But the idea of transformation has always been something that I romanticize in a work. I’m cautious of it but I also need it to connect my thoughts with the process of making. That’s really important.
“The best way to learn something is to do it,”
then he throws her out of the boat into that lake
where catfish big as her Daddy use fist-thick barbs
to scavenge the depths and grow fat off flux.
He expects her to swim, but
she sinks, fights only a moment.
Her screams fill with water
as her eyes open in the dark and rust
far below the metal belly of the boat.
She calms. Her arms spread.
Her long hair untangles and floats up
as she stills, the graceful m of a bird
drawn into the blank sky of a child’s picture,
and she is no longer descending.
Now it is water rising around her
in nose and mouth, it is the world moving
on her, stealing breath away like cats,
now it is the catfish swarming up from under,
swimming through the long useless gills of her hair,
kissing her with their purpled mouths welcoming,
soft—like love’s lips first parted—
gladly she sinks into that junked brown silence,
a shadow darkening the dim landscape of their eyes.
Lying in Bed naked, with Venetian Streaks of Moonlight
striped as a zebra
dipping its long nose
in the warm watering hole,
so thirsty it never
looks up, never thinks
of the lion’s claws,
I forget if I am black with white stripes
or white with black stripes,
if you separated me from the pack
or if I stood still for you
in the jag of heartbeat and breath,
captured by moonlight, waiting
for your hunger, I am
perfect thinking how it will feel
to die into you, into
this consuming, my flesh
full of teeth
for one bright moment.
The Maiden of the Tree
There was once a summer they found my diary, a hard little pea shoved under my mattress. And when it came to pass they were done with me, I ran into the woods, to where it grows thickest. To where the mountain hemorrhaged a cold spring, and to where I fell to a water oak growing ancient there. All we children read Edith Hamilton at school that year, and I so named that oak Atlas. Silly. But still I found comfort there, on the cool ground, snug and flanked by two large roots heaved from the earth just to cradle me. Just to soothe the backs of my thighs, still pulsing narrow red welts, until they glowed only a warm heat. A single heartbeat pooled between my legs.
And so I disappeared, a brown tree chameleon. My breath rhythmic with the wind. Sweat and tears a nectar, florid, inciting orgies of bees, mosquitoes, flies. In my mouth, a wafer of bark peeled from his corded arms. Even the birds again sang, forgetful of my presence, their small reptilian feet black in the branches. Their sharp, beaked hearts forever free of the ruined soil.
I never again would tend a diary. But I wrote things down on scraps—paper torn from notebooks, squares of coupons, films of tissue. I couldn’t help it. I would begin to feel nauseous, and then write furtively, without control. Wad them into furrowed pods and stuff them into pockets until the end of day. The words pecked at the walls inside their, crinkled shells and sang to me in their throats.
I loved the horses, like all young girls. They came to drink here where the water runs coldest. They alone knew I was here, holding my breath, top teeth cutting into bare knees as I squeezed legs to my chest and willed myself into tree. The wind might blow a strand of hair across my face. They would carry on drinking, long noses deep in the rushing water. But an eye would swivel in its orbit. Aware. A muscle would surf across withers. They chose to ignore me, as gods will. And I crawled out, on my way to burying the crumpled notes in the marsh, smiling at the smallness of myself. My hand rested in a hoof print.
I planted the good seeds near Atlas: Got an A in algebra. Chris Wilson said I was pretty. The butterfly broke out of its cocoon today—a Monarch. I watched these spots, hopeful they would grow in his shade like wild Lady Slippers, each one more delicately exquisite than the last. I watered them even, convincing myself it was possible. Paper is wood. Each leaf a seed.
The other messages, the ones from my left pocket, I buried deep in the swamp. Back where the smell turns to worm. Today I looked up in Gray’s Anatomy where the carotid artery is. It should be easy. I try not to think of what grows there. Juna Lee is a fucking whore. I lie awake at night, thinking of them, planning on digging them up, burning them. I wish a serial killer would break in one night. Kill them all. Except me. Untouched, too beautiful—like that church Sherman left standing among the ashes. But I never do. I’m afraid of what I’ll find. Of what they have curled into deep in their wet holes.
—Delisa Mulkey lives in Atlanta, Georgia, and is completing work on her first book of poetry,“A Dark Adaptation of the Heart.” Her work has appeared in numerous literary magazines, including Poetry, the Gettysburg Review, and Nimrod. Her collection Peacock by Moonlight won the Redbone chapbook competition.