Hanging the miniature ornaments
on the miniature tree with the girl
while the baby sleeps behind a sheet
of white noise and uncorrupted
darkness. Ow, she says each time
the needles prick her fingers. Ow.
There is no way the little tree can
wear it all, can bear it all; its branches
begin to droop under the cheer, angels
mostly. Now the girl goes to bed
reluctantly, falls asleep instantly.
Now the night comes full on. And so,
in this way, the Christ child will be
born again, his animal life will begin
again, the story will begin again, his
tiny mouth will curl toward his mother’s
breast, strong mouth of the newborn,
the part that comes knowing what
to do. They will meet for the first time.
She’ll have those breasts until the end
of her life. He’ll have that mouth until
the end of his.
The toilet flows and flows
and nothing stops it
so I call a plumber but then
it stops on its own
so I call back and say it stopped
and cancel. I have these
little ideas for making my life
a marginally better life.
I can’t think of one
right now. Otherwise, I find
as soon as I come within range
the spirit retreats. Before
long, it never existed. As with
a celebrity, I will always
have to remember meeting
the spirit, though the spirit will
never have to remember meeting
me. Based on conversations
I’ve overheard, I think
my children believe the soul
is an organ of the body.
I know they believe in heaven.
I hear them talk about it.
But theirs is a heaven of their own
making, a place where you can
do whatever you want, eat
ice cream for dinner, play
video games with a God who will
drive you to CVS—yes, right now,
put on your shoes—for a new box
of Lucky Charms, a God
who will give you full possession
of his Apple ID. Theirs
is a heaven with no elsewhere,
a heaven with no hell.
For them there are three times:
the beforelife, which is nothing,
the life, and the afterlife, which is
everything. Who knows? Maybe
they’re right. If I washed
my face and brushed my teeth
and took out my contacts
right after putting my kids to sleep
rather than waiting until
before bed, my evenings would be
better and I’d go to sleep earlier.
There. You see, I can’t stop having
the smallest possible ideas. This
is the life. After a day of devout
silence, the toilet starts up again.
This time I’m waiting to see
if it’s serious.
poem on the inside
Writing in the silent
part of the morning, before
the baby and his toys
wake up and begin
their strange chatter,
the lawn mower’s insipid
giggle, the cell phone’s
hello and goodbye.
The only sound now is that
of the cat licking his fur
behind me on the bed.
In the short time after
we bought this house
but before we moved into it,
I’d sometimes drive by.
I’d stop. I’d park in the carport
and sneak around back
and I’d squint into the windows,
almost certain I knew what
our lives would be like
once we lived inside.
Wind through the night, cold
wind to blow the dried skins
away, maybe. We woke to find
the thousand yellow leaves
of the pecan tree covering
the backyard. What is
the meaning of this? the villain
in the show my children
are watching asks, his face to
the heavens. I think he’s going to
turn good, my son says.
And I say, Hope so, because
I know how much he loves a bad guy
who just needs one experience
of goodness to turn good
himself—good again, finally
good, his evil so simple, just pain
and fear and shame, evil that begs
to be thwarted, to be finished,
solved, dissolved, like sugar
in water, no more next time, there
won’t be a next time, because
the curse is lifted, the lesion healed,
the disease cured. We thought
he was dead in the end, but then
no—look, he’s breathing, he’s
alive, he lived. Any of us
could be turned inside out
like that, then right side in—any
one of us could suddenly run
a finger over the tender spot,
the crack that could widen then
break apart cleanly, moved by
love, destroyed by love, and replaced
by love, a force so strong, a wind
that blows cleanly through
the darkest night, a wind that blows
the dried skins away, until we rise
again, ready to account
for the damage we’ve done.
the beast is coming
is what my daughter
said all through the first
part of the song, where
Belle is singing about how
surprised she is to be falling
in love with a beast: The beast
is coming, right, Mommy?
What a story. He is a beast,
a true beast, with fur and
haunches and claws that slash,
no metaphor, yellow teeth, very
bad attitude, yet a woman
still finds a way to love him.
It was alarming how easily
my girl gave over. He’s not so
grumpy anymore, she said,
and look, he took a bath.
after the ascension
No one wanted to look at each other.
No one wanted to speak, to be
the first to speak. But we had to.
Walking back to Jerusalem, for instance,
we had to decide where we were going.
There was no one to follow home
anymore. That day and the day after.
Waking, it was the first thought. This
is the feeling of rising with faith alone.
We had to learn it like a skill. We had
to come to understand this would always
be the first thought. Things hadn’t
worked out the way we’d thought
they would. Eventually, we began dying.
Funny to say it now, but some of us
wondered, would it happen to us, too?
But of course it would happen. This was
the very promise we’d lived by.
When I quit smoking it was only because
I’d come to understand without a doubt that
I was unable to quit smoking. I knew I could
not do it. I knew that if I wanted to not smoke
I’d have to maintain the specific circumstances
that would keep me from failing to quit
smoking, those specific circumstances being
that I not smoke. And it worked, which still
amazes me. When our daughter was a baby
and was learning to put herself to sleep
and was crying and crying—well, after a while
I would need to go into her room and make it
stop—I just need to make it stop—and the longer
it went on, the stronger was my need to make it
stop. No, my husband said. She’s wrestling
with the devil, my husband said. And we must
let her win. Now I pray, when I pray, understanding
I cannot pray—okay, fine—and also understanding
the only way to quit not praying is to enter the arena
of prayer, lay hands upon the devil—my devil—and
pin it down as long as I can, then a while after that.
