirty-two thousand years later
bubbles of our laughter
still rise.

A few
still sell pearls
and wonder where we are.

Copyright © 2020 by John Lee Clark. This poem originally appeared in Poetry magazine, October 2020. Used with the permission of the author.