Tectonics shift in the cupboard next to my head.
A new variable in the algebra of the room:
the NPR announcer’s voice, the gush of water
from the faucet, a crackle and a crash.
from al-jabr meaning “a reunion
of broken pieces”
My sister is a nurse. She tells me
hospitals are edifices of algebra.
Each bed contains
an equation to be solved.
All of my drinking glasses: why did they enter
my life only to unleash their algebra
one night in February? They are sketches
of tigers mid-leap. Still able to scratch.
The fragilest of problems to solve.
Funny to think through all of history, Pandora’s box winds up being an old cupboard
secretive as algebra, on my kitchen wall.
My husband is a custodian. He grabs a broom and dustpan
and begins to sweep. “You are fine,” he repeats.
I imagine gluing all those pieces back together,
tasting wine sipped from algebra.
Outside, algebra is the bulb of the traffic light
and the ventilator in the ambulance whizzing past.
It is the oak tree
smiling at the world it created.
My heart is a mathematician. It quickens,
nourished by the algebra
it drowns in. A-positive, B-negative. No,
I do not know my type.
The letters in algebra
are unknown variables.
The brackets under shelves
are unknown variables.
I prefer the washrag and plate in my hands
to any algebra underfoot:
the solidity of x
to the inferred question of y.
My brother is a welder,
soldering the algebra in metal
with a white-hot torch.
from variabilis meaning “likely to bend”
In algebra, “having no fixed value”
When the kitchen floor is clear of variables,
the internet supplies more drinking glasses.
My kitchen will contain an algebra equation
I finally understand.
There are two lies waiting after this poem. I am a prism,
each day’s light bends inside me, inverting
the things I see, like the man punching wads
of bulbous dough in the pizzeria next door.
The best pizza I’ve ever had was in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
My college friends forgot that the booths filled up
early on Thursday nights. I stood at the end and danced
with men who were just trying to get to the restroom.
Two sets of those friends will marry each other and later
one of the women, Jeannette, will sit at that same booth,
trying to wave away seventeen years with Lee. “Maybe
you should travel,” I will say. Strings of cheese stretching
From the sizzling pan between us to the slice on my plate.
“People used to travel out of state to divorce all the time.”
The day’s light will bend inside me like Jeannette’s sigh.
“Still the proper way to do it.” She will chew with her mouth open.
The amulet glowed violet. The planets and stars on my pointed hat swirled until they became a single comet chasing its own tail. The required words fell to the ground next to the ramekins of herbs that powered this spell. A giggle resounded in the room, bouncing off rafters, pinging down corridors toward the far reaches of the castle.
And then, outside, the animals rose into the air.
The sound was a rhythmic whooshing at first, like servants sweeping the courtyard outside a bedroom window, but it grew in intensity. Let them arrive on their own time. Let them enjoy the view of the trees from above and stretch their new wings as far as they could. Soldiers as important as these needed to gain confidence; they needed to experiment with weapons and find talents on their own.
Through the window, the first of them dotted the charcoal sky. What is the opposite of a shooting star? That was them. They wobbled in the night, some drooped, some soared. But they all heard the calling and joined their brothers and sisters in flight, and their growls thickened the air like fog.
In the valley, lights came on in the village. The miners and lumberman surely grumbled about the noise interrupting their precious sleep. There was work to be done in the morning, of course. Forests to raze; minerals to harvest. The terrible ways men occupied themselves these days. They would see in the morning, however, that tonight’s commotion was only the beginning.
In an hour’s time, hundreds of dark comets loomed above the town. Those that the spell affected early were accomplished flyers by now. It’s amazing what creatures can adapt to when they have no choice. They flew higher to spiral in down-draughts, swerving past the newest of the airborn.
The first of them finally alighted on the sill of the largest window of the castle. She was beautiful: thick white fur, coal black eyes lit with interest, the delicate mushroom of her nose. Her front paws bent in front of her awaiting instruction and her wings were two columns standing behind her like balustrades.
The wind carried a voice from the village through the window in that moment as if to announce her arrival.
“Bears with wings!”
More specimens flew into the room. They arrived in a myriad of colors—golden, tawny, roan, black. Each with intelligence glinting in their eyes. They did not greet each other; they just found their own space, sat, and patiently waited. Well, that’s not exactly true. Having never been in a human dwelling before, a few poked at the curtains and candelabras. One tried to guzzle wine from a decanter on the table.
When the rafters were full and there was no space left to sit on the floor, I showed them four drawings. The first was of a group of red flying bears picking up rocks and plugging up the mouths of mines. The second was of gray bears stealing cows and pigs from farmyards and placing them safely in open fields. In the third, the bears dumped the red water from the streams and rivers near the butcheries onto the town, and in the fourth, the bears lived happily on the earth and in the sky with humans to fetch their berries and honey.
The bears nodded, wings aflutter, and with a hurricane wind, they were gone.
The amulet, still in hand, beamed emerald instead of violet. There was nothing to do now but clean and wait for a better world.
I heard some scratching and clomping like one of the goats had wandered onto the front porch again. Setting down my knitting, I came outside ready to scold some lazy farm hand, but instead, I found a balled-up little girl, no more than eight, on the settee, pretending she was asleep. I hoped no neighbor had driven past and seen such filth at my door.
