What then did we know of sadness, of suicide
threats and institutional wards, pharmaceutical sleep
in pharmaceutical dreams, and the one lit window
in the night I believed was hers? When she called
it was stories of group therapy and crazies
who listed down the long, cinderblock hallways
of narcoleptics and nightmare, the fluorescents’ strain
when shock waves flagged the lines, and how
when the twin red oaks bled their shadows past
the gated revetment, another night came calling. Still,
when the doctor’s opinions turned and Mary came home,
the ward’s work became our own: antipsychotics
and insomnia dreams, the list of sharp objects
we checked our world against. She shaved her head
and called it liminal, slept by day and shook coffee
to her mouth by night, sank deeper and deeper
after twilight into the diamond-blue oracle
of her laptop when all but the clocks were sleeping.
And when finally she did it, a year had passed
in that bedroom we swore not to enter: dim shafts
of dust in beams through the blacked-out
casements, the instructions Mary scrawled in black
Sharpie across her mirror: wake
brush your teeth stop thinking such things
No one prepared me my entrance
into that ship of souls. No one
taught me to mask each step I took
across checkered linoleum
or that it wasn’t wandering,
that path of pea gravel and weeds
that wound the back lot’s maze
of fifty-year boxwoods and a crumbling
slave wall, that path the doctors
had Mary keep. Pulling handfuls
of bluegrass and henbit, I brought her back
to childhood’s game of palms,
traced her birthline with the tip of a finger,
read the will of the thumb, said
you will name your many children for saints
only to watch her turn her hand into a fist
around another clump of thistle. What
could I do?— I nothing more than a boy
dangling before her, searching
for the words to summon the girl
I once knew from the girl
this girl had become, her hair
already turned the dun of the ash
of the cigarette that dangled between
her fingers, eyes turned
all hours to the closed doors
of the earth, her down-turned lashes
the wings of some darkly-sane
and wing-broke bird.
Her oversized t-shirt. Her paint-spattered
jeans. Bras hung like eighth-notes
from the bed post. Prison bars of light
then dark then light again cast by the window.
None of it seemed real—I a member
of the perfectly sane, I the visitor allotted his single hour.
So I took it all in: the misplaced game pieces
and faded carpet, gowned residents hugging
the ward’s warped walls, the courtyard
where I found her, that inner sanctum of smoke.
Standing in the doorway I held open…
The nurse (my quiet guide through the labyrinth
of rooms) receding back to her duties…
Watching Mary sleep…a rhombus of daylight scrolled
across her star-turned face, the hardback
balanced on her chest slid slowly
down the length of her body, and a cricket chirred
its song. When I went to her, I went quietly,
careful not to disturb the garden’s foundation
of vines, the birdbath poised on its pedestal.
What else could I do but watch her rest?
The tiptoe of stray hairs across her face.
The procession of ants climbing up her leg
propped on the waterless water fountain.
The doctors told them Keep an eye
on your daughter, but she need not stay here. Watch
her take her pills three times a day. Let her rest all day
if she wants in her room. But when she descended
the carpeted stairs that linked her world to ours,
they said she stumbled like an injured angel
in her nightgown down that handful of steps,
gazed about the kitchen and its objects (a salt shaker,
the checker of a tablecloth) as if she’d entered
a stranger’s house. That’s when they posted
the list of chores like a want ad to the Frigidaire’s
bifurcated door and began to plan her return to college,
the writing gig they helped her find at the local paper
just enough to fulfill the dean’s requirements.
