Young Angel of Darkness
My pet grandfather had not been told
by doctors or nurses, nor my grandmother
that what he had was lung cancer and that
that cancer was quickly killing him. It was common then
to keep this sort of secret from the dying, and at twelve,
I’d be dumb to it, too, but I’d heard them discussing
an exception for me, not yet old enough to visit
that sick ward. Riding up the elevator, I felt the burden
bear down on me, my mother’s slim hand gently squeezed
my shoulder: Remember now, let’s not talk about anything
sad. Try to cheer him up, okay? Smile. When the elevator doors
opened, the buoyancy of the white humming lights lifted me
like water. I floated down the hall and into his room as if
I were a small boat drifting to beach. The air, gauzy
and thick, contrasted with the starchy hospital sheets.
I glided over to my grandfather and for the first time
saw fear in his eyes; and then love, then again,
fear. I knew I must not say the truth out loud,
but just then I grew heady and arrogant
with my grown-up secret. I could not contain it.
I extended my hand. Come with me, I beckoned
wordlessly, seductively, and he took my hand.
I squeezed hard. With my eyes, I said Don’t let go.
And don’t tell. I won’t, he blinked. Then, hold on
tight, I demanded with my narrowing eyes: I’m going
to lead you down the dark tunnel of truth.
At New Hope Facility
Each night I brushed
their ragged teeth, delicate and
sharp as those
in a baby’s mouth and I lifted
them into bed,
and tucked blankets up under them,
their curled runt hands
set at their chests like the useless
claws of dinosaurs.
I walked and walked, back and forth,
the entire shift,
answering their soft bells, pretending
I could take care of each of them,
though truly I was in sore want
of my own mother. I was
out to prove I needed no one,
nor any of their money if that meant
bending even a tiny bit
to their wills. I felt leashed to that
place as if a beast,
wretched and filled with abundant
and fulsome, fulsome
sorrow. Every night I walked down
the long pod, I grimaced
at the noise my sneakers made, worried
that each loud squeak would wake
all those I had just lashed to bed.
I imagined my shoe-squeaks
calling to them like the sweet sirens
which I knew I had, and knowing
that, somehow, made
me feel at least a little better.
That year I was trying to escape it all
in New Hope, a bleak place
where I’d wheel the residents
back and forth to their meals
and therapy. I had convinced myself
I was doing good, but was so awkward
and ill at ease among them.
I was a young woman
who could walk and talk and
return to college any time
she damn well got her act together
and I knew it. And they knew it too—
all the teen-aged girls I lifted about
like wet cardboard boxes.
When the nurse’s aide first walked me
through the halls, and called them water babies
I’d imagined something fluid
and beautifully alien as a jellyfish,
but Christine’s water baby head
was so enormously heavy she listed perpetually
to the left. She was a twisted burl
of a girl. We took an instant dislike
to each other. She fought me
all the way—cursing
as I pushed her to the shower,
undressed her, tried to soap her
down, finding it nearly impossible
to lift her frozen limbs
out of their unreasonable creases.
One evening, blood splattered beneath
her chair, great red splotches of it
against the white tile
of the community shower.
Near my shoe, a tight splat dropped
and bloomed like a peony unfisting
in a field of snow. It gave me pause, but
then I hosed her blood down the drain
while she slumped behind me
in her shower chair: her hair,
thin, knotted, dripping,
her feral anger rising
with the steam.
I knew I would always win
simply by punching out,
walking free from the frozen fields
surrounding that institutionalized place.
At twenty, that’s what I knew
of leaving, never once believing
I’d ever think of her again, never
bothering to look down to see
the blood spattered across the toes of
my white sneakers, little seeds taking root.
All summer I watched for him. I knew he was out there,
inside the rimming of woods that ran all around.
Wild boy, his feral curls stiff and ashy with dirt,
he pedaled past at least once a day on his rickety rusting
bicycle, grocery bags dangling from crooked handlebars,
his filthy sleeping bag tied to the rear fender. One
neighbor said she saw him washing dishes at the Waffle House,
near the exit ramp. Another called the cops, but no one ever
found out what he was hiding from or why. Though I tried
to stay alert, he always approached quietly, giving me a start
while out front pulling weeds near the picket gate. Each time
he appeared, my heart revved up in faster time, my eyes anxiously
searching for my small children nearby, digging happily
in the dirt with old spoons. All summer, he must have lain
in the woods, awkwardly tending his fugitive camp, trying
to slow his own heart leaping up with each odd birdcall
or snap. In the night, I’d wander from window
to window, watching, making sure his flame
had not caught hold of the horizon. I buttressed for
danger, instead of worrying over him like a good mother,
instead of extending him any kindness, if only
in my mind. So many ways my children have cleaved
my heart tenderly toward the world; and so many ways
they’ve turned my grizzly core against it.
Kathleen Driskell is an award-winning poet and teacher. Her newest poetry collection is Next Door to the Dead, a Kentucky Voices Selection, published by The University Press of Kentucky (June 2015). Her full-length poetry collection Seed Across Snow (Red Hen, 2009) was listed as a national bestseller by the Poetry Foundation; Red Hen Press will publish her fourth collection, Blue Etiquette, in fall 2016. Her poems have appeared in many literary journals including Southern Review, North American Review, Shenandoah, RiverStyx, and Rattle and are featured online on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and in American Life in Poetry. Her work has been anthologized in What Comes Down to Us: 20 Contemporary Kentucky Poets and The Kentucky Anthology. She is professor of Creative Writing at Spalding University, where she also helps to direct the low-residency MFA in Writing Program.