The floor stained with motor oil and kitty litter. Sawdust
gathered in corners, both cars
parked outside, space given over
to the tractor and plow. Our bikes hung like ornaments
from the pegged ceiling. I walk gingerly
to the group of men, our local sheriff and his deputy, their tanned
uniforms creased and worn. My father huddles there too,
my big brother, each holds a knife in his hands, held
sweet like an unexpected gift, glowering
from winter-paled palms. In flowery pajamas,
I'm hiding from my mother who shooed us inside. While she brushes
the baby's three teeth, I sneak back. My father is belly-warmed
with cognac, and after they're done, he promises, he'll let
my brother have some too. She hangs there like a prize.
The men debate, shaking heads
or nodding, fumbling their hands into intricate patterns in the air.
My father sees me then, and motions me into their circle. I join
the hunched backs of these men, exhalations of whitened breath.
She's a roadkill doe, all beautiful and useless.
When they slit her open, twin fawns, heavy-syrup and slick, fall
to the soiled floor. They're lain
on an old tarp, facing their mother, her trailing glossy-roped
Bigger than me, the fawns don't move, or breathe –I watch
their rib-patterned bellies lying asleep. Blue and green veins lace
under the grey-pink skin. I sit on my heels, waiting for them to wake, for
tender mouths to open and stretch back the snot-thick liquid
clogging their noses and eyes –and the eyes, with long thick lashes
like girl baby dolls, the round of the eye curving out through the lid,
their stilled mouths ready to speak.
(When I dream of him, I don't think of the women, not anymore. I remember the doe with her twins. Their mute eyes, gums, sweet mouths closed.)
I'd see them again, bottled side by side in yellowed liquid
in science class at my high school. I'd grow into their memory:
all I saw before my mother found me, shot angry eyes
at my father as she bundled me through the door.
In grainy black and white photographs
of a summer kitchen, her legs spread wide and laced
to a two-by-four, the twine cutting ankles and feet,
arms tied behind.
Her name was Bernice.
The first few nights I slept on the floor of my father's room, the next
my older brother pretended not to notice me. And finally
I settled on the baby, slept with my little brother
as if he were mother, and I child. (Yes, the mother
is absent. It's not what you think.)
All that year, and into the next, I hid under the sweat-heavy sleep
of another child.
(I count that year and a half without comfort. I lay it all at his feet.)
A girl dreaming nights: an old man with a shuffle
and the same overalls. Year after year, wearing that wry grin,
bottling twin fawns
into gigantic mason jars, sealing tight
before they could wake.
Secrets the Kitchen Keeps: Augusta Gein
Outside of La Crosse, 1914
Soup stock will keep
for several days if boiled
every day. Save all remnants of meat,
bones, trimmings, gristle, marrow bone, fat and gravies,
and add to stock, cooking slowly.
She boils water first, then adds salt and pepper,
cuts celery and onions (there's always plenty of that), sometimes
strange things: dandelion leaves, onion grass.
For meat, there's always bits and pieces. He leaves her
squirrel, rabbit, even birds sometimes. Songbirds. Only he
would shoot a bird not a crow. But she's grateful
when the icebox yawns empty, and the animal's left
quivering on her table.
Picking birdshot takes time, but she simmers the becoming-soup
and smells her kitchen. In mid-summer runt carrots, chopped fine
are sunset in the pot. And in jars she keeps leftover pork grease, bits
of skin and bone, wilted beans and anything else green
that'll come by her, and stay.
It's not soup every night, but, if she's careful
she can stretch one animal for days, nearly
a week. He has no idea. And bread, when it goes stale
is better than fresh. She saves the crusts the little one
leaves. She's scavenging, saving all she can
for tomorrow, when there may be no meat
for the eating. Her other trick
is gravy. Just grease and flour, she'll pour
it over anything that stands still. Enough salt
and even the boys lick their lips. Brown sauce
forgiving as April mud.
When she married, her mother gave her
The Settlement Cookbook, and she laughed but
she's glad to know about saving, all the things
that can be cooked with leftover drippings, how to use
salt when the meat is gone, to freshen
In the back were pages left blank. One section for "Guests'
Favorite Foods" another, "My Specialties." She wished
for a page titled "The Truth"
and that her mother had filled it.
She thinks of her father's
callused hands on her mother's shoulders.
The first time she realized
they all did that, she threw up. That
was the first boy, and soon after
another, and soon after
he hit for the first time, and soon after
she learned how to flatten her hands over her face
and take to the corner, and to never
never let the boys see
and soon after it stopped.
To Pick Up Broken Glass:
Small pieces of broken glassware may be picked up
from floor or other hard surfaces
with dampened, absorbent cotton or paper towels.
Plenty of that. When the boys
were babies, they'd crawl into it, and scream
and he'd stop, transfixed, as if he'd forgotten he had children
and why. He'd back away, and she'd
crawl too, letting the shards of evidence scar her knees,
and after she picked each broken bit of the plate, or glass, or
jars she carefully saved, out of the little knee and the boy stopped
screaming, just the purpled face of a child in pain,
hiccupping to get air, she'd set him
in the parlor on that bare floor, and hit him
to start him again.
to be cruel
is good learning
on a farm without a farmer, without
anything to be farmed.
They would grow strong
like motherless birds, vicious
with their beaks.
She'd never know why he took to drinking,
and stopped hitting. One day it happened, there was
a rabbit just-dead on the kitchen table in the morning.
She and the boys ate every bit of it, in silence in cheer,
and his feet darkened no doorstep that night.
After that he'd wake on the couch, and go kill
for his family. At night, he'd drink corn whiskey
and forget them. And though she prayed for him,
flogging his absence with all the weight of her regrets,
she never asked for him back.
Airing a Room:
Lower the upper sash of one window
and raise the lower sash of an opposite window.
And when her children speak, what
will they say to her?
She ate her share of glass.
And if they should raise their hands in anger,
may the blow be merciful and quick.
And if they should own bitterness
in their hearts, it comes not from her hoarded lawn greens
but his night-breath assailing each room of the house.
And if they should look on an empty icebox, and throw their hands
into the unforgiving air, may they become adept
at saving and stealing and making good from the dross
those less in love with their own pain
Another girl, third grade (like me), brought it i
center section, glossy, split open and edible –
(I tried not to look)
This cartoon, this amateur dissection, this old woman
creased by stretch marks, crossed
by the kitchen knife's clean swipes.
I want to have a squirrel memory, find that year later,
like a dollar bill in a jacket pocket (this poem worthless
if not forgotten for a time) –
"The 'facts' of the Gein case are simple. He was found
out the night of November 16th, 1957, after the disappearance
of Bernice Worden. Convicted, years later, of her
murder, and no others."ii
My body became that body –in dreams, in nightmare, in memory. Even now,
I recall the center cut, the missing triangle. I was eight, and it had begun:
the boys threw rocks at we three girls with breasts already.
"The strange artifacts
found in his home . . . largely the fruits
of his cemetery expeditions, where he opened
graves and removed the contents." Yes, I'm referencing
myself. Little girl becoming woman
dreams of the offending bits
cut off. Those girls
held me against the brick wall, out of sight
of the playground monitor, and I shook with terror –
terror of "becoming," not of him.
i Edward Gein: America's Most Bizarre Murderer (with eight pages of blood-curdling police photographs), by Judge [emphasis mine] Robert H. Golmar, St Martins Mass Market Paperback, 1984
ii This stanza and the quotation below from the foreword to Green Bone: A Midwestern, MFA thesis of Christina Kate Kubasta, University of Notre Dame, April 2003