(with Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey)
1991, for my mother
She can’t hold my hand once it starts, the metal-free room, the buzz and click of the machine. My small form, swallowed by the white tunnel, the pale, toothless snake. I am barely a bite.
She sits beside the MRI and reads aloud, the sound of her voice to keep me still. Today, she will not break open in the anxiety of me, her daughter, five years old and a cancer survivor. She opens Blueberries for Sal and reads as if we are snuggled in the upstairs twin bed, the peeling wallpaper and the maple tree breeze whispering into this cold, aseptic chamber:
“We will take our berries home and can them,” said her mother. “Then we will have food for the winter.”
Last winter, when the IV had slid into my small hand, I made not one sound. So brave, said the nurse, but it wasn’t bravery. I had endured these metal proddings for as long as memory. It’s not bravery if the pinch is expected, a part of what it costs to be alive.
Her mother walked slowly through the bushes, picking blueberries as she went and putting them in her pail. Little Sal struggled along behind, picking blueberries and eating every single one.
The garden we planted on a neighbor’s farm: onions, potatoes, three children digging in the dark mud, sun reddening my fair shoulders through a hand-me-down t-shirt, the hose water drunk which we would later learn was non-potable. So much can kill, yet so little does.
It was a mother crow and her children, and they stopped eating berries and flew away, saying, “Caw, Caw, Caw.”
What did my mother reply to the congregants at our church, to the fragile way they glanced at my thin blonde hair? The other children knew nothing of my scars. A six-year-old boy kissed me beneath a folding table; we held hands and promised to one day marry. How far away is the future to this boy? Can he guess the pain it takes to love someone this much?
Little Sal’s mother heard Little Bear tramping along behind and thought it was Little Sal. She kept right on picking and thinking about canning blueberries for next winter.
And when my brothers and I turn to beasts in the autumn leaves out back, when the cocker spaniel dives and chases and we are all one pack, will my mother notice the ferocity of life in my shy face? Always so many dishes, so many dirty clothes.
—a whole pail of blueberries and three more besides.
Hannah Marshall lives in south-central Illinois, where she works as the advising editor for Greenville University's literary journal, The Scriblerus, and as the poetry editor for Converse College’s literary journal, South 85. Marshall’s poem “This Is a Love Poem to Trees” will appear in The Best American Poetry 2021. Her poems have also been published in Poetry Daily, New Ohio Review, The South Carolina Review, North Dakota Quarterly, and elsewhere. She received her MFA in creative writing from Converse College.
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