By Susan Ayres
after the painting by Edvard Munch (c. 1904)
Childhood is not a meadow
of clover and sweet wildflowers.
The fir in the background
looms. White pinafore, pink
pier and white sky swirled
in bold strokes like frosting on cake.
Again and again Munch composed
the scene: three (sometimes four) girls
in summer dresses, blond hair, straw
hat, arms linked against the cold night sky,
high summer where it’s never
dark completely. On the bridge
they watch bits of tree float, spy
fish and dragonflies. Trolls
live under bridges. The girls throw
sticks into the dark blue water.
One of the girls is faceless
and the round black-green
fir takes up more space than
the house, which may be why
the museum describes the painting
as haunting, and ominous, and full
of anxieties. But for some, the painting
soothes in its scene of sisters and
cousins with linked arms a talisman
against the warning caws of the blackbird
and dark fir of secrets:
the father having an affair,
the mother losing her mind,
the cousin overdosing.
From their pastel sweetness
and faceless innocence
the girls see it all.
for my cousins
In the black and white photo, C
holds her newborn sister, swaddled
like a cocoon, only her tiny face
visible. C’s chubby legs jut
off the sofa. Later, in the color polaroid
C and T stand behind the sofa
where their Momma’s passed out.
It’s Thanksgiving. She has teal pants,
hair a beehive bun. No photos
of high school graduations, birthdays,
weddings. Out of jail, they live in a motel. Pay
by the week, sex for drugs. Days spent
watching soaps. When the power’s out
they throw a sheet over the TV, sleep
all day. Nights, white yucca moths
and green lacewings chase the bare
light bulb. One morning, C laces
her high white boots, catches
the bus to her uncle’s insurance building,
wants $50 for groceries. He stares
at her street-walking eyes, gives her
the money, warns, Don’t come here again.
Every day, C and T wait
in line—methadone maintenance
the routine. The white moth’s routine
pollinating the yucca when she lays
her eggs. Late summer, yuccas bloom
waxy white, C lies in bed unconscious,
nonresponsive. Dead at 30.
Ashes, cradling the box
T throws a handful across the bed,
beneath the dime store picture
of the women holding parasols, yellow
like their hair as children. The other ashes
T scatters handful by handful
on the mountain behind their room.
Gray clumps settle on mesquite
and yucca. Ashes blend into rocky desert.
Six months later, yucca larvae
burrow to spin cocoons, T crashes.
Everyone on the street says
C’s O.D. was an accident. Everyone says
T’s was not. She couldn’t live without
her sister. These are the things they left:
the dime store picture, C’s scattered
ashes, the laden blooms.
A thousand years ago
the Sinagua farmed
what’s now Verde Valley.
“Sinagua” means without
water, though lucky ones
lived near Beaver Creek
or Montezuma’s Well—
15 million gallons of spring-fed
water filling a desert sinkhole,
spiked with high carbon dioxide
and arsenic. Only leeches,
water scorpions, and microscopic
amphipods live in the water
the ancient people called Yuvukva,
No fish can survive.
Did the Sinagua drink
the water? Bathe in it? Did
children dive from limestone
down into the pool?
The arsenic that seeped
into their corn, did it shorten
their lives? Scientists know
their remains hold higher
arsenic levels than others
in the valley. Yet Yavapi
and Hopi today call
this ground, this pool sacred.
After the Epsom bath
my muscles relax, my lips
taste salty. I’m surprised
the bath leaves a film
on my body like sea
salt glazing scallops, conches,
and whelks I collect
at the beach. Magnesium
sulfate breaks down in the bath
like sugar, C12H22O11
stirred into tea.
My skin absorbs magnesium
to relax sore muscles, loosen
stiff joints. Sulfate
to flush toxins and relieve
migraines. Misnamed Epsom
after the bitter, salty spring
in Surrey, England
not salt water at all,
A baby is born after the water
breaks. Not really water
but fluid of carbohydrates, proteins
and peptides, lipids, lactate,
pyruvate, electroltyes, enzymes
and hormones. Chemical soup
originating from maternal
plasma, amniotic fluid is first
absorbed across the not-yet-
kerotinized skin. The volume
increases with fetal urine, oral,
nasal, tracheal, and pulmonary fluids.
The fetus drinks, absorbs
it in the gut, but does not drown
in utero. No breathing,
no drowning. After months
in this ideal, germ-free bath,
the water breaks in warm surprise
and the baby is born
from one world to the next
where water is not always as it seems.
Susan Ayres is an MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and teaches law at Texas A&M University. She has published articles in The Journal of Gender, Race and Justice; Law, Culture and Humanities Journal; and she has published poetry in Southwest American Literature, Kalliope, Barely South Review, and other journals.