• Vol. 05
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Mother and Child

Vulnerable swell of belly, hidden hollow of the exposed arch, the unsettling tenderness of a fingernail’s width of exposed scalp. Who can see a child? A woman who will never have one. This is not a sad statement. This is a true statement. They are wrong, those who say: all those sketches, all those paintings, of women and children – a replacement for what she herself would never know, sentimental odes to motherhood. This misses the complexity of the gaze and all it reveals, the hard lines, the shout of the patterns, the child’s arm braced at a hard angle, doing as much to hold herself up as to be held. Books and letters tell me that long before she took up painting, she had already learned what it was to daughter a mother. The weight of a small foot in an adult’s palm. Within months of each other, my sister calls, my brother calls. We are pregnant, they both say. And my heart leaps. But once we hang up, I cry. Not because I feel diminished by their news. But because, at 44, without a child of my own, I think of all I cannot help but see every time I am in the presence of someone else’s becoming, how holding so little can hold me.

1

Two Feet

Two feet I have of comfort and despair,
two livelong friends who fare me forth and fort-

like hold me to myself, who tell me where
I am, ticklish yet able to absorb

my weight and make it theirs, each part
hard-pressed, shaped rough or smooth by use.

They tell me when I'm naked, sopping, all
reduced, what world seen from their vantage shows,

that big toes callused, full of sock fluff, still
in motion are more elegant than some

bridges. They remind me of a sliced pear,
each part whole, each of them mother and son.

They almost look the same, as sky to water,
held and apart, each one the other's daughter.

2

Unnameable

In Pashto, to water sleep:

"da stargo tora"
(the black of my eyes)

as tenebrous as the earth of her name
left for dead so long, it had assumed

fecundity. look, this is a good world if you
can winnow the linger of its indifference

to hold anything is prelude to extinction
i wish i could exercise a softness as aphasic

as the dream of myself before i manifested
a constant body. my grandmother remains

a timeless crescent, the shadow of a junglee
badam
tree carving up a bare roof by the mere

bent of its body. a body blackened to kin the eye
the mind memorizes a river as light’s heartbreak

to remember that — an arid mouth is a corrupt
temple. mirror, sacerdotal. a quelled raga

a room where hours only speak in a continuous tense
where imagination has yet to learn the invention of loss

3

Our country

does not have a flag
an anthem, a national sport,

or anniversary coinage,
no wars were fought in its name,

and soldiers do not patrol

its uneasy borders. Ours is a country
where the citizens have,

almond-colored elbows, dark brown hair
falling in wisps, a country where

all the countrymen have identical
mocha-colored eyes,

and the hesitation of émigrés,

even our shoulders angle the same way,

we turn ashen when others
address us –

we speak in garbled, fragmented speech,
like there are things unresolved in our throats;

old words twist
and turn at the tip of our tongues,

my mother tongue holds back your words,
bilingual children speak
later, so the adage goes,

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4

Ripples

I won't tell you not to jump in puddles
as I warm your feet,
and you watch them lull
your pale dozing fish,
dreaming of where they swam
and I know you'll sail far
but I'll hold you whilst I can
whilst you're still lost
in the magic of your own skin.
I wish I'd had more river days
hair unbound, silty toes, stalking minnows-
whilst brothers bawled at home,
'til they grew tall and hauled me down
just as I caught the breeze-
for there was butter to churn
and tears to mend,
for they never needed grace
and we needed work
for our idle idle hands.
So I ask you to jump in puddles,
swing on gates, take the neighbour's bike
and peddle till the wind lifts your hair.

5

Separation Anxiety

You always thought your lap wide enough to hold her,
the heft of her young body, folded into your linen-clad curves.
Mother and child. Heads bent together, the same shy eyes,
four hands stamped with your own mother's fingerprints.
Her chubby legs trembled, tired out when you left her
by the pool. You only went to get a towel, to wrap her safe.

Two minutes, maybe less, before the splashes drowned you.
You ran and ran, yet stood stock still, limbs of lead. Splintered
heart carved up with dread. Your motherhood sank down,
flailed to death by empty arms and lap wrapped in linen cloth.

Your wet, blinded eyes, felt a deft stroke, pools wiped dry.
Your daughter's voice, tender and concerned, went on to say,
'Mama, please don't weep, I'm happy. I learnt to swim today.'

6

Advice

You see them in the park: new mothers
new fathers, their eyelids swollen from lack
of sleep which has become a commodity precious
as time / the way they move is cautious
(though they are trying not to appear this way)
one hand on the stroller the other pushing back
a loose strand of hair, reaching for the cup of coffee
they carry as a talisman, a scrap of reassurance
things are not so different / my own children
grown enough they are in school, the eldest already reaching
toward adulthood / I see these new mothers, new fathers
and I want to say -
but I remember the old woman who stopped me
on Ives Street, August sun bright, my two year old
eager to escape her goodwill, my own will worn so thin
no skin between myself and the child
'Enjoy it' she said and I thought -
you don’t remember

7

A Little Comfort

When I’m very close to you, as I am now, I love you with a love so deep I’m lost for words. All I know is that, since the day you were born, you’ve been the only human I can no longer imagine life without.

Sometimes, when I’m not quite looking at you, I see you more clearly, love you more dearly, lose myself entirely, in you. Now, I see your seagreen eyes and smell your sweet clean after-the-bath-ness. I sense your concentration and hear your calm breathing, now that I’ve taken the sea-urchin spines from your feet, now that I’m bathing them in warm vinegar-water to persuade any lingering spine-shafts to come out.

