My mother comes to visit me in Washington, DC.
It is February—bitter and bright,
the sun, a silver coin conjured behind a grey silk curtain.
These three facts decide what monuments and museums
we visit in the Capital:
She is a nurse.
Her father was a World War II Veteran.
She loves the Native American People.
As a young woman, my mother’s long auburn hair
swept the back of her thighs
and the wind pulled it behind her
like the dark, red scream
of a horse’s mane.
We drove across country, several times as children,
kicking up sand, looking out
over desert and prairie.
Braiding hair as bridles,
we guide ourselves
and refuse to be ridden.
We look out for rattlesnakes when the
thing with teeth was coiled among us.
Me, her first daughter, named after her father
came home in a tiny pair of fawn-colored moccasins.
Doe-eyed, “you’re my . . . brown-eyed girl,”
and we used to sing, “do you remember when . . .”
But my mother married a Navy man who broke her
like an untame horse, a feminine force of nature
He relocated and dislocated us, but we stitched up
our little family and healed.
So did the bones.
While he is away for six months on Navy WestPac,
my mother crawls into the closet to study biology.
She dissects a cat on the kitchen floor in Spring.
The neighbor girls seed rumors about us at school
as a family of dark and murderous witches.
My mother plants marigolds and zinnias in the garden
and they go past our knees, gold, and orange, and red.
I cast love binds and protection spells on burned
looseleaf paper before a gaggle of grade school girls,
their hands tucked nervously between corduroy green jeans
their eyes grand as goose eggs.
My sister and I knock quietly on the door to Narnia
to ask for dinner, I quiz her on body parts and vocabulary.
My young tongue wrestles with medical prefixes and suffixes,
and she emerges, the White Witch as nurse, resident saint,
angel of mercy crazy infinite death at the Veteran’s Hospital
In North Chicago.
We look upon the Nurse’s Memorial, a bone white,
smooth granite statue of a nurse in uniform overlooks
a rounded burial plot, her hand gesturing lightly
from beneath a stone cape as if to say, “look at all these women
who served alongside and cared for you.”
The plot of grass where the nurses are buried
is curved and concave,
like a spoon where medicine is delivered,
a bowl where food is given,
a basin where the body is cleansed
a cupped hand to hold the head and hand of the dying,
and a womb, a place to hold you and deliver you back.
I understood my birth and beginnings very well.
My mother insisted I know myself and never spared details.
I was a girl who came from a girl
and it was the only way it could be possible in nature
because nature was also female.
Birth belonged to nature, and I belonged to my mother by birth,
and nature was truthful and brutal, like my mother,
who was both of those things,
and like nature, was also beautiful.
Nature was god,
and god is red.
She gathered me, flailing skinny girl arms and legs
a bundle of getaway sticks and would sing my story,
“And you grew inside of momma’s . . . ”
“Belly!” I finished.
“And you came out of her . . .”
“Pee-pee!” I giggled.
“And when you came out you were ALLLLL . . . ”
“Bloody!” I would trumpet. Proudly.
When I was bad, she would threaten to put me back,
accuse me of not having cooked long enough.
My mother, the oven, fed us
and we rose in that heat and emerged
from the safe walls of her red room in the godhouse of her body.
Poured out from the upside-down vase, the cruciform womb,
water and all, three flowers, daisy, daffodil, chrysanthemum,
My sisters and I practiced acrobatics,
in the fluidity of the matrice.
Stretch out, somersaults, tickle fingers, and dig our feet
beneath her ribcage.
matrice, matrix, matricis, medium, mater, mother, mass.
All the words for life-giving energy.
The ground upon which to grow.
god is a woman
and she is red.
It was easier to stay warm then.
shameless, topless, braless, breastless.
Now we complicate our lives with clothing
and wait for Summer to remind us
of swimming, catching tadpoles, and fishing.
We do this only to see our infant selves
reflected in the black opals of their wild sidewall eyes.
We recognize each other just long enough to be afraid,
and to ask the alien other, to throw back or to eat?
It was all my alien father ever taught me
bait, hook, snag, catch, bleed, release.
“Fishy, fishy, in a brook
Daddy catch him on a hook
Mommy fry him in a pan
Baby eat him like a man. ”
I learned to eat like a man from my grandfather.
The sour taste of crab apples,
the sweet taste of creamed coffee,
pancakes, buttered corn on the cob.
From him also, Bluegrass music, gardening,
falling asleep to John Wayne Westerns,
talking to squirrels, whistling like a Jay,
and protecting smaller creatures.
My mother and I walk through the World War II Memorial.
A boy and his father sit on a park bench.
My eye is drawn to the small, brown mouse sitting between them,
shuddering, as it eats a tiny, gold ball of caramel corn,
unraveling a glistening, amber jewel.
“His name is Buster,” said the boy smiling,
“I think he’s cold,” he said, adding a frown.
We watch the Native dancers in the museum, Counting Coup,
the act of bettering an opponent, teasing him,
sneaking up on him, frightening him without killing him.
To touch a live enemy and get away from them,
take his weapons—to touch and not kill is to show bravery.
To startle and stand your ground.
The reward is Eagle Feathers and flight.
My father, the fouled anchor and the clutching eagle
from which we counted coup
plucked feathers, and flew.
He wore the bars on his shoulders and sleeves
and we wore ours.
We paint our feathers red in honor of our god.
Geese fly over the frozen Reflecting Pool
a loose, black arrow aiming at the white obelisk.
My mother flies back to the snow in Detroit,
her short, dark, red hair behind her.