The Mulberry Trees

The Mulberry Trees
by Theodora Goss

My daughter and I
found two mulberry trees
growing beside the path: one purple,
one white. When I was a child,
I said, on my way to elementary school,
I used to walk by a row
of mulberry trees, and each day
I would pick as many as I could,
pop them into my mouth,
until my hands were stained purple —
probably also my tongue.
That was a long time ago, I said.

But the mulberries reminded me.
The purple ones are deeper, darker,
more flavorful. The white ones
are milder, sweeter. You have to wait
until they are quite plump, almost ready
to fall off the twig. They should come away
easily into your hand. I eat them
completely, even the little green stems.
The problem with mulberries
is that the trees grow so tall, we can only pick
those growing on the lowest branches.
The ones higher up are eaten by birds,
squirrels. Which I suppose is fair,
considering how much we refuse to share
with them in our gardens.

But we were in their garden now.
The magic of mulberries is, they are too delicate
to sell in the markets. If you want to taste
the sweetness of summer, you have to stand
under the tree, reach up, pluck them
one by one from the twigs, staining
your fingers, and probably your tongue.
There is no other way
to eat mulberries, I told my daughter.
She nodded, not really paying attention.
She was reaching, picking, popping them
into her mouth, creating
her own memory of mulberries.

(The image is an illustration by Walter Crane.)

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Poem in Triple Time

Poem in Triple Time
by Theodora Goss

Loneliness and I
were dancing hand in hand
to the stately measures
of a sarabande.

He bowed to me and said,
my lady, sweet and fair,
may I take you to
my castle in the air?

We’ll live on cloud meringues
and crystal cups of dew,
and you, my bride-to-be,
shall learn to love me true.

His eyes were soft and mild,
his manners of the best,
he was, de cap a pié,
so elegantly dressed.

And yet I turned and ran
as though from certain death
and did not stop until
I had to catch my breath.

Since then I’ve wandered through
forest and field and town,
worn a hole in my slippers,
torn the hem of my gown.

I’ve made my dinner of herbs
on crusts of day-old bread
and counted myself lucky
to have this food, instead

of dreams and airy nothings
so grand you would not guess
I was dancing with a phantom,
married to loneliness.

(The image is Dance in the City by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.)

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The Egg in Twelve Scenes

The Egg in Twelve Scenes
by Theodora Goss

I.

The egg was immaculate.
I made certain to keep the egg immaculate.

He could not fault me for being a bad housekeeper.

II.

He said, I’m going to marry one of your sisters.
He said, I’m going to marry the other of your sisters.
I said, What happened to my first sister?

He said, I don’t know. Maybe she joined the circus.

III.

My oldest sister was named Doris.
She resented this.
My father had named her.
Beware the wizard Fitcher, he had told us
when we were, respectively, three, five, and seven.

Doris was seven.
Why, what will he do to me? she asked.
She was always practical and curious,
a typical first-born, a brunette,
sometimes a bit too bossy.

My father answered, He will eat your heart.

IV.

My middle sister was named Eglantine.
My mother had given her that name,
together with her blessing.
She had golden hair, and hazel eyes,
and a laugh like water
falling over small stones.
She was the sensitive, artistic one.
It was no wonder
Fitcher came for her, after
Doris disappeared.

V.

My name was Mag
or Maggie, or Come-here-Margaret,
or What-did-you-do-this-time?
I was not the cause of my mother’s death,
they assured me. But I
knew better.

I carried guilt like a seamed and
faded letter in my pocket.

VI.

When Fitcher came for me,
I said, What have you done with Eglantine?
He said, She left to go find herself.
Maybe in India, maybe in Indiana, who knows.
She could be anywhere.

I said, I didn’t know she was lost.

VII.

I said, I will not be like my sisters.
I will not run off to become an acrobat
or meditate on a yoga mat. Instead, I will be content.
I will learn to cook. Let’s start with breakfast:
how do you like your eggs?

But Fitcher was already gone.
I was talking to myself.

VIII.

He said to keep the egg clean,
so I kept the egg clean by putting it on a shelf.
He said not to open the door
with the smallest key on the ring heavy
with all the keys, from cellar to butler’s pantry.
So I cut off my little finger and used the bone instead.

My mother could not read me fairy tales,
so I had to read them myself.

IX.

Doris had taught me to sew.
Carefully, I stitched them together again,
trying to remember which was her arm,
which Eglantine’s.
I’m not entirely sure I got it right,
because Doris has started painting,
and Eglantine is a much better seamstress.

When I was done, my sisters said,
Maggie, you know he’s coming back.
We need to get out of here double-quick.