You trust with your whole soul that I’ll always know what to do, whatever happens, and I’m filled with a sadness that I do my very best to hide. But once a mother always a mother. My own mother said that to me when I was a young woman. I didn’t understand her then because you hadn’t arrived in my life. Now I understand her with my whole heart.

Because when I imagine what life might throw at you, when I wish all your future troubles as easily solved as this one, I cry with the knowledge that your heart and your soul will be pierced and I’ll be powerless to help. I can’t even say, truthfully, that I’ll always be here. All I can hope for, as I dry your feet and you throw your arms round my neck, is that you’ll remember this day and it will provide a little comfort.

8

With You

I remember: a concoction,
waiting in an empty bath to be washed;
naked and covered in a makeshift mix
of mud and twigs; a disguise
devised by me and my brother. We cower,
awaiting my father’s punishment:

my mother sent him.
Still, I want her
(Keep me safe).
But she’s in another room
tending to my sisters.
So we are spanked, washed, returned
clean and screaming, to our beds.

There are few photos of my mother and I
alone together, framed. We were too busy,
too many. Didn’t have a camera,
or no film. Maybe I was away that day.

With my own daughter,
I fold into my beginning,
place us in a golden spiral.
Her body is a shell’s inner curve; it gleams.
And I wash her not to return her
to any state, but to bear her weight:
to hold her.

In the crook of an arm
I shelter her childhood.
I shelter in her childhood.

9

Queenly

An hour ago she had the cat trapped
under a washing basket trying to feed it
cheese. The grass, the cat, bluebells
are luscious gifts at her disposal.
She tromps through her palace shouting
like a tyrannical queen who is always hungry,
stuffs her mouth with flowers and rain,
demands her feet are bathed in warm water,
tells you she can see invisible fish dancing there.

10

Clean Hands and Clean Feet

In the evening regimen
splash and sparkle of water,
our reflections merge as one.

But her face is not mine,
she is not my daughter:
I am a just a nursemaid.

The twinkles in her eyes
and innocent laughter
do not belong to me.

Yet my dutiful devotion
and my heart belong to her;
they will endure for life

though I may never be
her mother or his wife.

11

Bath Time

The bath used to hang on the wall
in the scullery.
Not our scullery.
His scullery.
We borrowed it from Mr Neil
who rented us the rooms
at the front of his house.
One down, one up.
My mother would knock on his door
and he would lift it down for her.
But she had to carry it to our
living room.
It was heavy,
made of zinc, she said.
It took a lot of water
which had to be carried from the outside
tap and then heated on our gas ring.
It took a lot of hot water
and had to be filled
and emptied
with a jug.
Sometimes it was just too much work for her
and she washed me in a bowl
as I sat on her fat lap.
It was snuggly
I preferred it
really.

12

WATERING

You used to sing a song
softly as you bathed me
and it would mingle with
the gurgling, lapping water
against the muted green light
of the long afternoons
of cicadas at their chorus
in the shade outside.

Then after lunch
you’d lull me to sleep
with the ballad of a bird
who’d have to fly away
one day
soon.

Your deep forlorn eyes
might not have chosen that life
of tall chores of bringing up a child
in that small house in a small town.
But how well have you sent
the swell of your talent
to this distant city that never sleeps,
yet amidst the noise its music keeps.

Trading the long liquid afternoons
and the song of the cicadas
for a TV,
are you happy now Ma
that in it sometimes
you see me?

13

Cleanliness

Cleanliness, Mummy says, is next to Godliness.
Today the water’s cool as eels,
clear as water in Dick Brook as skies were
yesterday. Until she drops the soap. And then
as if by magic, clouds appear around my feet.
It tickles when she cleans between my toes
and as the water swirls, I think of when my daddy held me high above the shallows where crayfish hide
between the alder roots, little caves where shale becomes
a home for cadis worms and trout. And as I watch the ripples
in my fennel-scented bowl, its little waves bring back
a tide of rock pools garneted with sea anemones
swaying green with water weed; now you see it
now you don't, a shrimp-crowd ghosting
through its crazy razzmatazz; razor fish; my footprints
in the sand erased by warm sea breezes. Cool white foam
disperses while my mother’s hands
rinse my ankles as this morning's rain pools
across the window-sill.
Gathers. Gushes. Lost among forgetmenots.

14

Heredity

Remember me, dearest girl
when you hold an infant
dependant on you.

When you bathe her tiny feet
a hand on her hip
her belly resplendent.

And remember that I wanted
to teach you all I knew
and believed to be true,

The desire to protect and hold
so strong and yet, secretly
hoping you would rebel
and set your own mark upon the world.

15

How to be a mermaid in times of trouble

Look, they're gardened here, air flowering warm in parloured foliage, watching those baited feet, dibbled fingers panning

pearls, Cherie's pebbled toes. Sweet eddies of morning light
thread an enamelled basin's quiet eye, lessons in stillness.

Mama's dress fences her body in with a percale palisade,
each rippled samphired sea-thrift line purpling its flow,

as if her lap is salt with waves. Arms fin out, legs scaled
with the weight of things, a quick flittering of tails. Listen.

It's strange how sound drowns in water, a Zeppelined hum
caught between Tuileries and Seine, the whispered flak along

Rivoli. Diving is an easy thing, she holds hands, counts a fire
of flying fish, un, deux, trois, and they slip down, down below

a bask of gentle lanterned man-of-war. Breathe. Their lips are sea-caved, pink as cockle shells, hear the sirens singing.

16

Skinship

Her hair was smoothly pinned back, pulled tight by her delicate fingers.

Her delicate fingers are something I remember to this day. The delicate fingers of a mother are rather curious, you see. They are, of course, delicate; but they also contain this unbounded power and strength.

