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Jennifer Givhan

Blood is blood is

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outside my child's school, waiting

How does anyone
love inside skin?

We harvest rot,
its fly-gathering stench,

its honesty.
How does anyone learn

the difference? Husband-twist.
A slip in the plot.

By daylight, swing set fixer.
Laundry sorter.

By night the bed shape-shifts—
he could be a gravedigger, a man

who hides children in bunkers.
Sometimes I fear becoming

the ogre's wife, strangling
the mother. But since

there is no end to darkness
I become a ladder.

In my pit ovens
I cook tortillas, coffee, beans—

anything besides pot-
polished jaw shard

blackened bone
sifted from ghost cots

on basement floors.
Again and again

I mother my own organs
vital as umbilicals. What love isn't

I reach into my throat and pull

until, bleating on the passenger seat,
there's a fat placental sac

an amulet, a child

Mother Judas

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Breastmilk offers no cures, no palliatives,
no staving off the inevitable.
No prayers or chants or pills or bills
or bars or cells or doctor visits
will change the infant cooing in his crib.
It's not cause & effect as the naïve suggest
or history of abuse, nor sugar or video games—
just ask the women who drowned their own
in tubs, gassed, or cut their throats
(the ones on parole or cured) believing
they were preventing futures
of cats in recycling bags, firecrackers burned,
the duct tape around his brother's neck,
the surveillance tape of him, your boy,
leading someone's toddler from the mall
to the train tracks. It's as old as Cain.

Case History

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Mrs. X, 36 years old, had no previous psychiatric history.
A corpse bride, she'd died a month earlier
and was dug up for the wedding.

She reported a depressed mood that had lasted
three and a half decades.

Likewise, she suffered from ruminations,
the inability to experience
pleasure from activities usually found enjoyable

(e.g. smooth jazz, ballroom dancing, stringing
birds together, flying into the ether)

and a reduced libido. Her mother suffered from recurrent
disorders of the heart, and her father was addicted
to alcohol-flavored jellybeans.

According to the pathology, the patient fulfilled
the DSM-IV criteria for major depression,
and pharmacotherapy was launched. Ten days later,

Mrs. X reported that she'd begun experiencing
gustatory and olfactory hallucinations. For example,

a meal with licorice tasted
of rotting dandelions, while the empty nursery
where she kept the lonely dog's water,

as well as the waiting room of her gynecologist,
smelled intensely of her great-grandmother's dusty
rose perfume, though she'd gone extinct.

While orientation and concentration were unremarkable,
the butterflies that came next were quite remarkable.

They settled on her lashes, her hair, and finally on the teapots

her new husband had placed at the edge
of the dining table to see how well they balanced.
He'd given her a dust cloth.

Polish these, my dead, he'd said. It'll do you good.

Instead, against the white wall, she flung one pot and
watched it scatter into honey-tipped wings—
The patient remembered being alive.

She remembered prying into her housedress
and plucking feathers like pillow stuffing.
Upon finding a fresh doll face

wetly etched in her stomach, she wondered
what else had been done to her while she slept.
It had a bellybutton for a nose.

Mrs. Bitterstout

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Before sunrise I go downhill for coffee,
streetlight quietly wrestling starfade,
and in the parking lot, I see an image, splitting,
a twin who must've been sent away at birth.

Did she change her name when she had the chance?
I didn't take it. Years before,
the first week I was married, barely old enough
to drink legally, my new husband and I at the bar

tried conjuring names for ourselves. I wanted
us to share, but I didn't want his.
It hadn't served him well, a junkwatch his dead-
so-no-longer-deadbeat father had left him,

replete with an absurd junior at the end
though he was the third son. How about Paloma
or Mojito
, I asked, still wishing Mama hadn't taken
my dad's gringo name and kept her own, which

I could've felt at-home in. He laughed, opening
his throat for the rest of his beer, then said, In
that case, Bitterstout
. I slugged his shoulder, feeling
already too young and sober to be that free

and trapped at once. We could've been Mr. and
Mrs. Football's-Playing-And-We-Don't-Care,
or the Pretzelbasket couple, or
the Met-And-Married-In-Six-Months'es.

Instead I went to the social security office,
stripped myself of childhood and dressed
in his old name, wearing it snugly. This morning
I want to ask, Who are you strange sister, buying

a cranberry-orange scone and stealing
the seat by the window?
I don't want to disturb her,
reflection in the glass, but I can't resist
peeking at the name marked on her paper cup.

Easter Sunday

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While Mama exercised to nuns praying rosary
on the Catholic channel, leglifts to each Hail Mary,
lunges at each Our Father, Dad ignoring her,
absorbed in online conspiracy theories, my kids
dug backyard dirt where the neighbor's cat kept pissing.
My new husband had gone to buy a ham that I could stick
in the oven and send Westward through photos
to my ex-in-laws, expressing the care
with which I took my family, preserving tradition.
I'd forgotten where we packed last year's confetti eggs,
so the hunt was cancelled, but I remembered
to kiss my husband when he came back
with a grocery store honey-baked,
wrapped in shiny pink foil. Browning sugar filled
the house with more than droning nuns
and occasionally the fucking government's bailing
out the banks again!
The cheese was crisping.
For the kids, I passed the ham off as bacon,
slicing a few pieces frying-pan thin. As the
strips sizzled as appetizers on a platter,
Dad from behind his screen nodded approval
of my kitchen work. Relieved, I began carving
the rest, readying it for plates. We'd eat
at the table together, with placemats.
And that's when I saw it:
The entire bottom of our sweetly-coated
Easter ham was green and molding.
Spit it out! It's bad! I yelled into the living room,
scooping the poison from my family's mouths.
You know that feeling of déjà vu? It was almost
like that—how I've read time can decouple
till we're split from ourselves. But sometimes we get stuck.
My husband took the ham back and got a roasted chicken
and a bouquet of flowers, but I couldn't stomach
anything else. Instead, I rocked in my grandmother's
chair, watching for signs of food poisoning. The kids
ate mac and cheese, and Mama had a shake. Dad
tried the broccoli, shouting between bites
about drones. I don't get it, my husband said. I can usually
smell decay from a mile away
. I couldn't stop crying.

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