Tender

 
A child, my mother showed

                me the small closet of her self.

She stood there, child thin

 

in a shift-dress. Her blade

                of tenderness, the pain of a blow

that made everything more colored–

 

her black-winged bangs

                a blur of hands, pink-crush

that could take the wind out

 

and fill me with broken things.

                This would take me to the winternight of a school

parking lot, where I was led to the shadow

 

of a lamplight post, the emptied classroom

                windows darkened

from the want of children, ghost faces

 

seeking the same tenderness.

                The cold flesh like a living thing,

a child’s body folded inside that living thing

 

and my tender knees,

                the gravel that pierces them

to remind them how easy they cut,

 

the other working in his cutting

                as if he sought to be buried

beneath my 15 years, the careful carving.

 

This is the kindness I have carried

                inside like a birdhouse and its flurry

of wings, not even separate beatings

 

of hundreds of birds,

                but a single thunderous pulse

that has found me, now,

 

holding my newborn daughter

                in faintly lit dawn, her hair

like singed down between my fingers.

 

What can I

                find

here?

 

Draw tenderness out of a cracked

                well, imagine the stillness of water

in its silvery and solid room.

 

Yes, once my father brushed my hair

                until the curls separated and frizzed,

its tangled rise beneath his dark hands,

 

comfort in their browned veins

                when he held me against his ribs

as wind swept around us.

 

When he came home at dusk, I’d wait for the night

                when he’d turn the pages to my book,

careful that I could see every page.

 

I rock her in my arms,

                hum a tune with no melody,

my throat warming up

 

to match her small cry, a turn

                for a turn, enough to last

the hour I rock her, its gentle tick and hurt.

 
 
 

Leslie Contreras Schwartz is a fifth-generation Houstonian of Mexican heritage. Her essays and poetry have recently appeared in Catapult, The Collagist, Tinderbox and Rogue Agent. Her book, Fuego, was published by Saint Julian Press in 2016 and her second book, Nightbloom & Cenote, is forthcoming from the same press in 2018. An excerpt from her novel-in-progress, City of Girls, will be included in the Houston Noir anthology, edited by Gwendolyn Zepeda (Akashic Press, 2019). Schwartz earned an MFA in poetry from The Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College in 2011, and graduated from Rice University in 2002. She teaches writing and works as a manuscript consultant and writing coach through Writespace and other organizations.