She wore a strange shirtwaist: white with blue sleeves attached. I said to her, I said, “You get on now, miss. I know how your kind work. I feed you and the next thing I know twenty of your kin come to my door a-begging. Us proper folk have rough times, too.”
The peculiar girl swept her fine hair from her face, and that’s when I noticed her skin. Right ugly, she was. Her face as blue as the china in my curio and shining bright, too, as if she’d swallowed a dozen torches. After glancing at me, she tucked her head back under her arm.
I stood over her a might longer, and when it was clear she was staying put, I trudged back through the house to fetch a broom. The girl was gone when I came back, though. A skein of green yarn lay where I’d found her. How’d she know I knit?
I searched the house, attic to cellar. I had Cal, the farmhand, rake through the hay in the barn. No sign of her. The rest of my day was spent looking out windows, searching for flashes of blue.
The next morning the girl was back on the porch. Seeing her there was like seeing a ghost.
I said to her, I said, “Thank you for the yarn, young’un,” and she nodded. Then she pointed to the flower bed next to the stoop. The soil showed dark against the rich greens and purples of the azaleas. Not a weed in sight. She held her hands out to me so I could see her chipped fingernails and scratched up fingers. She smiled something fierce and rubbed her belly.
“Well, come in, then,” I mumbled. What else could I have done? The little wretch was thin as a picket.
In the washroom, I poured water into a basin. The girl stared at it. “Go on,” I urged, and when she didn’t move, I said, “are you mute, girl?”
I washed and dried my own hands, then pointed at her. She mimicked my movements, giggling. It was good to hear the sound of a child in the house again. She giggled all the way to the kitchen, where I laid out some cornpone and a tomato. Its red contrasted the blue of her hand.
When we heard footsteps coming up the back stairs, the girl stopped laughing and her eyes widened.
I said to her, I said, “That’s just my farmhand bringing the corn I asked for. You know how to shuck?”
The girl growled and ran to a corner of the room. I could see her tangle of hair peeking above the counter of the hutch. The idea of fleas struck me.
The back door swung open and lanky Cal stood holding a basket.
“Morning, Widow McCrae. Found some right fine ears for you.”
“Thank you, Cal. Put them there.” I looked to the hutch. “Don’t be rude, little miss; say hello to Cal.”
Cal scanned the empty room, while I stepped closer to the hutch. The girl was gone. In her place lay clods of dirt and three of my good knives.
“Where’d she go?” I said, more to myself than to Cal.
“A little girl. Blue. Her skin is blue. I just fed her for doing work.”
Cal gave me a look you’d give a horse that crowed like a rooster. “I’ll check the yard,” he said, scratching his forehead.
Alone in the house again, I noticed the shadows in the room, hiding under the icebox, crouched in the pantry. How did that girl keep jumping in and out without so much as a squeak? I thought as I washed the knives she’d stole and put them back in their drawer. Crumbs still dotted the table, but I had eaten some myself before I found her. My silverware, my china, the envelope of money Louis left me in his will, nothing else was missing, but when I stepped onto the porch a message greeted me.
Green yarn spelled out WILL RETURN in cursive letters across the rug.
When I was 5, I had a long night. I slept through
a fire alarm a whole day Christmas night. I wandered
out of the way to get a hundred years old. Angry,
my mother is a little more than I can afford to pay
for a new job. My father went well as I’d hoped,
and I had to be left
I followed my friends to the show today
but I didn’t want you to be there. Enjoy this game
but it’s hard not to love the original. I hope I can make it
better because I’m not sure I know what I want to be. At midnight,
the moon and I was thinking it would be terrible but it wasn’t
the worst I was just thinking of the night and if it doesn’t work
I will still have the same thing I just thought it would be terrible
but it wasn’t the only thing that you have
Wolves and bats have been there for years and now
they are all about the same way. An owl and I have been pondering
how important is it for us to actually eat food from our land
In the morning? Will try once more to seize that near happy,
tired of thieving my day!
This is a collaborative effort by the Fun With Words class. Each participant used predictive text to finish a prompt I gave them as an exercise on using surprising language.
Can I be your quicksilver—that slick Forever,
that satiny poison you long to have near
but are too afraid to taste?
(Even the shadows under your feet radiate)
And may the line you walk
between the steel pillars of this city,
the threads you lay on gum-speckled sidewalks,
down regretful subway tracks, and over the rocking
boats docked in their places in this universe
be my orbit as well?
(You contain an asteroid cloud; you contain the Sun.)
And if you whisper Yes, Nathan, of course—
do I become comet or moon? Ignited or cratered?
Zooming or quietly watching in the dark
(such sweet poison) the glaciers of our understanding
expand and contract, the oceans swallow and rebuild islands,
the storms spiral and pummel and disintegrate and reemerge
across the geography of Years
Writing for YeahWrite #356. The prompt was using the words radiant, expand, and orbit. Click the badge above for more fantastic poetry and stories.
I am unlocked. I paint the ‘closet’ red so there will be no doubt, braid six wreaths weekly—one for each wife, each murder. Still, his specter looms in the wallpaper, the coatstand. Six candles flicker in the darkening room; I whisper to them nightly, thank you, thank you.