On the train to New Orleans my sister and I
light the Virgen de Guadalupe candles
and the line of unlucky women steps out from the flame.
They file past at the window where we sit,
where we have given up being safe from them,
our four aunts with their loose dresses for mourning,
their fasting, their silent refusals. These women loved
their grief like the bread they would not let themselves
the children they would not allow into their bodies.
their unspoken lesson—take nothing
into the body. We know they will wait for us,
a line of dolls cut from the same sheet of butcher paper,
the sister of this family linked by their hands and alone.
One mile into Mississippi,
the train passes a statue
of blue-robed Mary in someone else’s yard, bathtubs leaning
against the wire fence. I place us there. With relief,
I lower each of us into the bath, into
the crystal salts.
Oil pools on the surface of the water. Sulfur is staining our skin.
The train drags on across the tracks, away from us,
leaving us in our own story. My first aunt looks down
at the flat pan of her
pelvis, strung tight between hipbones
never touch. She likes her body empty and clean.
Coaxing her into the tub, we preach the virtues of this water,
its power to wash away
sin. The second one taps
cigarette ash on the grass and blows smoke at the sky
while we plead with her about drowning,
tell her not to go all the way down. Why should she listen?
We know how good the body can feel, unused, expecting
nothing. But my sister and I are trying to prove them
I kneel beside my family, I am desperate.
drags the sign of the cross in the dirt
with a stick. Why don’t we quit telling the story?
Once upon a time there were four princesses and
safe tower. No prince.
In place of a man, a basket
of primroses they ripped into pieces, four finches
fighting it out for the kingdom. In another story,
my sister and I take them all home to New Orleans.
I take them all into me, my secret
give up. They live in my body. Oh, we are beautiful.
In the real story, we are all starving together. Sisters,
the wafer floats on my tongue like bad luck,
like our name.
In the unnamed village the priest breaks the Body
of Christ above the child who will
become my great-grandmother.
The baptism is complete with the Bread of Heaven, the bread
other women shape into loaves to bring luck, good fortune
to be passed through her body into
the bloodline to her unborn
children like water leaking from the fields through
the dirt floor of the house. By now, at the end of the
clear you’re not coming back for us. You’re not returning
to save us, and my inheritance is the wish
emptiness. I cast my lot with the women in my family.
I follow them. I choose the rituals of grief.
Again and again the
boat crosses the ocean from Europe
to America, then back, and I am running. I circle
the block where you once lived, the house
I can’t enter, where my aunt and
my mother lie
by side in the dark in your bed. I run until
my muscles burn. Your granddaughters will sleep together
in this house for the
rest of their lives.
The day you leave Budapest, meat hangs in the market,
a lamb skinned and strung up by its front legs, body
slit open. Steam
rises from its belly, from the space
between its back legs. Is this the moment when it began?
When you vowed to fast, to turn your body pure,
Mary, to prepare yourself for the kind of love
that accompanies refusal and holds sisters together?
I circle the block again and again till my breath catches
in my throat.
If you believe the dead send messages,
here is you punishment—all of us hoping to become
children, hoping for safety. We will do anything
to prevent the panic
that stutters in the chest,
anything to keep ourselves hollow and flat.
Inside your house my mother spoons milk
into her sister’s mouth. They sit silently at your table.
I circle the block, holding my breath.
My mother drinks
glass after glass of vinegar on ice to fill her stomach
with the pain that’s familiar, the pain that we love.
When we finally find
you in the afterlife, will we be pure
enough for you? At night in my own house I lay
the table, crystal plates and saucers, three forks for each
guest, a spoon set above
every place. There is room for all
of the women at the table. I serve the objects that promise luck:
pigeon feathers and coffee beans for
love, ten-cent babies to signal
fertility. I pile pennies on each plate for prosperity.
Here is a stone from the bottom of the sea you crossed.
Lay it flat on your
tongue. Pass it from one to the other
in your mouths. At the end of the century I will step
my body like a dress, leave it on the floor.
Rose, I want to speak with your voice in the language
none of us understands. I want your kiss, your tongue
in my mouth.
This is not love but how we inherit
each other. I sit alone at the table, notebook open on my lap.
Listen. I am the one
who will tell about it.
Marshy spillover is first to flood: where water
first met sand and pilings
lost all anchor.
Where nothing rose above the surge, that wall
of black, black
water. Where houses buckled, crumbled.
Where the storm’s uneven scrawl erased.
While miles away
I watched a map of TV weather,
the eyewall spinning closer. A coil of white, an X-ray.
I imagined my parents’
house swept to its stone slab.
While I remembered sixth grade science, how we
traced the city
like a body, arterials draining in the wrong direction.
shaded blue the channel called MR GO that pours
from the River to the Gulf, trench the storm water swallowed.
The levees overfilled, broke open. And I came home to see
the city grieving. The city drained then hacked apart.