It is a cold morning, air the color of ice,
and we are down to the last of the woodpile.
We are wearing six layers each, not counting undershirts,
and the baby goats, skittering and weak-kneed
in their box by the woodstove,
bleat sadly. One of the children, afraid
we won’t be able to stoke the fire much longer, has confessed
ownership of the forbidden. So now in the stove,
flames licking the glossy pages,
burn lonesome issues of Playboy and Penthouse.
A copy of Yellow Silk, October 1983, flares up, all grainy photos,
and I know the mailman has bequeathed it on some child, a gift.
All night I’ll be up, twice every hour,
to push each of the last logs in
and further in so no flame crawls out along the bark of a branch
and sets the linoleum on fire while we sleep. Panicked,
or in foresight, the kid goats skittering on their rickety hooves
bleat and bleat. With the examination
of their entrails awaits a litany of foreknowledge,
and yet who among us shall interpret? Who shall butcher,
at such an age and unweaned yet? Who shall entreat the gods
unyielding? Daniel Heinz has closed up his house and gone on,
and I am no good with a knife on the living;
I let the blood run backwards, back in, in clear violation
of the laws of kashrut.
And the children? One never asks the children.
One forces them to leave the butchering frame.
One makes them turn away,
fills their ears with cotton against the cries,
allowing them to enter, briefly, an adulthood of forgetting death
is a prerequisite of life. Through the cotton, the covered eyes,
they turn to me.
Can you name a thing, they ask,
which doesn’t live on something else?
*AVERNUS LACUS, a lake…filling the crater of an extinct volcano… From its waters vapors arose, which are said to have killed the birds that flew over it. The lake was supposed to lead to the lower world. (Smith’s Smaller Classical Dictionary)
Miriam Bird Greenberg is the author of two chapbooks: All night in the new country and Pact-Blood, Fever Grass. She's held fellowships from the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, the Poetry Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. She lives in Berkeley and teaches ESL, though she's also crossed the continent on bicycle and by freight train, deckhanded aboard sailboats, and hitchhiked on four continents.