Their finest touch can transform you from twilight to the citrine drip of sunset. You see, a mother's gentle touch gives strength, just as much as it is strength. The gentle press of her fingers against your back as she swaddles you in an embrace, or the familiar warmth of your hand in hers, that never seems to slacken, is akin to some kind of curious magic. Her single and omnipotent touch can silently slay your demons and calm the storm that brews over your churning oceans.

Her hair was smoothly pinned back. It always was when she was ‘mothering'. When she was bathing me in water that she had spent an hour alternating between two taps, just to ensure it was the perfect degree of warm, reminiscent of her comforting touch. Or when she was toiling away over steaming pots, carefully and prudently sprinkling vegetables with bitter cumin, heady turmeric and fervent cayenne pepper. Testing and tasting, ensuring that it would not burn me, but was still passionate enough to make me feel alive.

Her hair was loose; lustrous and beautiful, like a waterfall of oil, thick and shining. This was when she became herself. When for a few seldom hours she was not ‘mother’ but her own. And as it happened, she was more mother than she was ever her own.

Even now, when I visit her, her hair is smoothly pinned back. Her fingers are a little more delicate now and a little less strong. She grips on to me in the way that I used to cling to her.

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17

Pure

Those bony and scrawny fingertips
scrubbing and scouring every
single piece 
of dust and soot
nestled between my toes
and puny soles
imbues me with the
moonlight sheen 
and the milky smell I was born with

You slowly and surely scrub my 
anger, pain and hurt away 
to let in dissolve 
in that turbid water
when the plethora of emotions
are birthing every second in your mind
as you fervently look for the 
scars,
small scratches,
you might have overlooked

As gently as the seraphic touch
on my nimble body
which you have sculpted and nourished
every bit of it
you dissolve every pain
in the small bowl
you wash me in

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18

GOES AROUND COMES AROUND

in a circular basin where
movement is constant
as water trickles over a child's toes

mother and daughter with heads
together look down at the action –
both sets of arms imitate each other

firmness and tenderness looked at
from above so both heads recede
look back to the roundness of the basin

look down, sit down below other chairs
as water always trickles down as
it does here though not in constant flow

cleanliness in innocence overrides
the task taken that goes around comes
around each day until the child bathes another

firmness and tenderness constant
as water trickles over a child's toes
with intimacy in a round basin

19

Impressionists

After Mary Cassatt and Ted Hughes

He still stands listening useless his wife washing their daughter at bed-time –

their girl glistening.
She watches too, watches immersed toes.
The room’s patterned, all remember – clearer
than years they’ve since woven together.

Now they note the lip of the jug there, stood to attention while that hand holds that towel –
and still likeness looms, down the decades,
likenesses in dark looks.

“Ma!” she cries happily, “Ma! Ma!”

They watch the veered bowl as if watching heaven electing to bless

the flowers after all.

20

An Eulogy to Simplicity

Infant limbs obstinate – an inherent reluctance to allow the cold in – sensations from the past contrasting with the enveloping ease of the present. Now, two steps, dial, shower head, quick flip of a shampoo bottle, plop plop drops – more struggles of nursery nonsense – and none of the ritual of before. Ritual had meant celebration, elaboration, but now she was in-out, stripped and dipped.
The noise of the water had alerted her to the chasm of time that had passed between then and now. Rather than an easy swooping, water lolloping towards toddler toes like an overweight, over-eager rabbit, water thudded from the shower head. She occasionally liked to imagine that the fall of water was uncontrollable, craving the vulnerability that standing naked in a communal, unlocked bathroom didn’t quite achieve. It was as if she wanted her blood running in rivulets along the grouting, the Psycho scream indelible in the patterns of the shower curtain. A lament to the lost moments on her mother’s knee, an eulogy to its simplicity.
But modern life and Facebook had got in the way and those sacrosanct maternal movements had collapsed. She now tagged her mother in comments and cooking videos, neither looking up from the Midas mine of information.
A radiator-warmed towel could never replicate that of her mother. Mr Right had become Mr Muscle (‘advanced power bathroom and toilet cleaner’) in a bleach-clean purge of skin and soul. She slipped whilst shaving, nerves and cells on a razor edge.
Leaving the bathroom, she gingerly picked away the long hairs that had become entangled in her toes, a grimace on her face.
The bowl was now in her kitchen, lined with a microscopic layer of dust and hair and grease. She thought of offering it back to her mother, perhaps with roses in it, but decided against it. Her mother had developed hay fever now, allergic to pollen and people and porcelain fragments from the past.

21

In The Land of Far Away

I would, if I could, wash my child’s feet with perfume, not tears
Brush away fears with soft tresses, a silken towel
Soothe flesh with oils not acid rain
Rewrite the story of our godless crucifixion
In gentle lullabies and sweet dreams
And safe bedtime tales

But lands burn and skin burns and hearts burn
Beneath war-ridden skies and a ruler’s lies
And we wait for the giant killer to climb
Into the clouds with an axe
To cut down the madness and murder
Lance the poison
Write us our happy ever after
Here in the Land of Far Away

22

An Exhibit of the Artist’s Work

In a full red dress with long sleeves
in a yellow chair
in the tilted living room
or in a wicker chair
in a lush garden
with large green leaves,
the artist’s wife spent hours at a time
sitting for him.

Her dark hair is always pulled
back and up, with hands clasped
at her severe chin, or in
her serene lap. Sometimes,
she holds a child.
He posed her in similar settings
again and again. And again.

