When our nun drove the idiot’s head into the blackboard
it went so far, it went to the other side of God.
We watched her do it, too little to stop her,
mute as tiny, glass-eyed foxes around the necks
of the women at Mass who were thinking
of the piss stains their old men had left on the sheets
for them this morning and not of the wafer
raised aloft, like a third Ace in poker.
This boy was stupid, he couldn’t do something—
five times nine or the capital of Peru. 45. Lima.
Oh God, why don’t you give him the answer?
I knew the answers. They’d never hurt me.
Besides, I loved the glimpse of linens on their supper
table, the glass goblets for water. I loved the chime
of the convent bell ringing against the waxed
corridors, the way someone had gone down
on her knees to make tiles into mirrors,
and the fact that they dressed without any.
How deftly, with straight black pins, they kept
their habits together. If I bent down, retrieved
a pin shaken loose from the layers of black gauze—
the wedding-portrait’s negative—she smiled at me
and pinned a layer closer to her breast.
And the boy, he was shaking and crying when she cuffed
him again—this time, for shaking and crying. He cradled
his head in his arms, loped back to his desk
near the windows where lilacs other girls brought
from their paltry gardens surrounded a shrine
to Mary, if it was May. Our roses were always so slow
I could bring them only at month’s end
when we stopped having processions and started
exams. Overnight, they blew from buds into faces,
displayed their grizzled yellow cores. Then
it was summer, and the boy heaved rocks
at the smaller ones who passed his vacant lot,
the boy rode his bicycle over the legs of a little girl
playing alone in the alley. Years later, in the grip
of a lover, I walked onto the forbidden beach
at Cape May where it’s said the nuns spend
their summers, where they lift off the starched
wimple cutting so deeply into their brows,
where they reveal their arms and legs to each other.
And because it was winter, the wide porch
was silent, the long skirts of the wind swept
the floorboards, rocking chairs upended and stacked.
That night, I kept coming—his one finger, a miracle.
I wouldn’t stop, not even when the maid rapped
at the door softly, then harder, to remind us of check-out.
Not even from thirst, or from hunger.
Originally published in Flesh (Helicon Nine Editions, 1999).
has lasted so long
it has worn me down
months of persistence
while letting go
one small bloom at a time
its fierce animal faces
seize up, crumple, and fall
like the handkerchiefs
of an old woman
who was once impeccable