The Life I Wanted

The Life I Wanted
by Theodora Goss

One day I took the life I wanted
and bit into it.
It had been sitting in a blue ceramic bowl
of other lives, some red, some yellow,
some green — I thought those might be
too sour. I took the one I wanted,
red on one side, yellow on the other,
with a scattering of freckles.
It could have been painted by Renoir,
with sunlight falling on it from an implied
window, outside of which I could imagine
an equally implied summer. Bees
would have loved it.
It was vivid and, I thought,
probably sweet. So
I bit into it.

Yes, it was sweet.
It had not been grown in a commercial
orchard — it had bruises, brown spots,
even a hole where a worm might have bored
its way in. I had to eat around that.
But how sweet it was! All of the implied
summer was in its juice,
and its imperfections were the sign
of its authenticity. This life
had grown on a crooked tree
by some field where cows were grazing,
the sort of field covered with daisies
and chicory, from which you could glimpse
a grove of poplars and a river winding
away in the distance.
I had been hungry, and it filled me up,
until I felt like a child
tasting an apple she has picked
off the branch, juice running down her chin,
shouting, Mom, this one is mine!
I picked it myself!

(The image is Apples in a Dish by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.)

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Solstice Night: For My Daughter

Solstice Night: For My Daughter
by Theodora Goss

I imagine them meeting in the forest,
the new year and the old.
The old year is the age
I will be, my dear,
when you insist on holding my hand
as I cross the street, the way
I once held yours.
She will be a fierce old woman,
bent, but still strong,
with thin, sinewy wrists,
holding together a shawl as black
as a raven’s wing,
with small brown eyes
like nuts or seeds fallen on the snow
and a sharp tongue.

She will scold the new year:
Where are your mittens? Don’t you know
you could get frostbite? I can’t believe
your mother would let you go out
dressed like that.

And the new year in her silver dress,
a bright young thing with cropped hair,
ready for a party, covered
with spangles that make her look
as though she is wearing stars,
will say, Oh granny, I’m not cold!
What a glorious night, what a wonderful
new beginning. Come dance with me
in the moonlight, under the trees.
Then your bones won’t feel the chill
anymore. Could anything
be more delicious?

She could be your sister,
rebelling as you rebelled against
bedtime and mittens, the necessity
of a sensible coat,
because the world is new and the young
think they know everything.
The old year will, at her insistence,
take a few steps in a stately dance
they both know, a sarabande, although
the new year would rather cha cha.
The old year will shake her head, saying
to herself, under her breath,
Just wait. You will be
where I am now.

And you and I, my dear,
standing here between the new year
and the old, tired and anxious
about what the future will hold —
what should we do?
Let us take their hands, those two —
the young woman and the old,
the straight and bent, the luminous
and dark, the dove and crow,
new life and death.
We could do worse than learn
a few dance steps.

(The image is Masque of the Four Seasons by Walter Crane.)

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The House of Night

The House of Night
by Theodora Goss

I dreamed that I was walking through the house of night,
shadows behind each pillar, the ceiling above in shadow,
a full moon visible from every window,
the curtains open to darkness, and I was frightened,
because it seemed as though
the darkness came in and followed me, quietly,
on soft paws like a cat, and purring,
rubbed up against me.

I was almost certain the house was haunted
by a ghost, or something worse,
or perhaps was under a curse,
although I could not define
what sent such shivers up my spine
or made the hair on my arms stand on end.

I could not speak in that silence except to utter
under my voice, a small prayer,
so intangible it seemed like nothing,
a puff of air, or smoke that blows nowhere,
like the bodies that ghosts have when they emerge
from the medium’s mouth. Nevertheless, it was answered,
by whom, I’m not certain. The darkness? Myself?
I heard, in my head,
You are the ghost you fear, there is no curse
unless you cast it.

I looked, again, around the room,
at the high windows letting in the light
of the moon, and began,
feeling myself suddenly undaunted,
to haunt it.

(The image is On the Balcony by Childe Hassam.)

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Painting of Trees in Moonlight

Painting of Trees in Moonlight
by Theodora Goss

I am painting the trees.
For whom am I painting the trees?
The trees say, this is for us.
It is our portrait. The moon says,
you are painting the trees in my light.
Really, this is a portrait of how I
perceive the trees. I outline them in silver.
The river says, you are painting
the trees reflected in my water.
It is really me you are painting, isn’t it?
The dark mirror of my surface.
Yes, yes, I say, raising my brush
and adding white strokes
where moonlight touches the water.
This is a portrait of the trees
and the river, and the moon, all of whom
may claim it.

But really it’s a portrait
of me without you, and I will send it
special delivery to where you are,
which is too far away. Unwrap it and see
the reflection of your absence.

(The image is A Summer Night, No. 3 by Willard Leroy Metcalf.)

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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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