The artist said, "Only I understand
how to paint a red!"
In most of the paintings she has
no expression
other than one eye wider
              sometimes
as if staring ardently
into the artist’s soul.

With my marriage, people often ask me
who left whom? The cliché is: it takes two.
              Sometimes, though
it takes only one
to ruin the union.

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23

Not Too Cold/Not Too Hot

Now, now Misha,
Do not fear the water.
Let’s pretend your toes
are a baby chickadee
and this basin a birdbath.
Not too cold. Not too hot.
Can you hear that little birdie
sing? So happy. So free.
Someday, Misha, we will be free.
We will go to America.
I will clean the houses of rich women
and sew beautiful clothes
for their daughters. We will find
a doctor to fix your legs. You will run
and play in the dirt. I will scrub away
the mud squished between your piggies.
And for the first time you will giggle—
For the first time it will tickle
as I wash your ten little toes.

24

Your Freedom

When I was a child, I used to call this quiet, boredom. And I despised her for it. The boredom of the water, waiting to cool. The boredom of the bedroom, waiting for dusk. The boredom of the closing mouth of the day, yawning into the long, boring night. My toes itched for freedom.

We have access to contraception, and now we pretend it’s a choice. But you can’t choose what you can’t imagine. (I whisper this daily, to the rhythm of a rolling pram.) Oh, I do remember the years before – the belly-aching sadness of not having a child; the stale, dry-mouthed hunger; the silent grief, month on month. It’s the silence of those years that crushes these ones into their domestic hush.

The other day I calculated that I have bathed you over a thousand times, already. I find myself leaning my head close to yours, stroking the soft goodness of your skin, feeling your heaviness fold, unthinkingly, into my lap; and I blink to forget the freedoms rotting in the toes of my smartest shoes.

With one hand, you weigh yourself against my body. With the other, you test the flesh of your leg. Soon, the light will fade from behind the curtains, the dust will rise like stars from the covers of your bed. You wriggle away from me, and half-walk, half-stumble towards sounds from the other side of the door. I watch the curve of your back. Your beautiful, sensuous freedom.

25

Playmates

I remember the day I found out.

Dusk was approaching. Mama snatched my doll and threw it into the house. Papa pointed to Pablo jumping over the fence.

‘He is not to come here again,’ Papa said.

Mama told me Carmen would wash me and make me presentable for Abuela’s visit. 'Young girls should be inside, not out in the sun browning like peasants,' she said.

I didn’t know what a peasant was. Was bring brown bad? Carmen was brown and I loved her.

Why they didn’t like Pablo? Was it his dark skin or the way his mouth never closed? I had gotten used to the drool that escaped down the side of his chin. He couldn’t help it. It was how he was born.

            He told me his father was a pirate who was always away at sea.

Carmen appeared at the door way and swooped me into her arms. They were strong. Much stronger than Mama’s. She was smiling, but her eyes looked sad. I watched as she gazed across the field to where Pablo disappeared.

My parents turned and went inside. I wish I were a boy. Papa would prefer a son, I thought.

‘Come, conejo – time to be clean.’ I followed Carmen to my bedroom. She knelt and looked me in the eyes.

‘You need to stay away from Pablo. I’ll tell him not to come over here.’

How did she know where he lived? I wondered.

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26

We

The storm is coming and they are alone. Smiling, she tries to chase the panic into a corner of her mind.
Pretending to be calm, she gently washes the child’s sweet, innocent body.
“A woman’s breasts: two perfect drops of tears – the sorrow of a body saying goodbye to childhood, getting ready to nourish another.” Remembering her own mother’s words, her smile becomes warm and real. The child laughs, her small feet splashing the water. The little body is following the rhythm of the mother’s heartbeat. Like a couple of graceful ice-dancers, they are perfectly synchronized. They have to be.
She hears the thunder. The lighting will strike soon.
The little one is clean and fed and sleepy now. The mother is ready. Wide awake she waits, she listens, she watches.
More thunder. No lighting yet.

27

Walking the Waves

The full moon was rising above the trees. Aunt Jen held out the bowl of water infused with herbs and white flowers. She placed it in a patch of moonlight.

Mary felt the warm wood floor under her bare feet, the breeze through the open window. Out there, she could see shadows moving in the trees.

The water was cool; Mary's feet tingled. Aunt Jen's voice became a whisper, the sound of leaves.

What do you feel? she said.

Sand, Mary said. I feel sand. It's wet.

What do you see?

A beach. Waves. Light on the water. Oh! A shell. And look! Blue glass.

Aunt Jen was walking beside her. The sea breeze turned her hair to seaweed.

When they came back, Mary was holding the striped shell in her hand.

You are learning, Aunt Jen said. Next month, you can help me make the spirit water. We'll go back to the beach, and walk on the waves.

28

Mama’s Whispers

With every pace, you will change.

You will punctuate places.
Scenes will spill into spaces,
filling your mind.

Explore the range –
the wilderness beckons,
its open palms the terrain.

Hike and ramble,
rove and amble to where
the grass strokes your ankles.

Don’t stray, scramble, stumble –
vagabonds who drift slip away;
the ground can crumble.

Saunter into sunlit clearings,
uncluttered, unfettered.
You will see better. Feel better.

Enclosures blind and blinker,
binding tight with boundaries,
shrinking and shrivelling scope.

Wind through oaks,
roam plains, climb slopes,
dance in the trill of rain.

Don’t bolt, don’t quit,
escape or split;
run to feel freedom course through your veins.

