Rhode Island, 1892
For Mercy Lena Brown
After you die, Lena, you will freeze
until the neighbors unearth you
open your chest, your breasts
split to either side. In your heart:
blood–frozen. Your lungs, shaped like wings,
will yield once, collapse, and won’t rise.
Death is small seeds, tiny pits and nibbles,
flesh black, coal rough. She rises
at night, stalking our house
and brother, dressed in your skin
and the clothes we buried you in.
Father and the doctor will swear
this wasn’t, isn’t so,
but the neighbors will carve and burn
your heart all the same.
But for now, Death still eats. She consumes
the best parts of you:
your laugh, your starling voice
replacing all with wheeze
and whistle. All night, I listen to you die.
In the worst moments, I wish you stronger.
In the worst moments, I wish you already dead.
You were beautiful once, before cough hollowed
the birding call of your ribs. Your cheeks blushed.
The neighbors talk in streams
of tobacco juice. Some days, we are cursed—
some we stand in judgment. Am I next?
What good are daughters, anyway?
Sister, I cut my fingers to inspect my inners.
Like the lace of a fine dress, my body opens
in skirts. I do not seem different
from any flayed pig. I am Martha,
as you step closer to the Body,
the Blood. Every breath moves you further
from me. You were always so good at snapping
chickens’ necks: quick, clean before
they knew it was death at the throat.
Sister, it’s not long. I laugh
when I mean to cry.
I’m a mad girl today— mad and lost
Oh Lena. We’ll never know
a man now, having felt at night
only each other’s winter feet pressed to our calves.
The world holds his breath for you.
The sheep don’t notice; they steam the fields, chewing.
The wheel of my palm
rubs my stomach, chest, looking for the ache.
At night I wake to hold my cheek to your mouth
I search the windows we fogged
with breath & messages to carry us from one side
to the other.
What won’t you tell me?
What do you see waiting?
New Jersey, 2005
It’s nice at high tide; but when the tide is out it shoals away to nothing
Bram Stoker, Dracula
Maybe you saw me, taking off my clothes
in cars, shadowed by seat belts
& the light of the Turnpike.
We knew this game quickly, easily
in our bones, woke with it bloomed on our thighs.
Do the rules need to be explained?
Broken headlight; you strip.
Broken tail light; I do.
Look bored: just body parts
you there and me, headlights illuminating anatomy
like a children’s book of skeletons.
We drove to burn gas, reforming highways
to circles, radio a loop of bought and paid for
—what else was there? We drove to the Shore,
screamed on the snowy beaches where I grew up.
I became the Benny I’d hated
when I was a child. I wasn’t born
to lavender, fields of waving wheat
but windows of cattails at Seacaucus Junction:
sun captive by pond scum
after we emerged from Penn Station.
In basement parties we watched Death play chess.
We read Kurosawa and Nosferatu. I learned madness
as a reveal, a frame away.
I waited for it to eat me, too.
I weighed myself on the couch
careful not to press onto you—
I was so sure of being heavy.
Shadows crept staircases.
What my body wanted before I knew I did–
Some nights I expected a male face to stare back
from the mirror. I hated mirrors.
I didn’t want to know I was right,
afraid it was worse. My shadow self fat.
No, my shadow self waif, and I unwilled
always hungry, examining the bounty of friends’ refrigerators.
There was nothing at home I wanted.
I wanted not to care what happened to me
to be reckless and thin. Fat girls are cautious,
don’t want anyone to look
terrified of being seen and remembered
as an object of disgust.
Sure, virgins live longest
but who wants that?
Adults loomed at corners:
other cars, floors above basement parties
voices from other rooms, bad dubs to what we mouthed.
It was easy then, the grand unspooling
towards our own adulthood:
we’d grow new faces
that revealed nothing of their births
like the accent I dropped without effort
when I left New Jersey.
Of course I waited to die. It seemed better, easier
than making a mistake, risking no one picking up my pieces.
Who do I remember? Who might remember
me, ghost I always wanted to become?
All those nights in cars I never thought of someone seeing.
Who would know to look?
Ours was a kaleidoscope world, the car
as shelter as any house I didn’t grow up in
but crept from like a hermit crab.
When I was a child still, I was half sure
the house where I slept would blow away
if I left and didn’t return.
Brynn Downing served as the 34th Writer-in-Residence at St. Albans School for Boys in Washington, DC. She earned my MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and her BA in Global Studies, focusing on Masculinity and Nationalism in Former-Yugoslavia, from the College of William and Mary. In addition to teaching, she serves as the Interviews and Social Media Editor at Four Way Review. Her work has been published in Post Road, Glass: A Journal of Poetry and Prairie Schooner, among other places. You can find her online at: www.brynndowning.info