I have always hated the scent of dried eucalyptus (I simply cannot breathe around it) though I love its leathery leaves, its dusty color, the mere sound of its name . . . yoo-kuh-lip-tuhs. I love the idea of it. It’s exotic and tropical origins. Australia. New Guinea. Antigua, where it was introduced to bring economic relief to a poverty stricken island. It’s private associations I despise. Death and antiseptic. The home of my childhood neighbor (I think I am seven) is heavily scented with the medicinal and pungent odor of eucalyptus. Hanging on the wall in the hallway of this home on Marigold Drive is a photo of a dead girl lying in an open coffin. I don’t believe I have ever seen a dead person (I am only seven). I know I have never seen a photo of a dead person. I have no idea why she’s hanging there, in the silver frame, this dead girl, dressed in, what looks like, a first communion dress, though I am not, at the time, myself Catholic. I only know that it is difficult to breathe. The eucalyptus. The dead girl. The coffin in the hallway. My friend who lives here—what is her name—is it Carolyn?—she has a habit of frequently changing her clothes. She cannot bear imperfection. A speck of ketchup. A fleck of mustard. Off it goes. She changes her attire often. I’m not sure how she can afford so much clothing (I’m a bit poverty stricken myself). I’m not sure why there’s a picture of a coffin hanging outside her bedroom door. It’s impossible to breathe here, in this small black and white hallway. The dead girl. The coffin. The eucalyptus. Carolyn and her constantly evolving attire. Sweet Jesus. Have mercy on me (I am only seven).
When I was very young, I pricked my finger on a thorn. I thought the bleeding would never stop. It dripped endlessly down the front of my beautiful white eyelet dress. By the time my blood had, in fact, congealed, I was pale and inert, lifeless. But the pain had left. One evening long ago, I was in the bathroom getting ready to go out to a performance at the theatre. I remember that I was wearing my favorite sweater, the black one with the low V back. (Why did I ever part with it?) My husband happened to be in the bathroom as well. He was standing at the sink brushing his teeth. (I have no idea what he was wearing, if anything.) I reach down into the cabinet beneath the sink for my curling iron, contemplate praying to the angel of voluptuous curls. I’m inspecting the hair on my husband’s right leg while simultaneously visualizing my route to the play, the face of the clock showing my exact time of departure. Suddenly I think: My God, who are you? You know how when you look at a word for too long and it becomes strangely incoherent? This wasn’t like that at all. I had only been looking at that leg for a flash of an instant. Not nearly enough time for it to become babble. Perhaps the individual moments had all added up, each distinct instance of seeing that very spot between calf and ankle over the course of seven years had combined, like an accordion pleat of paper dolls neatly folded. I wonder how many times I had seen it, in all the apartments we had lived in across Jefferson County. In bathrooms, bedrooms, kitchens. Sometimes even now I wonder if, perhaps on some similarly innocuous occasion, he has had the same sudden and unexpected violent thought about me. My husband has never bought me roses. Not once. Not even when I was in the hospital giving birth to his child.
Once I was young and loved a boy. He gave me a tree. A Catalpa with large heart-shaped leaves. It’s trunk was enormous. And in May, it blossomed like the bower of a luminous but mysterious fairy. In August, perhaps September, or October, it would swell with the long pods of beans. Seeds for its continued existence. Finally its leaves would turn a dull gold, then brown. Sort of a tarnished version of King Midas, or rather his touch (which often was awkward). Its leaves would fall, along with the pods, and the tree would become dormant, sleeping through winter until spring, when the cycle would begin again, renewed. The boy would meet me beneath this tree each night before I went to sleep. He would sing to me and read from his favorite books. Tell me about Alice, I would say. The White Rabbit and the Mad Hatter. Tell me about the Queen of Hearts. On special days of celebration he would shower me with blossoms, pods, sometimes merely leaves, depending on the season. He promised to be with me always. Tell me about the panting horses with the long tangled manes. The boy went away. No warning. Tell me about the wild barley and the winter wheat. He left me with a tree, infested with worms. The Catalpa Sphinx Moth. Once I was young. Then I put away childish things. The Catalpa. And its tender heart-shaped leaves.
Elegy (Double Orchid)
Little poem was very sad. Recently, he had lost his mother, so he was an orphan again, for long ago he had lost his father, and though he had not really loved his father, and his father had not loved him, it was a loss nonetheless and the death of possibility. Lately, the deaths in his family had seemed to pile up, one right after another, so he spent his days composing odes to limousines and black umbrellas. He collected corkscrew willow from funeral flowers. He perfected the art of the obituary. He became intimately familiar with funeral hymns and began to think and move in the same rhythm. He mourned. And grieved. And lamented. Still. The death certificates kept arriving. He couldn’t quite distinguish for whom he was mourning, for his sadness collected with that of his neighbors (who were reminded of their own lost loved ones) and all the suffering of the world combined, creating one teardrop large as the Cross at Calvary. The weight of this tear kept tugging him under. He didn’t know what to do (he was an orphan), so he prayed. Then he cut the suffering loose (like a double orchid) (snip, snip) and placed it in water.
Teardrop, Razorblade, and Candle
A teardrop’s time in this life is brief, but one day, one fell from the corner of the saddest blue eye and landed on the side of a bathtub. Immediately it began to think. Have you ever thought so hard that you feared someone could hear you? Well, this tear did just that, and what it thought was this: Am I a child of joy or a child of sorrow? A nearby candle answered, for it was warm with the dripping of liquid wax and wished to be kind. "Sorrow. You can count on it.” “How can you be sure?” asked Teardrop. “Because joy lacks gravity. It evaporates quickly. Whereas sorrow, well, sorrow accumulates, producing weight, duration.” “What then is to be my destiny?” wondered Teardrop? A razorblade at the other end of the tub spoke up: “Come down here and we can discuss it.” Razorblade’s steely voice was anything but seductive, but Teardrop began to lose its footing, for you see, the ground the house was built on was not level, the bathtub sloped downward, and water, as we all know, travels the path of least resistance. Teardrop grew afraid, for although Razorblade was made of stainless steel, there appeared to be a dot of blood lingering there between its teeth. Candle, its flame brightening, encouraged Teardrop to resist its downward inclination. Soon Teardrop warmed and rose upward. Then Candle was blown out, Razorblade was rinsed, and Teardrop no longer had time, or reason, to think about destiny.
Nettie Farris lives in Floyds Knobs, Indiana. She has recent poems online at Slow Trains and The Single Hound. Her academic paper on composition pedagogy, “Just Thinking about Emma Livry: A Meditation on Composition Pedagogy in Motion” is forthcoming from Journal of Kentucky Studies.