–for my grandmother
As a child, Wanda saw the luminous faces of the dead in window
glass and mirrors, their terrible homesickness plain for all the beauty
and breaking that’s come after their lives. She believed she was born
to this vocation: to help souls let go of earth (stumble toward heaven
carrying your now-distant life) as they move into the country of shadows –
into the world to come – like dazed sheep wandering in the dark.
Almost equal to the angels, she steered them toward afterlife. While
her mother drained a warm duck’s crimson blood for dinner soup,
Wanda hummed to the family’s old landlord in the cellar window
and a girl caught in the parlor mirror. See, Mama always held the duck
under one arm and strangled it quietly out back. It’s easy to shepherd
the dead when you’ve never seen death snatch the living. Śpij dobrze,
darling, sleep well, sleep, Mama crooned to the struggling bird, until
she gave a sudden twist to its neck, a mercy. When Wanda’s brother
was pushed by a playmate down the brownstone’s three flights of stairs,
landing skull-first and tongue almost severed by his jaw, she was cursed:
Wanda stopped seeing the dead. For a few hours, Joseph lay in his bed,
a crucifix in his whitening hands, Mama choking out a lullaby. Boy, wake,
or sleep for all eternity, her hands tracing his facial bones, cupping his skull
like an ancient funeral pot bottom-pierced with holes to let the tired spirit
rise to heaven. The knowing came to Wanda: You can’t go further
with the dead, who untether from their bodies. The living are the ones left
behind. For years, Mama sat in her rocking chair, humming, saying she heard
Joseph playing under his bed. As if he was haunting her, but Wanda didn’t
believe he walked on earth anymore. Mama set a place for him at the table.
And, left bread and milk out at night. Evenings, Wanda heard Mama singing
kołysanka, a lullaby next to a window, as if Joseph hung near the moon,
listening in the silence before eternity. As if she soothed him into sleep.
As if Wanda was the one gone underground, not speaking, not hearing. Mama
holding her hands over Joseph’s heart, where a white dove, invisible, faltered.