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29

I Belonged to You

You called me a waif, admonishing me for running
the streets in bare feet, soles blackened by soot.
With tender hands and a smile that edged away
the undertow of frustration, you washed the blood
from my stubbed toes and bandaged the
wounds of a stalwart and reckless childhood.
Your rage burned out of control for the other kids,
but I was the child of your new skin, the heart
that learned its rhythm from the pulse of the sea.
I had his face, but I belonged to you.
It was you who taught me the comforts of sadness,
my tiny hands covered in the despair of your tears.
You strapped me to your chest and climbed
out of a life steeped in secrecy, into a decade of
feminist rallies, and learning how to roar,
but the weight of your sorrow had stained us both.
You hit me once, when I was six years old and I hit back.
We sat at the bottom of the steps together and cried.

30

Excuse me

But you are not my

Sit very still

Let go of my feet

Look at your sweet little

But you are not my

Do you like this dress?

Oh no, I

I am fond of stripes

But you are not my

I will just press here

Let go of my feet

Look at your sweet little

But you are not

I will just

Oh no

31

PAPER TRAIL

Two heads together, seen from a standing
point of view, looking down at them
downcast, in tune, lost in time.

People-watching with photographs
flicking through strangers, catching them
in concentrated actions, frozen.

Life mingling in lives long gone fill
spaces, hold building blocks together
paint pictures, decorate now with then…

feel the difference between fact and fiction.

32

Steadfast

Sturdy like the house my grandfather built,
let me build a foundation beneath you
and you can balance on me when
you're feeling less than able.
“Lean on me when you're not strong,”
they say,
but I want you to lean on me
always.
As wild as the waves,
as soothing as the sea,
as infinite as the ocean,
and as warm as the midday sun,
I want my steadfast love to
keep you safe,
bring you peace,
and fill you with joy
for the rest of (y)our days.

33

Treasure

It had been such a long time since they had last looked for her. Perhaps they thought she had died; tripped over a step and tumbled down the stairs of her lank, dusty tower with nobody about or willing to save it. They knew she could not stand the daylight's sun, and even though she could almost pass as one of them under the moonlight, eventually they called off their nighttime guards when they realised she was not coming out.

She never left her home because she was sad. They were all dead, the humans had hunted them down. All her family wanted to do was care for their treasures. Clean them, polish them, note down their individual characteristics and display them, hanging them up in the trophy rooms. But the humans could not stand this, couldn't stand to have their possessions taken, their collections disrupted.

All of her treasures had dulled and lost their shine as the moons passed, and she could not stand to gaze upon them hanging lifelessly in her parlour any longer. She waited for the coolest night, wrapped herself up in her soft cloaks, and trespassed into the capital through the sewage system. She stopped to feed.

The night was quiet, free of the humans' occasional celebrations. She acquired the clothes of one of their females. The female had no treasures. She sulked. The females normally had treasures. She left her.

This was one of their bigger houses, normally rich in treasures. She felt dizzy when she thought about the future. She climbed through the window and searched through the darkness.

A girl child was sitting on the floor. She looked up at her visitor, and gurgled, charmed at the sight of her. She was in her undergarments, and her hair was short and pretty.

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34

A Mother’s Lap

“I love you mummy,” she says, climbing into my lap. The queue of priorities reorder their places in my mind. I shuffle her hips closer, envelope her in my arms, rest my head on her head, and listen.

My mouth, brushing her downy ears, whispers warmth into her heart. I kiss her silky hair, humming, gently rocking. She presses the side of her face, with jigsaw precision, against my less than before breasts. Perhaps, they still contain a half memory of drunk-on-milk deep sleep?

This precious, unplanned moment contains no fear. She lifts her head to look, through clumped teary lashes, close up, into my face. She sees no lines or shadows. My smile is her lifelong invitation to take that seat, until the day she, like her brothers before her, feels too big, too clunky, too old for my then to become redundant lap.

35

Wash, Rinse, Dry

Wash

The day was long. A summer of flies and heat. Of dust, rising. In the meadow, you played in the long grass, chasing butterflies while the bees buzzed somewhere. Arms and legs scratched and bloodied by grass and thorns.

Overhead, around mid-day, she had pointed at the sky and told you to, ‘Look! Look!’

A bird there, hovering in the blue, and the white, white glare of a summer high sun. You had to squint to see it.

‘A kite,’ she said.

You shook your head. Because a kite has a sting. A kite is yellow and has a shape you cannot name. Neither circle nor square. Funny that she should not know this.

And then, it is over too soon. Back home, she said, ‘time to wash the day off,’ and you had wanted to run, because the dirt and the dust and the blood were all too perfect.

And again, why did she not understand this?

Rinse

The smell of soap. Creamy and perfumed. Lavender filling the room. You close your eyes and breathe it in. Breathe in the day again, the smells of summer, while she touches your skin. The gentle smoothing away of dirt and dust and blood, not as bad as you feared.

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36

Circle

On brooks of velvet
You smelt like salt
Feet dipped in the plunge-pool
Cradled by stones, calluses
I loved to watch you wash

Goosebumps on goosethighs
You’d talk me through
The whys, cheek touching
Breath like peppermint
Water slowly darkened with
Garden-dirt and grass

Now, tables turned
You in that same basin
I’ll try to be gentle as
Then. You are the
Child now: pink and plump forever.

37

The Difference Between

       Outside,
the men teach the boys how not to cry,
how to withhold their shame, to stand up
for their pride, defend all their boundaries,
to do what is necessary, to bang their hand
on the table or throw things across the room.
Sometimes, It gets physical, tears rise and fall.
After a while a fortress surrounds the heart,
They toughen, prepared for whatever
will be meted out. Once the clamps are in place,
their sensitivities recede, and they turn to face
a mirrored world they see as cold and cruel.

