Tuesday, January 1, 2008

No Frogs in Eastwood

My child presses her face to the glass at the zoo.
“There’s one,” I say,
pointing to the golden mantella,
to the rain forest blues and reds.
She sees. She answers, “Frog.”
Science News says, “Frog Populations Decline.”
My daughter feels no loss.
Frogs are as plentiful as ever
on the pages of picture books,
where they squat beside giraffes,
unicorns, dragons, and dinosaurs,
each as real to her as the other.
Really real would be a barefoot child
splashing in a farm pond, squealing in pursuit
of a creature too fast, too slippery to hold.
Real would be falling asleep
to the plunking, rubber-band chorus.
My job is to make it real
for a child with no backyard creek
on her forty-foot city lot.
“See it jump? See it jump?” I say.
See how the skin glistens?
See the strong, splayed legs?
The delicate, pulsing throat?
She sees. Sees the marvelous, comical form,
but not (not yet) the sign that reads, “Endangered.”
It is my job to make her fall in love
with what is passing. It is my job
to prepare her heart for breaking.

Cheryl Gatling

published in River Oak Review

Monday, January 1, 2007

Crossing Over

As my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged, strange animals, statues, and gold—everywhere the glint of gold. It was all I could do to get out the words, “Yes, wonderful things.”

--Howard Carter, on discovering King Tut’s tomb

The preschool door opened, and I could not stop looking.

Everywhere, wonderful things…

cardboard blocks colored like bricks,

wagons, balls, wooden stove and sink,

everything bright, everything just my size.

Then Miss Porter bent to talk to me.

Her hair slid forward over her shoulders,

shining like a river of pennies.

I couldn’t talk. My throat was swollen with wonder.

But Miss Porter’s green eyes smiled.

She led me to the toy kitchen, and put a doll in my arms.

My baby had a brown face, and brown yarn hair

that stuck straight out like the rays of the sun.

Mommy stooped to kiss me, but kissed only my hair.

I had already turned away.

I had to feed my radiant brown sun baby.

I held the bottle to her pouting plastic mouth,

and Mommy was gone. The floor lurched briefly then,

as I launched into my preschool life.

It would be a new world, but I was not afraid,

provisioned as I was with stackable rubber sandwiches,

plastic apples and bananas, dress-up hats,

a cot and a blanky, everything I would need,

everything I could imagine needing.

Cheryl Gatling

published in Atlanta Review


Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her. Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife.” But Laban brought his daughter Leah, and gave her to Jacob.

He removed my wedding veil without candle or lamp.
He could not stop sighing, Rachel, Rachel,
except to kiss, and not even then,
breathing my sister’s name into my mouth.
The first time fast and hungry, then he woke
to caress everything, to trace
the bumps of my spine, the hollows of my knees.
I tried to remember not to speak, but the “ahs”
escaped. Finally, exhausted,
he held me wrapped by both his arms and legs.
And I waited in the dark, knowing
that no matter how many years we would spend
living as husband and wife,
I would never be loved that way again.
And I watched the tent wall slowly go
from black to grey, my heartbeat
counting the minutes, until he would see my face
and scream.

Cheryl Gatling

published in Willow Review

The Things He Gave Her

First his letters, burned in the driveway.
The ripped photos she threw in the kitchen garbage,
followed by wilted salad, blobs of cheese.
The books, with their inscriptions (“love always”)
went to Secondhand Words, clothes to Good Will,
even the gold silk blouse, even the teddy.
Items fell from her like so much ballast.
Her hair was brushing the lintels of doorways.
Only the weight of her shoes held her feet to the floor.
She dug the rosebush (innocent live thing),
dumped the tangle of root and thorn at the curb.
Even (who would have thought) the salad tongs.
As the gold chain slipped from her neck,
the last strand of tether snapped.
It flew, 22 karat airborne brilliance.
It plopped into the lake in sinuous ripples.
And she floated into the crowns of trees,
surrounded by wobbling green leaves.
Startled birds exploded off the wire,
a shimmer of feathers around her head.

Cheryl Gatling

published in Gingko Tree Review

Nursing the Lost

At fourteen months, she doesn’t need the milk.
So why continue? It’s no longer about
nutrition, immunity, bonding,
or comfort at bedtime. It’s just this:
once the milk is gone, it’s gone.
There will never be another child to feed.
The doctor saw to that.
For every beautiful thing that is gone forever,
for every kiss that will never be kissed,
for passenger pigeons, Tasmanian tigers,
for paintings and poems burned in the purge,
for hope winked out in any kind of prison,
for every soldier dead in every war,
Come, I lift my shirt.

Cheryl Gatling

published in Gingko Tree Review

Swedish Christmas Bread

Because he was a neighbor, Mother said.
The wind flapped her skirt around her knees.
She tottered slightly on the icy snow.
Still, she kept her grip on the foil-wrapped package.

He was unshaven, dogs around his legs.
He took the package, heavier than it looked.
Sweet dough, dense with raisins and walnuts.

In the morning, they blamed the kerosene heater,
tipped by a careless foot, or a dog’s tail.
As the school bus chugged past the rubble,
every face turned to watch the smoke.

But I, only I knew that the man whose ashes
still smoldered beneath the blackened beams
had died with the taste of honey on his tongue.

Cheryl Gatling

published in Gingko Tree Review

The Patron Saint of Writers

He is old, scrawny, his back hunched
from study, his fingers gnarled.
What harm can this man do,
busy at his pen-scratching?
But see? The old man’s ink-stained hands
stroke the muscular back of a full-grown lion.
The paws, big as plates, and heavy,
flex their claws. The jaws rumble.
Wherever the old man shuffles, the lion follows.
They are inseparable, best of friends,
the dry, cerebral scribe, and the hunter
who will crack your biggest bones with a snap,
whose favorite flavor is blood, who loves
the raw chewy muscle. The writer bends now
over a text extolling the mercy of God.
The lion rubs against his leg and yawns,
showing, then sheathing, the always-ready teeth.

Cheryl Gatling

published in Atlanta Review