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Literature : first proof

Four Poems

by Leigh Stein


There are things you do when left

alone you wouldn’t otherwise do, like

leave the house without your phone or

marry someone you’ll wish would leave you

later or throw a party like in the ancient legend

of the call girl who falls in love with a Fabergé egg

instead of her young employer. In this tale, she

steals it from the mantel of his Glencoe mansion

and carries it in her smooth, white hands

while she looks for hidden rooms to enter.

It is apparent how anyone could love her

forever if she didn’t cost his parents so much

money. I’ll be late for school, the guy says, please

be gone when I get home. There are things

you can do if you look like Rebecca De Mornay,

including do whatever you want, which means

stumbling upon a room she shouldn’t ever see,

where the master of the house keeps an armoire

full of limbs of all the girls that came

before her and she drops the egg, which doesn’t

shatter, but then the blood won’t come off and

what is she supposed to do? He’ll kill her, too.

No matter what she does he’ll kill her, too,

and this is not only true of legends, but

also true of life: if you’re pretty, if you go

where you’re not supposed to, looking for things

not meant for your eyes, then you will have to explain

the blood on your hands somehow or else

have a few brothers to break down the door

when you are kneeling on an expensive rug

some day, and there is a famous movie star

standing above you with a great big knife.




Is one of the symptoms remembering the ghosts

one has seen? I am not going to sign my name

to this postcard because who knows whose eyes

will see it besides yours and you should know

who is in Mogadishu right now and who is not.

The passwords to my accounts are hidden

somewhere in the following true story.

When I was fourteen, my father promised

me to a man who lived in the forest.

I never went to his cabin; he always came

to mine. When he asked me why I never came

I said I did not know the way and so

he tied a rope to all the trees and asked my father

to see that I followed it. Sometimes we put ourselves

in danger just to live and tell about it.

And sometimes we put ourselves in danger

because our fathers betroth us to murderers.

When I finally found the house no one was home

so I hid and I waited. Blood as red as apples,

apples as red as blood, skin as white as snow,

snow as red as blood: no one has seen what I

have. My betrothed came home with some men

and a girl and I still have her finger to prove it.

(Is one of the symptoms a constant dull ache?

Don’t answer that; I don’t have an address.)

I ran out of his house when he fell asleep

and I kept her finger under my pillow and I did

not tell what I had seen. Sometimes we

are so close to running, but we do not;

we’d rather sleep on a piece of a body

than steal a boat in the middle of a moonless

night and sail to the northern country where

the people assume you’ve done no wrong,

but if you have done wrong, they forgive you,

always, and maybe one of them forgives you more

than the others, and he takes you on long walks

in shady arbors and you want to tell him how

much you like his sweater, but ever since

the forest you’ve been mute, so you write

how much you like his sweater with a stick

in the ground and he gives it to you

off his back. Then you start to write all

that’s ever happened to you, but

the best parts disappear into the grass

and he doesn’t give you anything else, but

he does say that maybe you should run away

and you think he means he will come with,

but when the stars are all out

and he’s still not at the pier to meet you, you sail

from that barren land without him

and send letters to show you forgive him

for staying. Is one of the symptoms a feeling

like you’ve been here before? I have not

been to a place yet that was not somehow familiar.

This is the end. The sun is just coming up

over the sea. In the desert they dream of water

and snow-capped volcanoes. I dream of amnesia.




In the play everyone thought he was a Croat

because he said his girlfriend bled to death

in his arms, but when they re-enacted her death

it was a convenience store robbery. Can you imagine

being so disheartened? I can imagine bleeding to death

in someone’s arms. You reminded me of my husband

just then, who has the same name as your friend.

Before we could marry, Raul traveled to Djibouti

and toiled in my father’s salt fields for seven years.

For seven years we are on the sea but we are thirsty.

For seven years we ride our camels at dusk

across the desolation. How do I know you love me?

How do I know that when I sleep you don’t write

letters to someone who can read them? Raul says

there is no wasteland he wouldn’t cross barefoot

if I was crying on the other side: for seven years

we have no idea what’s going on. How could we

have known, in the bliss of such tranquility,

the terrible awfulness which would befall us?

You tell me. At the end of seven years we marry

beneath a canopy of some breathtaking rocks;

think of what a good story this will be for our children:

at the altar I said I love you and your father said,

How do I know? I said, the life expectancy here

is pretty low, Raul. My father told him not to

raise his voice at me and I removed my veil.

Let us dance, I said, until all the stars are out,

and we did, and that was the last night I saw him.

All I’ve ever wanted is to ask the same question.

To answer he sends me sealed, empty envelopes.




I have been lost before, but not with this many broken bones,

and I had a brighter torch. If you were lying in wait in a cave

like I am, right now, in the darkness, and you didn’t know

when the next sandstorm would be, and you didn’t know

if the next morning the war would start, and you didn’t

know how long your torch would last, would you still

write letters with your only hand that wasn’t useless?

Yes. And let’s say that at this point you still believe

that the person who has promised to come back

for you is coming. Let’s say you haven’t started

to wonder about your flare gun yet and what

it’s good for inside the cave. Can anyone ever

foresee that they will end up like this, in love

with a faceless, amnesiac cartographer?

I have learned from the Sahara the necessity

of white dresses and small airplanes. They didn’t

think I belonged, but I waited my whole life to see

the ancient drawings of the ancient people swimming

in the ancient place. I was not in Italy, swinging

from a chapel ceiling. I was not in Cairo, bathing

in a claw footed tub, because that hadn’t happened

yet. I was just in love with the one person I wasn’t allowed:

you, who I write letters to while I hemorrhage to death

in a place that no one knows exists. It is not on any map.

The map has not been made. I am starting to think that

the only way I’ll ever be found is if you, the cartographer,

trade your topographical secrets, your photographs, your

name, to the Nazis in exchange for a jeep. Please. The light

is fading. If you can’t tell, the picture I drew in the corner

is of a scorpion in an amulet on a chain I wear under my dress

near my heart. This place was once water, but now

it is sand. There is so much I want to tell you, but

I have not eaten in three days and the fire you built

is just cinders. You once asked me how I could be married

to him, but look who died and look who lived; look who I’m

drawing pictures of scorpions for. I can’t feel my legs.

I don’t think you’ll be back in time. Listen: after

you read this, you will be burned in a terrible accident.

You will forget my name and the shape of the land

you spent your life’s work learning, but you will

never forget that you left me to die. My light

is gone. I am writing to you now in the darkness.


Leigh Stein’s novel, The Fallback Plan, was hailed as “beautiful, funny, thrilling, and true” by Gary Shteyngart (Super Sad True Love Story). A former New Yorker staffer and frequent contributor to its “Book Bench” blog, Stein is the winner of the Transcontinental Poetry Prize, and Poets & Writers magazine’s Amy Award.