When the River came to dinner
he was earlier than expected,
and overstayed his welcome.
He hugged me goodbye
on the doorstep before retreating
away into the late spring gloom.
It felt like the moment of bright
and pure panic, when a wave
pushes the sense out of your head
and you forget which way is up
and swim down as fast as you can
desperate for lungful of mud
and it seems like your limbs and hair
and the water are all getting tangled
together, swim up, swim up, swim up.
The panic, as bright
and pure as a brand new five pence piece.
After the River left (he made no apologies for the late hour)
I went out back
to catch my breath in the garden and drip.
The yard was a soup of mud.
I thought of the smell of it tomorrow
stewing in the sun: heavy, dirty and sour.
He’d left a wavering line of damage to the
paint all down the corridor and the
carpet smelled wet and dank.
The cat huddled on the highest bookshelf,
The floorboards glinted with lingering
traces of silt.
I thought of my panic as the River held me,
the way my stomach had felt
hollowed out and sick at the same time,
how my head had spun and everything in the world
had been dull blue grey.
I breathed in the rising smell of mildew with relief.
It was the smell of the River’s absence.
She must have wished they were right in the end,
that the black or yellow birds were her particular friends,
that a man in a dark coat had sat at the end of her bed
and taken her name to keep it safe,
that she dreamed of the natives moving silently
through the forest to take her away,
and that her heart was an atlas moth waiting
to push its way up and out of her mouth.
When she woke and Mercy was cold and still
against her breast, she must have wished
that she could drink the green out
of the wheat fields in spring and deliver
the strength of tender buds however she saw fit.
She must have wished she could leap up with the old
brush broom in hand and sweep the stars from the sky.
She must have wished she could make the girls
cry out at will, pinched and bruised by unseen hands.
She must have wished she deserved it.
What was she thinking, up at the peak,
at the edge of some other king’s caldera,
with the wind blowing her hair into her mouth
and her long skirt twisting around her ankles
like a nervous cat?
And later when his skin was the fine black sand
of an igneous coast laid out under her hands,
when his lips were pressed against
the damp insides of her elbows,
when he was unravelling her,
what was she thinking then?
Did she think she was lucky?
Was it too dark to tell?
When, on the last night, she saw his shadow
cast against the wall, sputtering and enormous,
what was she thinking?
Was it of her dress on that first day,
battered by a named wind, torn by a treacherous
scramble up the side of an unknown mountain,
flickering tightly around an untouched
and unprotected body?