Sometimes I dream you’re one of those Florida
mermaids in highway towns, slipping your legs
into a green iridescent tail. You kick past coral
reefs built from scaffolding, pearly conch shells
hiding the metal. You swim behind plate glass
and sneak hits of underwater air.
This is the breath you’ve been missing, Maggie,
this is the salt you wanted on your skin.
You know I imagined my daughter swimming
before she was born, and I saw the pictures,
her pretty limbs
tucked like petals over her body. Still, she’d have
sunk beneath her bath if I’d let her, lullabied
by her own memory of water. But I knew how
to keep her safe, if only in that one way. We say
we can’t believe you left again, but the truth is,
you never really came back. So I dream you
behind glass, behind silk curtains
like the sails of some expensive boat. I dream you
with the sort of fins that let you touch
down on the tank’s sandy bottom
as if you’re landing on the moon. In the last act
you’ll swim with minnows silver as spoons
and you’ll push toward the surface, looking up
at the sky. Outside the tank: palm trees, plastic
flamingos, a half-translucent sun. And you,
head above the pool, hair dripping, telling me
you always knew how to breathe underwater.
They say magic doesn’t come free,
and you’re beginning to believe it,
every day brushing glitter
out of your hair. You wanted to wake
when they said you wouldn’t, wanted to see
salt-white ceiling-sky every April morning.
Now that you’re back you can smile
and let the smallest birds
sew you clothes, weave plastic twine,
bright bits of foil into your hair
as they do to their nests.
This world isn’t the way you left it—
it’s all cigarette ash and museum hush—
and you’ve come home with the props
from other lives: eggshells and narcissus petals,
the occasional piece of fruit. But you can
leave behind the pomegranate juice, the scarlet
curve of Fuji apples. The stuff of other girls’ ruin.
Forget whatever shattered heels
you ground down into the dirt.
But know your limbs will always be heavy
with sleep. You’ll spell siesta, hum
slumber. Your mouth full of rose
petals, your eyes wide as stars.
Sometime in the night you’ll whisper,
Briar, briar, take me back.
Demeter Takes A Walk
There was a time when she let things die.
They hadn’t known how, before, and so
she taught them: bent the snapdragons
toward the earth with her own fingers,
shriveled their petals to brown. Parched leaves
rattled on the trees, a loose new sound,
another job for gravity. Her girl was gone,
but no one listened. They were too distracted.
Women wandered aimlessly, carrying
withered grapevines, baskets of rotten fruit.
The knockout roses held on for as long
as they could, but now they were only
stem and thorn, red globes of rosehip
spiked with vellum. Now, she knows something
small enough to fit in your palm
can let them keep you: juice-jeweled,
scarlet, fizzing with the shock of being
gone. Every footprint you left
rises in the field, and ghosts
are the only ones who don’t have
to worry about spring.
The years are a starry
river, too deep
and bright to cross.
Some stories I have
to make up: your first
girl and her blood
spinning to rubies,
beautiful and useless.
Bad fairy singing
songs into her
seashell ear, wolf-
on her window.
These stories come
untrue when we tell
as words unspool
from our tongues.
I dream you winding
thread around your
fingers, pushing it
to the bottom of a
zippered pocket. I wake up
and check every coat.
Janet McNally won the 2014 White Pine Press Poetry Prize, and her collection, Some Girls, will be published in the fall of 2015. She has an MFA from Notre Dame and was a New York Foundation for the Arts fellow in fiction. She teaches creative writing at Canisius College.