There is a holiness in exhaustion,
is what I keep telling myself,
filling out the form so my TA gets paid,
then making copies of it on the hot
and heaving machine, writing
Strong start! on a pretty bad poem.
And then the children: the baby’s
mouth opening, going for the breast,
the girl’s hair to wash tonight
and then comb so painstakingly
in the tub while conditioner drips
in slick globs onto her shoulders
and her discipline chart flaps in the air
conditioner at school, taped
to a filing cabinet, longing for
stickers. My heart is so giant
this evening, like one of those moons
so full it’s disturbing, so full that
if you see it when you’re getting out
of the car you have to go inside the house
and make someone else come out
and see it for themselves. I want
everything, I admit. I want
a clean heart. I want the children
to sleep and the drought to end.
I want the rain to come down hard—
It’s supposed to monsoon,is what
Naomi said, driving away this morning,
and she was right. It’s monsooning.
Still I want more. Even as the streets
are washed clean and then begin
to flood. Even though the man came
again today to check the rat traps
and said he bet we’d catch the rat
within twenty-four hours. We still haven’t
caught the rat, so I’m working
at the table with my legs folded up
beneath me. I want to know
what is holy—I do. But first I want
the rat to die. I am thirsty for that
death and will drink deeply of that
victory, the thwack of the trap’s
hard plastic jaw, and I will rush
to see the evidence no matter how
gruesome, folding my body over
the washing machine to see the thing
crushed there, much smaller than
I imagined it’d be, the strawberry
large in its mouth.
how has motherhood changed the way you write?
The baby sleeps
and cries and sleeps
and cries in fifteen-
for three hours
and wakes, unrested,
something I cannot
give him. Meanwhile
the sheets hold their
their human scent.
Meanwhile, in the kitchen
the enchilada casseroles
wait in the freezer
for their big moment,
have no desires.
Look at the oranges
in the white bowl
on the table. Suddenly
they’ve been there
for weeks and have
Suddenly a smell
from a hidden place
in the backyard
and we cannot
discover it and will
never discover it.
All we can do is say
out thereevery time
we go in or out the back
door.Suddenly it’s deep
winter and the baby
has produced one crude
tooth and the trees
in front of the house
across the street
are bare of leaves
and the people we knew
have moved back
to Houston and the house
has been on the market
for going on three months.
One day, the blinds were
open all day and all
night, the empty house
emitting light, staged
by experts, soft
throws folded over
the parable of the gifts
My son can’t keep the story straight.
Is he going to come into my room?
he asks his sister warily of Santa Claus.
He is so young he routinely needs to be
reminded what to believe. Santa is real;
aliens are not real. Aliens could be real,
my daughter says. Yeah, I guess you’re
right, I say.And Jesus Christ is real,
she says.Zeus wasn’t real. Zeus was
a myth. But Jesus Christ was a real man
who walked upon this earth though
he was the Son of God. So I guess
she’smade it to the New Testament
in the 100 Bible Stories for Childrenshe bought
last week with her tooth fairy money.
Sure you want that one?her father asked
at the checkout, and as an answer
she held the book tightly to her chest.
God, sometimesI can see the privacy
forming around her, like faint light
or like the shimmer of oil as it heats
in the pan, and it is a great mystery
to me, and it is painful to me, because
it is lonely to be a person and what she is
telling us with her 100 Bible stories
is that she is a person. God, sometimes I step
into this life like stepping into a room
I can’t remember why I entered, and for
a moment I see nothing—I can see nothing,
I can seeit, a space in front of me that is not yet
filled, that could be filled, and will be filled.
It’s simple and elegant, without needs, just
large enough, and sometimes I understand
that’s the space my babies came from, were
pulled from wailing, and the space
my grandmother returned to, finally, after
her long and painful illness, but suddenly, too,
that morning, with the scent of orange
Jell-O still present in the room, she slipped
away, was pulled, perhaps, and I imagine
that’s the space I’ll enter, too, when I die,
and it’s not unpleasant to think of it,
an ultimate privacy, though thinking
of my children with spaces of their own
into which they will someday disappear
is unbearable. It is unbearable, and though
it is unbearable, I bear it. That is the agreement
into which I entered when they arrived.
I think maybe I should read ahead to see
how the book handles the Crucifixion.
Or maybe I should just hide the book
and pretend I didn’t. I don’t know. I haven’t
seen it. Maybe the tooth fairy will bring you
more money and you can buy something else.
Because, God, I am not prepared to let
my daughter know how the main character
of her story dies. Not yet. She, who answers
her brother so kindly, with such perfect
honesty, saying, No, the gifts just appear
under the tree; it’s magic, though surely
by now she only pretends to believe.
I wish I were as talented
at anything as he is
at pulling Derrida into
a conversation, any
conversation, no matter
what we’re discussing:
Derrida. Even once
when he was telling me
why he didn’t have
the assignment, even then
after a long and aerobic
journey we arrived
at Derrida, his white
hair and elegant European
ideas, and it felt good—
I admit it felt good to finally
arrive there—ah, bonjour,
because at least I knew
then where I was, even
if it wasn’t where
I wanted to be. To pretend,
Derrida said, I actually
do the thing: I have therefore
only pretended to pretend.
I pretend sometimes. Other
times all I do is pretend.
I’ve created gods this way
and on occasion I’ve tied
those gods together
like they do bedsheets
in a movie, and I’ve escaped
the high tower of myself
this way. I’ve made it
to solid ground this way.
I’ve landed on the earth.
And each time I’ve been
sure I’ve actually done
the thing, but when I look up,
the gods are gone.
Copyright © 2021 by Carrie Fountain. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.