        Inside,
something else is going on, where the gates
are left open, a softening, a feminizing trait
they will one day come to yearn for.
It reminds them of the womb they emerged from,
the tender touch of their youth the cajoling voice
of mother teasing them to unclench their fist,
causing the man to stutter in rediscovery.
It is the only thing that keeps them from
becoming wandering lawless beasts.

        Herein,
It is a common Wednesday, time for the weekly bath.
What transpires is a tender, maternal, intrinsically
female ritual to do with the washing of the feet,
and by extension, how to begin again,
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38

Mother & Daughter

Was this the moment we were supposed to remember?
       One little piggy under water and nine more
       wishing they knew what would happen next.

Wasn’t this how our belly button muttered truth?
       Telling a story of how we were connected
       even years later when we might forget it.

Was her robe always that long?
       Even on the mornings when she got up
       to see the boys off on their paper routes?

Did she really prefer her clothes in stripes?
       Maybe he picked that for her after
       she chose the forget-me-not wallpaper.

If my foot tipped the side of the bowl
       and the water ran on the old carpet
       or tipped the pitcher and broke it

did it matter then or was it later?

39

This little piggy

This little piggy reminds me of how unfair it was.
It does. Oink oink oink, I am five again.
As I travel down its slopes I slip and stumble and fall.
This little piggy makes me forget that I am now soaked in soothing, lovely, warm water.
The fresh scent of it. Lavender.
All the bubbles I could wish for.
Just rolling around in it.
All of my own making.
This little piggy tends to bring out the oink in me.
Has me rolling around in something else alright.
Spreading the stink of it everywhere I go.
This little piggy. Shameful.
This little piggy forgets gratitude for all that is.
In this free market universe.

40

Mother’s Arms – a villanelle

In my mind I am but three
Bereft of all my adult stress,
With mother’s arms embracing me

Enduring love can set me free
As to her heart I gently press.
In my mind I am but three

My future trials I cannot see –
What lies ahead an empty guess,
With mother’s arms embracing me

A grown up, I am all at sea
With feelings I try hard to suppress.
In my mind I am but three

Does past life really hold the key
To actions I cannot confess?
With mother’s arms embracing me

In comfort, I little could foresee
My life would end in such a mess.
In my mind I am but three,
With mother’s arms embracing me

41

Things unsaid

domestic placidity
follows the writhing rhythm of
countless mundane tasks
relentless routines of the untroubled home

bely requisite tranquility
immaculate pristine flawless model rooms
fatuous shells which mask
helpless powerless unarticulated groans

rising from churning acidity
bitter bile from deep within
hurt unspoken questions unasked
thrown into profound depths unknown

42

The Bath

Rest on my lap,
Let me put your swollen feet
into the water I poured
from this flowered vase.

Let me cradle first one foot
Then the other in my palm,
Work out the dirt from between
Your tiny toes.

Our heads together watch me
Work. I feel the heat
Of your head next to mine.
It is quiet away from muffled

Noise of horses snuffle,
Cart rattle on cobblestones
in the street outside.
Tomorrow you'll be back

to work for twelve hours
in clatter and dust
of the linen mill.
Enjoy this quiet my little one.

43

Feet in the Bowl

Let’s wash your feet in milk.
Tell me how sweet and cooling it was –
eighteen years later, when we meet again.
You are my daughter and do you see, do you know,
that the hardest part of love is keeping milk
from going sour? One day, they will tell you.

Let me hold you. Let me hold you again,
before the scene changes
and you run barefoot into other rooms.

I am not your mother, but I exist,
in order to make your little life splendid.
One day, you will remember.

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Woman to Woman

I bathe your feet new little woman
feel the touch of difference

for deep within your unclothed innocence
a voice is being nurtured.

These feet little woman
will carry that voice.

You will meet sisters along the way
and learn to raise those voices.

There will be walls to climb
little woman climb high and if

they should remove one foot from you
climb higher.

If one day you have no shoes remember
your voice is leaving footprints.

Should that voice trip on the trodden path
walk on water.

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Footsteps

The road was long.
Each step I took
You took one more.
Your hand always in mine,
Your steps echoed mine.
We skipped light,
Glancing off uneven
Pathways like shallow
Water tumbling over
Glistening cold rocks.

Our braided arms swayed
Like a rope swinging
From an oak bough.
Only when a sullen sun
Dissolved like a lemon
Drop on the city’s tongue
Did our bodies turn to lead,
Our eyes catch shadows
That stole catlike to our door.

I gather you into my lap.
You lean into the soft harbor
From which you swam
Shedding fins and gills
For lungs, arms, and legs
To walk dirt and cobblestone
Roads, to fold damp blades
Of meadow grass, to dig
Your toes in the thick of carpets,
To patter-dance on wooden boards. Read more >

46

Wet Nurse

The wee soul's never been to market
she's always left at home
she's told it takes too long

At bath time
I speak to her of little piggies
she tells me they're her toes

After bath time
I feed her

hold her close
'til mummy decides to come home

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I Wash Your Two Feet

I wash your two feet.
Just as my mother did for me and my grandmother did for her.

I wash your two feet.
I tell you stories about the great woman you will become. And of joys you have yet to imagine.

I wash your two feet.
I don’t trouble you with warnings of the challenges you will face or the people who will try to hurt you.

I wash your two feet.
Life is long and childhood is short and I know we won’t share many more moments like this.

I wash your two feet.
So that one day you’ll be able to stand on them and walk your own path.