Then came the radical, post-Feminist papers
she authored for her distance-learning course
and the late-night journaling sessions: I am a
freight train I am a freight train, in perfect block print
in a margin of a notebook: I am a freight train
I am a freight train, scribbled on a rolling paper. I am
the rain. I am inane. I may not fly like a great blue crane,
but I am not insane. I am not insane. I. Am not. Insane.
blame the lariam blame the bad pills blame my thin blood and
vanishing periods blame the spasms in my back how i could crack
my neck like the snap of green twigs in flame blame the drugs they
had me take blame nepal blame malaria and the faulty doctors the
shrink with his bifocals and beard the mosquito for its infected
proboscis blame the military for its failed recipe blame bad blood
blame lucid dreams blame bellyaches and the night nurse her
concoction of tablets blame linoleum blame white sheets and
matching curtains breathing in and out of the window blame the
ticking space heater and the stars’ poor alignment western medicines
failed search for an antidote blame nausea blame vomiting blame
diarrhea blame dizziness loss of balance blame stomach pain muscle
pain difficulty falling asleep difficulty staying asleep difficulty breathing
blame the rash and seizures blame the rash of seizures blame rain
blame the sun blame a loss of feeling in the toes confusion and
forgetfulness blame the radio’s bad signal blame passenger planes
power lines transformers blame shaking in the arms and legs panic
attacks blame hallucinations blame blame blame the parking garage’s
easy access blame the voices no one hears but me blame visions
blame waking dreams and miscommunication blame the sensation
others want to harm me blame the thoughts of killing myself blame
the beautiful blame the mosquito its hunger blame hunger blame
nepal blame the medicine the government still makes our soldiers
take blame the lariam blame the lariam blame anything but me
We wanted to touch the moon, bobbing
that flashbulb on the heat-glazed pane of Smith Lake.
So we dove full-clothed from the dock, paddled
slowly that body of water as chorus frogs
and crickets boomed back and forth
from the reed-thick shore. There, at the lake’s
dead center, we embraced that back-filled
halo in our circle of hands. There,
treading water, Mary cupped her palms beneath
that beacon, lifted it to my lips,
and said Drink… And what could I do but follow
when she side-stepped buoyancy
and dove beneath the moon, dropping easily
through zones of cold and colder water, the frog-
slick star-vines and hydrilla swaying heavily
in the drifts, her hair held suspended
by the water’s hundred hands? What I want
is to go back to the moon’s conception
when it first broke free of the earth to fly that first
tethered orbit around the hemispheres.
I want to tell the Jade Rabbit’s story, finger its outline
from the ridgelines and craters, that hare
working herbs in an urn for the immortals.
I want to see that moon returned to its rightful
station overhead, Mary making small motions
with her hands to keep from rising as we held
our breaths who knows how long until she rose,
thick ribbons of reeds unraveling from her ankles,
Mary surfacing so slowly it was as if she were
ascending not water but sky. Mary backlit
against darkness. Mary slipping into the moon.
Still hard to believe
it was the road’s grip alone
that kept us breathing, no moonlight
as we maneuvered the hairpins
and jogs of the fireroad we climbed,
doing our best to keep pace
with the New River
hammering along in its groove
through the chinquapins.
You could say, We desired
ascension, wheeling our way
up Proffer Mountain, headlights
panning wildly as broken
lighthouse beams. You might think,
They were just young, sleeping
all day and flinting fires
by night. No tent.
Only our mummy bags and boots.
The frayed edges of the tarp
as satellites pinging
across the cool fix of stars.
But it’s her voice, not these images
that keep calling me back.
That one evening of snow,
its broad, almost winged flakes
turning back into water just moments
above the flames. That weird
metal ache of last dark
we stayed up for, sipping Folgers
and stoking the campfire
until the faceplate
of the ridgeline tilted open
and the sky’s dull tint drained back
into the valley like a bruise.
It’s her face lit by fire—a white mask
in the dark. It’s the nightjars calling out
into the quiet for a name: Whip-
or-will? Whip- or- will?
It’s Mary saying back:
-will -will -will
Who’s to say a starsprent sky didn’t warp or flex above the foothills that night? Or That any kind
of light at all broke free of the clouds to knife its gloom across the snow-banked rooftops and
empty lots of Blacksburg, Virginia’s 3 AM? All I know for sure is the clamor the cordless made
from my desk and the gin-and-tonic headache I woke to, my sister’s voice like static.
