Before the morning bell
and prayer, we waited for the nuns
to turn away their blue habits,
other children to carry their play
onto the blacktop, your mother
to wave her last goodbye.
Holding each other’s hands,
we gathered you in a circle,
demanded you show us the scar
on your chest where the nuns said
God scooped out your heart
and left a line like broken teeth
behind. You stood still as air,
and we danced around you until
you unbuttoned, bit by bit,
your meager shame, and raised
the dirty undershirt to uncover
the crooked smile stitched
into the skin. Then, from your hair,
someone snatched a leaf, spat
Ugly ugly thing, and other girls began
to sing it too. You were not ashamed
of your body’s absent breasts,
your milk-pale eyes that tracked
each word we flung like stones
against the thin suture of your silence.
And when one girl shouted
You’re horrible, began to cry,
you bowed your head, and still said nothing.
All day we whispered after you
in the halls, hid your gym shoes,
laughed when you slid and fell at recess
in your used Mary-Janes,
ignored the glares of the nuns
wept openly in fear of what
we did not know – how you, small
and bent, could twist your pain
into a grin, while ours grew bitter
and dark as bruises.
I don’t remember your name now,
or where you moved to later that year.
I don’t know if, at another school,
they made you bear what secrets
they were loathe to own.
I go back again and again
to that circle, try to break it
in my memory, pull you free
of all our lavish isolations,
watch horror deepen
in the faces of my girlfriends,
unlinking their hands until
a great gash opens between us.
I stand with you, and feel alone,
unafraid. I see what gray
and shriveled things words are,
poor bodies we cling to, and wish
away, like hearts we hate,
damaged and unwhole,
that keep beating.