48

This Little Piggy went to market

They took a short cut through the flower market on the way to kindergarten. So early in the morning, but the men were already clearing up, boxes of blooms all sold out. Fallen petals though, sometimes a whole rose to pick up. Mama called Claudia on, told her not to kick the flower pulp with her good shoes.
This Little Piggy stayed at home.
Claudia wished she could have stayed at home. Kindergarten was strange smells: long-cooked vegetables, the toddlers’ flooded toilet, wax crayons and too ripe bananas. Routines to remember, squiggles that people told her made up her name. And no Mama all day long. By dinner time she was ready to leave but
This Little Piggy had roast beef,
gravy, mashed-not-roasted potatoes. These were the parts Claudia liked. Not the orange discs of carrot. Not the watery cabbage. Especially not the roasted parsnips pretending to be roast potatoes that they tried to make her eat all up.
This Little Piggy had none.
At kindergarten she learned that if she didn’t eat her main she got no pudding, even if it was her favourite. She sat quietly while the others scoffed chocolate ice cream with their mouths open and didn’t talk to her. She drank her water and tried not to cry.
And this Little Piggy cried wee, wee, wee
but no one at kindergarten seemed to hear until it was too late. Warm and slippery down her legs, staining her new white socks, even puddling inside her good shoes. Squelching as she walked
all the way home.
Mama wasn’t angry. Instead she said, never mind, and, we’ll get you clean. And yes you can have pudding. And yes I will say the rhyme and play the game and tickle you until you laugh and laugh but never until you scream.

49

To the sea

And one day it will be the sea again;
close your eyes and travel through time.
We’ll go to the beach on a big train,
and one day you’ll see the sea again.
The sun will shine on your playpen;
you’ll have a memory, perfect, sublime.
And one day it will be the sea again;
close your eyes and travel through time.

50

Cleansing Ritual

I saw a concave knitting
beneath your twinkling eye
splash of talks and splash of memories,
Mother, rub my sins
hard as death
bright as sunflower-toasts
rub my thighs,
rub my thoughts
fastening my back,
erecting my mind.
In the eye of mundane truths
and lives of insect-bites
plaster this eggshell body
with bubble and foam
a star kissing another star.
Your eyes soft
as my belly-button
with hands of vertical
stripes and patterns
like a lullaby,
I often see your face
in my dreams, Mother,
countless motions of twists.
I die each night
to feel this salty-love –
a paroxysm of your body.

51

Petrichor

Why does the air smell green when it rains?

Your feet got wet in the grass
and you wanted a bath to wash the cold away.
So we went to bed late and bathed.
I would give you anything –
I would give you the ocean just to say
The world is yours.

[One day we will go to the sea]

For now, a basin,
A hand on your waist to say
We're home now and safe.

[Dip your toes in.
In the morning the air will still be green]

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Fulfillment

She would read the encyclopedia as she cooked, stirring the contents of a heavy-bottomed pot with her left hand while holding the book aloft with her right. I always wondered how she did it; it was difficult for me to lift the book, even with both hands. I should have known—my mother was one of the strong ones.

“I’d also like one of these,” she’d told the bored cashier in the saggy red apron-vest. With grimy hands, the cashier had rung up the leathery volume, dumping it into the bag without regard to the fragile tomatoes and plums and bread within. My mother had promptly removed the book, tucking it deeply under her arm, without a word of complaint.

When the book sat idle, I’d open it, pressing my nose into the pages, breathing in as if I could smell the trees that had birthed them. I imagined blue sky, cracked leaves, ebony soil, a scent as fresh as the mysteries the volume contained. Flipping through, I’d chance upon a set of pages that were thinned and crinkly, where red sauce had splattered and had been carefully wiped away. I'd lay my cheek on these pages, knowing my mother had laid hands on them. It was a secretive, shared experience, one without words between us, but with words nonetheless.

“Cuboid. Navicular. Cuneiform. Metatarsals. Phalange.” Her soapy hands would glide down the length of my feet as she washed them, naming each bone. Balancing me carefully, holding me firmly, a soft, satisfied smile on her face. Bath time was more than just bathing, getting clean; it was a daily anatomy lesson. Yesterday she’d been in the E’s—and I’d heard words like lobule, helix, and auricle, as the warm towel traced my ear.

She probably thought I wasn’t listening on those nights. I was.

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53

MISSING PIECE

The eye has decided
it will not read today;
scorning its owners pleas,
the extraneous imperatives
and dismissing the ability to see,
it closes at approach of text.

Its partner derided
host’s attempts to allay
its needless loyalty.

Another bathed my child today –
custom which has long abided –
as they do with all deceased
before throwing on the dirt.

The prayer book blurs again.

54

A Muddy Day

I put my feet in the pot the old fashioned way
Very cold, tingly.
Playing in the puddles, everything muddy
All the dirt on the floor.
Mother took out a jug and a dish
Carried me over
Took off my filthy pants, shirt and wellies
Put my two feet inside the big bowl
poured cold cold water all over it.
She wiped me up with a cloth as best as she could
and said: “Take a bath later!”
Clean again, I am sunny
Time to go find another puddle to jump in!

55

A Letter from a Daughter to her Mother

With no clothes on, true freedom beckons near,
And cool, light breezes calm my prickled skin,
Until I think a strange and silly fear:
How would that water feel with my feet in it?
That old tin jug is colder than crushed ice;
It chills the blood that runs through my flushed cheeks.
That basin does not do much to entice:
From me it garners some protesting squeaks.
With your strong arms you hold me very still;
In your rough skirts I can feel gentle heat,
And on your lap I sit and watch you spill
The water from the jug onto my feet.
They both now in the basin calmly stand
With you rubbing dirt off them; I relax,
Remembering the feeling of your hand,
Secure in thought that time's stopped in its tracks.
The day will come when I’ll be tall like you,
And I’ll no longer fit into your lap,
So moments like these are ones I’ll review;
They’ll be the ones that'll dash free from time’s trap

56

My Butterfly

Time and sun have left their mark,
mapped your day, your play.
Defined your soft edges.
From your feet, I wash the day,
venerate your presence.
For those moments,
you allow me to hold you close,
feel the pulse
that once resided within me.

