When softening earth gives up its icy shell
Before spring buds blot out the soil,
I can count the graves below my window.
The smooth unmarked stones sink
further with every passing season
into indifferent dirt.
Scattered, patternless—so it seems.
My small hands plunged into hollows,
Filled them them up with feathered corpses,
Weightless bundles of bones and matted down.
I learned to winnow life down to its rock
Marker, sixteen of them, to be exact.
A girl I once knew named all her stuffed animals.
Each one in the pile beside her bed
Possessed an identity that could not be forgotten.
In the yard next door, I named the chickens—
Monte Cristo, quiet roster with silver streaks
And an iridescent tail;
Siny, fighting tireless battles with shoes;
Heather, perched on shoulders, beak shoved
Into your hair.
I scorned the neighbor girl’s stuffed animals.
For all her naming and make-believe,
They were not living, breathing beings
Who scratched in the dirt, ate from your palm.
Yet something that never breathed can’t stop;
Only the imaginary lacks an expiration date.
Someone forgot to tell me
Living doesn’t last.
The neighbor girl never screamed at hawks,
Held a peeping chick with a leg split in two.
Never crawled under sheds to unearth
Small, careworn bodies,
Or followed a trail of blood-stained feathers.
Never listened to rattling breath sputter to silence.
Never picked up fragments of egg shell
With a wet, still, body curled up inside,
Dead before it lived.
A year ago
I found the neighbor girl’s stuffed animals
In a box beside her driveway.
I held a plush purple elephant in my hands
And wondered how it felt
To choose what is lost.
Fading evening light gleams through trees,
Glides through fence slats,
And dances on sixteen stones.
In the center of the garden amid the hydrangeas,
I kneel in the dirt, plunge my hands into the earth,
And dig another hole.