poem07 Feb 2021 04:05 pm
Räven och vargen by Jenny Nyström, 1900

Rita Chen

They told me:
Don't look down the well, girl.
There's something sick, at the bottom of it.

A family curse, buried in the earth.
A miasma rising—rotted smog.
Year by year, the manor gardens wilt.

Give us this day our daily guilt.

The other day, a bird lay dead in a rose-bed.
And your sister is sick, and your brother is frail,
and your father is failing, his heart swollen to bursting—
If your mother had lived, she'd tell you this now:
It's that cursed thing in the well.

Listen now, sit, as an old grey lady
tells you the story of a clan proud and stony.

It hung over us, call it a curse, or a spell—
a way of being passed down from father to son,
beat and ground firm into everyone.
A tradition of repression: bootstraps and hard lessons.
Don't spare the rod, don't waste your tears.
We don't speak of those things round here.
Every man for himself.
Shut your mouth, it's good enough.
Get the girl—get her.
Tame her, tether her, take her.

Our fears, they gather in the air and fall as words unsaid—
as proud, bitter words spat on the ground at her retreating back.
As grasping love, or as love's lack.
As love that comes at a price too dear:
as garden-variety mundane shame and young, bewildered tears.
Our slow-growing cancer of fifty-odd years
gone by without a single fight to bright the air.
Tears shed in secret. Dreams laughed at, trod upon, lying in shreds.
Ah, the poison of a well-meant lesson!
If you cut me, do I not run red?

Mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers.
You know only the soil you grow in,
and no other.

Lance and drain the poison in the dark, hunched upon a ledge of stone.
It leaches to the bottom of the well, pulsing, swollen, twisting
round a dead thing's bone. The offal of us. Hardening
into a muscular lump of dried-up mucus.
Homunculus, born of bad blood and bile.
A stormy hot anger—strife—pushed down—buried deep:
that was the spark that, in the primordial dark of the well,
brought life.

This thing is our essence, creeping, steeping.
It grew three limbs with which to climb around with,
eyeless. And a maw.
Your grandad saw it hunting, one cloudy moonless night
(or so I've heard). If it can catch one, it'll eat a rat, a small bird.
It bites at children's legs for fun, till they stiffen and sicken—
yes, your sister will live, but she'll never not suffer.
Make sure to love her.

I'm sorry, my daughter's daughter, for this burden.
Our men won't do it—call it women's work—
so (fair or not) it falls to us to
repent our sons our sins.
It's got to be you who tells the truth.
Don't bite your tongue, don't eat your young.
Fight tough, love soft.
Demand he give you more than just
Scrape out the wound, let air heal it clean.
Be seen. Be angry. Scream.

Brave child! Climb down into the well, and at long last
dredge up this ugly, fetid thing.
Throw it in the hedge.
Stomp it (once or twice will suffice) (beware the teeth)
and leave it there in the daylight glare
to spasm, and shrivel, and

Don't let your father bury it in the ground:
the tainted earth will only bring it back around.
Aerial burial—leave it on a ledge; the birds will have their revenge.
Then the sun will come, and do the rest.

An eye for an eye for my heart-sleeved smile of a man,
your grandad, the gentle, sweet black sheep of the clan.
Love of my life—love wasn't enough.
Living here decades, his sweet became rough.
Husked by thirty, frame hale and sturdy,
but gone—spent—turned stone—long before death.
Me alone with a ghost of a man.
I got along. Best as I can.

Down there in the dark, out of sight, and light,
that thing's growing. We all know it.
I should have done it when I was still young,
but I'm bound to this bed now, for my time's come.
This tale needs a new heroine to find its end.

Yes, lovey, yes.
You're a very good girl for sitting still so long—
I hope you see now what's got to be done.
Listen to Grandma. Stay sharp and clever.
Go play in the garden, little one.

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