Stubborn.
Always the stubborn one.
The waited for daughter
who wishes she was another.
Leaves time at home,
along with dresses.
Runs to abandonment,
gathering the verdant;
my butterfly.

57

Taking the Time

Jo

I wish
I lived
in an
era
when
women
wore
striped,
long
dresses
and gave
their
children
baths
on their
laps.

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58

When there are no words

When there are no words there is touch. I do not remember you ever hugging me. But when I was small you held me. I have seen the photographs. You are smiling in those photographs in which you are holding me.

When I fell on the road, you cleaned the wound on my knee and put a bread poultice on it to draw out the grit. It is white and smooth, the scar on my right knee. The wound healed cleanly, thanks to you. You set me on my feet, literally so. My feet have carried me round the world and I have taken it, largely, for granted – that the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other has brought me to this day and that soon I will stand and walk out into the sunshine, easily.

But in houses through this town there are people who can no longer do this. People who sit and wait for someone else to take them out into the sunshine, a someone who may never come. They too, these people unknown to me, were once five years old; they ran barefoot without a care, as I did. A tumble or the sudden stab of a thorn in a heel then brought quick tears, but a mother’s touch and the benediction of warm water meant the memory did not stay. We all ran out again soon enough into that sunshine which – in our memories – shone through all the summer days of our childhood.

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59

Ties That Bind

Mary Cassatt's well-known painting
Degas-esque, 'The Child's Bath'
Ideas drift – the Madonna and Jesus
Cleansing, purifying; familial bonds
Tenderness, togetherness, education
Sunday grace, calmness embodied
Freed of artifice or guile
A moment in time, fragile
Art galleries' depictions gilt-framed
– Painters neglected or acclaimed

A golden harp plays in the ether
Reverberating through centuries

60

Memory Lane

Fragrant whiff of twilight creeping
Eucalyptus linen fresh
Jug and bowl cracked slumber schooling
Water printing splatter trail stepped
Dripping droplets, stirring distance
Rock pool tiptoe damp cold floors
Yearning mother's soft word spoken
Reassurance whispered love of chance
Oven roasting hay wain summer
Swirling bed time hot coal heaven
Open fires kindling sparked

61

Daily Divination

candy striped gown
hair bun double crown
honeycomb memories

come and go
hand in hand
with the morning mud

pink lavender sugar plum
ladybird green thumb
milk teeth baby steps

tippy toe
into the bowl our
daily divination

watch it slowly wash the hours

and tend to her
like freshwater
river

62

So Young

Mother bathes you
and your body will remember–
the comfort of her arms
will anchor your dreams
a counterweight to all the grief
the years may bring
because once you were
held perfect
in the perfect curve
of her devotion
that one safe place
everything depends on
her hand firm at your waist
her head tilted in to yours
her embrace at once
secure and open
that bright blue
and yellow morning
solid footing
for whatever road you take

63

The Child’s Bath

No one steps into this quiet room
where sunlight and a mother’s love
warm her clammy skin.
Foreshortened faces, familiarity of flesh.
Among wild constellations of clashing colour,
a child’s pale body beams
in moonlike nudity.

Squeeze of foot matched
by press of thigh –
the angle bats the eye back
and forth, a silent carriage
return. No Madonna and boy child here –
just the newness of old love.

64

An Angled View

The sun shines on us,
it's a captured landscape.
It’s a magnetic bond, her epic
lessons. How you stay alive.
That is life. This is living.
This long race is our odyssey,
it hungers for black or white.
I don’t remember the blink,
the flinch, the harrow of this
angled view.
Do I remember when she
washed my feet, or
scrubbed my knees?
No. I don’t.

But there’s serenity
in the scent of tar coal soap
and lavender pillows and
sun-dried cotton sheets.
Her dimpled chin makes me smile
as much as my child’s laugh.
My mother is the softest colour.
The shape of life. My future.
I don’t remember her stormy
moments of rain; I leave that
drear to others. Do I remember
summer’s cloudless sky,
or my mother’s hazel eyes?
Yes. I do.

65

Telemachus

A single memory overrides her thoughts. She remembers a time before this moment, an easier time of lighthearted laughter and warm embraces. She looks on at the man standing before her and sees his son within those cold brown eyes. The son she loves so dearly. The son who is being eaten up by hatred, trying to piece himself together in the midst of the confusion.

She remembers the smell of dust on him, as she cleaned his little feet in the warm water. His hair was thick and curled, as it is now, falling gracefully around his flushed face like a hyacinth in bloom. His rounded body nestled comfortably in the curve of her own, cheeks brushing against one another. She loved him like he were her own. She wanted to fill the gaps his father had left behind as best she could, to smooth them over with clay and stone and fill the cracks with precious metals.

But she could not mend him.

66

the choice

carve out the belly, the womb with a bloody blade
rename yourself the ripper
bleeding every month
day after day, staining towels for this is the price
of rags to riches
as if a babe in the arms is a tender bird to which every woman
desires aspires
but this is nothing yet
another backstabbing she-bitched two-faced lie
some women just like to fuck
it's as simple and clean as that
period.

67