When You Have Lost Yourself

When You Have Lost Yourself
by Theodora Goss

It takes a while to find yourself again
after you lost yourself in the dark forest,
accidentally letting go of your hand,
losing sight of yourself. “Where did she go?”
you ask the owl, the squirrel, the skeptical fox
who looks at you like a philosophy professor
when you have given an answer so obviously wrong
that he can tell you haven’t read the textbook.
Unfortunately, there are things no philosophy textbook
will tell you, like how not to lose yourself,
where the paths in the forest go, or what the trees
are whispering as you pass — the oak, the beech,
the alder. Are they talking about you, or
the other you, wherever she is wandering?

It takes a while to find yourself — it takes
looking behind each tree, under each rock,
on the backs of leaves, among the meadow grasses,
asking crickets, chickadees, woodpeckers,
calling up to the distant circling hawk,
who can see the flickering tail of a hare as it runs
across a clearing. Perhaps you have hidden yourself
in its burrow, lined with fur, under an oak tree?
Perhaps you have hidden yourself under the roots
that overhang the stream, and only dragonflies
notice your eyes gleaming in the darkness.
Perhaps you have hidden yourself under the litter
of last year’s leaves, or up in the canopy,
which is already turning red with autumn.

And once you have found yourself, what will you do?
I suggest taking yourself back to the cottage
near the clearing, sitting yourself in front of the fire,
making yourself some soup on the ancient stove,
with carrots, potatoes, and beans, flavored with parsley,
then putting yourself to bed and telling yourself
one of the old stories. It is after all
stories that tell us who we are, stories
that remind us where the paths might lead, and how
to talk to foxes so we can ask directions,
how to find the witch at the heart of the forest,
who might, as it turns out, be yourself after all,
stories that tell us what we could become,
stories that guide us home.

(The image is an illustration by John Bauer.)

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The Archaeologist

The Archaeologist
by Theodora Goss

Someday, a thousand years from now,
an archaeologist will find your skull
and say, he must have been a handsome man,
this denizen of the primitive
twenty-first century,
before humanity had sailed across
the black sea of space. She will search around
your resting place for shards of pottery,
sift the soil for evidence of ash,
fragments of bone. She will examine
every stone to learn what kind of litter
society left in its midden, evaluate
all that is broken.

She will recreate
your features based on bone structure,
fragments of DNA, educated
conjecture, and an adolescent crush
on the contours of your cheeks, the elegant
curve of your brow, your jaw.
She will mistake the color of your eyes,
which are only blue in certain moods,
on sunny days.
But in so many ways she will capture
you, as I see you today,
with the kind of beauty that inheres
in the skeleton
and will endure when you and I,
my love, are gone, long gone.

(The images is The Excavation of Pompei by Filippo Palizzi.)

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The Oak Trees

The Oak Trees
by Theodora Goss

The oak trees
clung to the edge of the cliff
or perhaps
the cliff clung
to the oak trees.

They were small, stubby oaks
with the typical lobed
leaves of Quercus robur,
rounded at the tips, and plentiful
as though what the oaks
had not spend in height,
they had invested in foliage.

Each time it rained,
a little more of the cliff
had washed away, leaving
the roots of the oaks
jutting out, like a loosely-woven
basket still holding
what remained of the cliff —
red soil, striated rocks
exposed to the elements.

While the cliff clung
to this rough aerial net,
this set of ancient, gnarled
unreliable hands,
out of fear and love.

(The image is The Rocks by Vincent Van Gogh.)

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Budapest, August 20, 2021

Budapest, August 20, 2021
by Theodora Goss

The fireworks
reached their fingers over the tops of the buildings,
making jazz hands
against the velvet curtains of the night,
red and green and white,
consummate performers accompanied
by a sound like bullets
and a halo of smoke,
as though playing at war
above lamplit streets that remembered
the last one, and the one before.

(The image is Nocture in Black and Gold by James MacNeil Whistler.)

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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 piƩ,
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


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

He could not fault me for being a bad housekeeper.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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