So I put them in the basket
and covered them with feathers.

X.

Where is the key? said Fitcher.
I showed him the key, unspotted
on its heavy ring.

Where is the egg? he said.
I showed him the egg, as white
as a lily. He smiled at me.
Good girl, Maggie, he said.

My name, I whispered, is Margaret.
Then I asked him to carry the basket
to my father’s house.

XI.

They say I am clever for saving my sisters.
They say Fitcher deserved what he got
when my sisters climbed out of the basket
and explained everything.

My father roared and lunged toward him.
Fitcher stepped back, tumbled down the porch steps,
and broke his head on the concrete,
like in a children’s rhyme.
The yoke spilled out.
They could not put him together again.

It was an accident, they said. Anyway,
that’s what he gets for being an evil wizard.
Your Maggie is a clever girl, they said.

XII.

I didn’t want the house.
The blood would never come out
of that floor.

But I took the insurance money.
After all, every girl
needs a nest egg.

Now I’m with the circus, wearing yellow tights
and a silver cape that looks like wings
when I spread my arms under the Big Top.
I always fancied myself
on the flying trapeze.

Fitcher's Bird by Arthur Rackham

(The image is an illustration for “Fitcher’s Bird” by Arthur Rackham.)

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An Interesting Question

An Interesting Question
by Theodora Goss

My mind
scurries and scurries around
like a squirrel in a cage.

Stop it, I say. Stay still
for a moment.
Don’t you realize
that you are the cage
as well as the squirrel?

It sits back on its haunches
and stares at me
with eyes like sesame seeds,
black and shining,
flicking its brown tail.

If I am the squirrel
and the cage,
then who, it says,
are you?

(The image is Red Squirrel by Hans Hoffmann.)

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My Winter Garden

My Winter Garden
by Theodora Goss

This winter, I decided
to grow icicles. They bloom
in whorls and curls, intricate
shapes like seashells
or ice roses.

They glitter in the gray light
of winter like the spires
of the Snow Queen’s castle.
When I pick them
to put on my dining room table,
my fingers grow numb.

I bring them inside
and put them in the blue vase,
admiring their delicate beauty,
their iridescence, like memories
of flowers. But hours
later, when I walk once again
into the dining room,
they are gone.

I have only a vase
filled with water.

(The image is Winter Garden by Vincent Van Gogh.)

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The Poet and the Poem

The Poet and the Poem
by Theodora Goss

The Emily we remember
is not Emily,
who gathered apples before they could fall
from the tree
to lie rotting on the grass, where bees
would feast on their sweetness.
Not the woman
dressed in white dimity
who walked through the garden to find
a basket half-forgotten
by nieces and nephews, filled
with carved wooden circus animals,
an elephant, a giraffe, a painted
tiger, grinning
with his painted teeth.
Who, laughing, half out of breath,
left parcels for those same
nieces and nephews — a jar of honey
or a humorous rhyme
from Aunt Emily.

We remember
that she would not stop for death,
that she was nobody, flitting
through the attic of imagination,
telling the truth obliquely,
the chalk outline of a woman
made, if you look closely,
from words.

(The image is Girl Under Apple Tree by Edvard Munch.)

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The King of the Lake

The King of the Lake
by Theodora Goss

It was time for the Great Blue Heron’s toilette:
mid-afternoon, when light fell over the lake
sideways and the sun, still golden, shone
with the intensity of midsummer although autumn,
announced by the first few orange leaves, had come.
Sprinkled over the water were some lily pads
and two brown ducks, escorted by a drake.

He fluffed his feathers, gray and blue, like a cloak
of storm clouds, then stretched out his neck
and combed the feathers there
with one clawed foot, looking briefly ridiculous.
I did not know a Great Blue Heron could look
so ridiculous, as though he had washed his hair,
shaken it into a tangled halo,
and was combing it out, perched
on a dead branch sticking out of the water,
where on other days turtles slept in the sunlight.
Suddenly he hunched himself again
into himself, growing elegant and inscrutable.
I felt as though I had seen
a nineteenth-century gentleman
with his cravat untied.

Then a fish sent ripples across the water,
disturbing the leaves of the forest under the water.
By the time I looked up, he appeared as noble
as a marble emblem of serenity. And yet,
I felt as though I had seen something. I don’t know what,
but something important. Perhaps the other side
of Nature, disheveled and careless, without the splendor
of her sunsets or snow-capped mountains, sitting
at a table in her negligée, playing solitaire.
Here was her king, like a character
from a fairy tale, who had briefly put down
his crown and revealed himself.

The image is a Great Blue Heron by John James Audabon.

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