This was in my final semester of college, hawking Rolling Rocks and hoagies to Engineering
Professors and the ROTC at a deli not a block from the power plant. On Fridays I’d kneel in
rubber gloves to cleanse the massive industry of Steakumms and Kraft powdered alfredo for an
extra under-the table five. Then I’d clock out to fight the gales of wind that gathered speed
between the dormitories and halls before finding my seat around the conference table of
But I have no idea what 3 AM this was or whether the westerlies howled or bayed as my sister’s
words caromed the complicated wound of my ear. All I know for sure is how slowly the receiver
fell from my hand, the dent it left in the hardwood, the lights in the hallway snapping to life, my
foggy-eyed roommates emerging from their bedrooms.
Who knows what else happened that day? I’ve read a platoon of American boys led a night raid
on Kabul and came back men. I’ve no doubt the thermometers ruptured at the county airport
with cold. Somewhere, certainly, God made another of his billion daily revision of the world.
But what did any of that matter anymore? The only thing I could see was Mary. The ledge. All
that snow. The only thing visible was her mother clenching the bed sheets in her sleep, her
father holding his head in his impossible hands. The phone call I had to make.
That first morning, it wasn’t the distance that mattered
but that which made it: a mountain pass, two valleys, several hundred
miles of road the only link between that place I woke to and home.
That first morning, I wandered my apartment as if I’d never listened
to the warming of its foundation or the buckling of floorboards,
the wan dust and debris of everyday life
floating in columns of daylight through the east-facing windows.
And when the train whistle cooed its sluggish way through town,
a motley crew of wintering crow lifted like paint fumes from my backyard.
And when a roommate’s alarm erupted, a showerhead burst to life,
the coffeemaker kept winking 12:00 AM 12:00 AM 12:00 AM 12:00 AM…
What else is there to say? What else recall?
That first morning, it wasn’t Mary that haunted me or her leap,
but her father’s words, diffuse and malformed through the telephone,
that voice once so certain I held to my ear, I sat
on the bed, I did nothing, I said nothing, I did everything I could.
I kicked at pebbles on the shoulder of the highway,
tested the wind’s direction with a finger. The winds
that came spoke of hoarfrost and fields, commerce
rumbling by on I-40, the streetlamps burning
their fishhook of light before the red-brick Victorian—
its locked double doors, its hundred shuttered eyes.
Not a family member, not a lover, no guests welcome
past visiting hours, I watched the night watchman doze
in his A-frame of spit cups and Hustlers, I observed
the roosting of birds, the library of stars adrift against
the trees that lined the county road where I drafted
my path over the high outer wall and through the just-
mown grass, the method by which I’d scale the sanitarium,
tap a finger on her window, whisper, Mary, let me in.
I still don’t know why I’ve put her in this house
for the somewhat-less-than-sane where they kept her
a mere 24 hours, a two-hour’s drive from her bedroom
where she hid herself the year before she died.
That December home from college, I’d park
across the street from her house, warm my hands
by the heat of my Sentra’s 4-cylinders and wait to catch
a glimpse of Mary in her window. More than a decade
I’ve been writing these verses. Still I have no answer.
She spent just a year in college. She climbed
the mountains of Nepal, helped raise schools for the poor.
In the one picture I’ve kept, she smiles at the camera.
Sometimes a fly lands on the glass of the frame.
Sometimes it looks as if she’s blinking.
And what would you do differently? she asks, sights trained
through the passenger window on that glowing square
of light that could be the window of the imagined sanitarium,
could be the window of her bedroom on Willis Ave. She’s
blue-eyed here. The breeze is honeysuckle and sex. And even
though she knows I’ve no answers, knows when I say nothing
I say everything, she places a finger to my lips to freeze me
in that game of What Ifs I’ve been playing since college
then departs to follow that brick path back to herself
from the mailbox to the stoop, up the sanitarium walls
and through her house’s archway into that white
hospital room while I’m stuck here, eyeing that figure
lighting the window. Is that a chest x-ray or the moon?
Is that the girl I once loved, the girl we thought we knew?