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Lullaby

–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.
 
 
 

Nicole Rollender is the author of the poetry collection, Louder Than Everything You Love (ELJ Editions, 2015), and the poetry chapbooks Arrangement of Desire (Pudding House Publications), Absence of Stars (dancing girl press & studio), Ghost Tongue (Porkbelly Press), and Bone of My Bone, a winning manuscript in Blood Pudding Press’s 2015 Chapbook Contest. Her work has appeared in The Adroit Journal, Alaska Quarterly Review, Best New Poets, The Journal, Memorious, Radar Poetry, PANK, Salt Hill Journal, Thrush Poetry Journal, Word Riot and West Branch, among others. She’s the recipient of a 2017 poetry fellowship from the New Jersey Council on the Arts, and poetry prizes from CALYX Journal, Princemere Journal and Ruminate Magazine. She earned her MFA in poetry at the Pennsylvania State University. She’s the editor-in-chief of Wearables and executive director of branded content & professional development at the Advertising Specialty Institute. In 2016, she was named one of FOLIO’s Top Women in Media. Visit her online at www.nicolerollender.com.