Katabasis

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The place smelled like rust,
from pipes overhead.
It was hell when you got that scent
up your nose, when the smell
settled in your mouth.

There were no locks on the door,
so anyone could enter, all.
Old paper boxes, clumped newspaper
grew mildew and something else,
something noisome
that clung to our hair
for days after.

Fungus grew, black and green,
in my lungs after a night
underground. It creeped, thrived.
It grew soft hyphae
that snaked through my veins,
rooted, and then threaded-out
through my pores
like hair
that I’d need to shave soon.

It was a nighttime place.
Our elbows touched nervous in the dark,
sharp on rough.
We whispered sleepy apologies.
Our skin was cold and sticky
beneath cheap cotton, polyester blends,
the thrown-together
bedclothes from the dollar store.

We hoped no one would
cut us out of them
before night’s end.
We wore clean underwear
and dressed for death, like always.

There was static on a battery radio
that  squelched some bad reception,
AM some tinny country twang
about whippoorwills and liquor.
Men and women.
Plastic flashlights twisted out dark;
the batteries inside were ancient and coated
with a greenish sheen.

The old women flapped their hands,
panicked. They talked,
but I listened to my heartbeat
like the sound outside
that was like a train, always like a train.
They said it sounded like a train.

It was a joke—depending
on how it was said, who said it.
It was stupid, repeated,
repeated until it had no meaning.
We had ridicule ready for ourselves
before anyone else had the chance.

My teeth ached during lightning flashes.
We counted thunder claps each storm.
Static felt like chewing tin foil,
while we waited for the rumble,
waited for the flashes
to charge the air to spark.

Each spring, the sky ripped-open
and sprouted dark, whipping tails.
We ran under the eerie calm,
inside the spinning air.
We squinted against the slap, the prickle
of sideways rain and licked our lips,
tasted the iron in what fell
and sought crowded shelter
from the killing storm.

Seining

“My mother is a fish.”
-William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

I seined the Luxapalila for bait
with my father
each May. We netted frantic, silver minnows
and scooped them into buckets
by the dozens.

I liked to stick my hands
into the mass of life.
I liked to feel the cool, slick jump
of the tiny fish,
their firm flesh struggling
against the moment. Their mouths
opened and closed, opened
shocked at the big god of death
with blonde hair, a sunburn,
and dark eyes.

I liked the sharp prick of those fins.
Sometimes.
I liked the needle points of blood
that turned the water pink around my fingers.

Harvest, nightfall,
we dumped survivors into coolers
alongside cups of fat liver
that smelled like iron,
alongside red worms with no faces,
alongside catalpa worms
that were curled brown
but still oozing green
onto everything.

Surreptitious grabs, I’d snatch
a few here and there when he wasn’t looking
to play savior, let them loose again
and watch them swim away.
My father’d yell some shame, and then
we’d lift  the net using thick branches we’d cut
straight, or close enough. They’d serve
until one snapped
into two,
and I prayed it wouldn’t be mine.

Snakeheads broke the water sometimes
but usually later in the day.
They surfaced
and trailed tension triangles.
We froze to let them pass,
with only an inch or two between
our bodies and the watery wriggle.

If the light allowed,
if the cooler was full,
we walked to the lake
and hooked food with food,
played at luck and patience.
We always seemed to have one or two bodies
to cut and bleed for dinner those nights.

My mother joined us
on the river
the last summer she was alive.
She talked too much,
took up too much space. Lost
her breath and caught dark looks
from the old man holding his pole.
She looked to me, then,
in some kind of conspiracy. A game,
but he was still mad at her
for dying. And so was I.

She smelled like medicine
and covered her bald head with cloth
so that it wouldn’t burn
and peel-away.

I remember the catfish she caught
near nightfall—
a monster of a thing with whiskers,
full of spikes,
covered in hooked scars.

She lifted it up, a victory,
huffed breath she barely had,
lifted it up for the picture. And it
barely moved, resigned I thought,
or maybe biding time.
But then
she let me squat at the edge
and let it loose, let it go
after all
back down below to wait
for another hook, a net,
or some other kind of mercy.