By Elizabeth McClellan Rhysling Award Nominee “Long Poem”
What would have been my right hand—
delicate fingers discolored a bit,
a ghost of a ring, a seam at the wrist—
belonged to Miss Clark, believed drowned
in Cumberland lakes, her father to never recover.
He buried an empty coffin, sent her infant hair
for a mourning locket: a jet deaths-head, not dead but asleep carved
(a scrollwork lie) around the skull motif.
It gleams dully, part of an uncatalogued collection
willed to Matterdale Church
years ago and forgotten.
Sarah Clark drowned, true—
and the resurrectionists cheered their good fortune.
A healthy profit—
that right hand, her liver, the still-flexible joints of her knees,
the virgin center between her thighs alone
worth a gold guinea.
Victor took only pieces of the small-framed, the slight—
bits of bird-boned girls compared in life to sparrows.
He would not build a second giant to terrorize the race of men.
I never had Sarah’s face—heavy with
Ulswater, fed upon by turtles and swimming things, deemed unfit
for scientific use. Numbered pages, labeled samples,
but no flesh both nibbled and rotten,
however often he scrawled “filth” and “dread”
jaggedly in rigid margins. Lily lost her left hand, both feet,
a graceful neck. Hannah, unlucky girl, will rise someday
to meet her Maker with no head. He chose her
for the port wine stain that spilled from eye to chin, a flaw
made by nature, harmless to his results.
Pity the syndic’s son, growing morbid in his seaside charnel house.
Sea-salt cleanses, but cannot remove the stink
of furtive purchases from men who reek of gin,
churchyard loam and profiteering, flecks of skin
caught carelessly as soap-slivers under nails,
dead girls’ names
hawked like penny dreadfuls.
The resurrectionists reach conclusions,
mutter darkly about perversion and nature spurned, and bring
a new corpse every night. Their pockets jingle with wedding rings,
black brooches inlaid with amber, coins that lately adorned
the eyes of classicists suspicious of the life everlasting.
Virgin, high-breasted—he knew a bride’s cast, even
this Eve who never met the serpent, Cain-marked before I drew breath.
What would have been my body
jerked under current, Sarah’s fingers spasming, rhythmic,
grasping at life again, Lily’s lovely neck stiffening, arching.
Hannah’s mouth pulled slack as a frog’s. I remember he wept.
I remember not one body, but ten, or twelve, superimposed.
Phantom limbs, partly revived, dream of phantom wholes.
The souls toss and turn, seeking to occupy the same space
on the slab, while outside the waves clamor for the return
of Matilda’s breasts, Letitia’s thigh bones, Sarah’s knees.
Victor wept at the sound, and fled, always leaving me half-made.
So Adam found me—too tall for the hovel door, squatting and peering:
at my naked, dismembered specimen. If he found me disgusting,
unworthy, a grotesquerie, he did not say.
I could not turn my head to read his face.
Lust mingled with despair has its own stink: sweet like
formaldehyde, bitter and sharp as urine. Victor, more Pygmalion
than Prometheus now, shuddered when the sea-breeze
stiffened my nipples,
even as he jotted his observation of this curious effect.
The rondure of my belly, stolen from a deaf-mute
never baptized, was the horizon silhouetting an army of devils yet unborn.
One cannot trust the female of the species to keep compacts made
by the male, to leave civilization at peace, to accept exile in a country
of endless light, a cave of verdant greenery, a bed of leaves
and diet of berries. I would have been happy with an Eden
carved out in another land, too remote to further trouble
Victor’s dreams. I think I would have been happy.
The stone beach ran with congealed blood, infused with salt water,
the screams indistinguishable, pack-howls hurled at the moon.
I had no voice to cry out, even before he dashed poor Hannah’s head,
ripped from Lily’s neck, against a rock until it ceased to breathe.
Sarah’s nails clung to algae, found no purchase, sank. The other hand?
Crushed under Victor’s boot like a scuttling crab as it scrabbled to flee.
What safety it sought no one can know. The same coins that bought
our body purchased driftwood, lamp oil, and inattention;
the promontory blazed bright, then stank of spoiled pork for weeks.
A child brought its mother a shell the next season,
a curiously polished, smooth thing, plucked from Thorso harbor.
Thus the smallest toe of our left foot gathers dust still,
among a collection of beads and stones, in a china bowl
kept in the curio handed down from great-grandmother.
This is the interchange of kindness, the wages of commerce with monsters:
a shiny bone, blackened meat, nothing left
to rise again.
More from Elizabeth McClellan:
Elizabeth McClellan is a second-year student and law review member at the University of Memphis’ Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law. When not pondering the implications of legal personhood for artificial intelligences, the failure of state statutes to provide adequate due process in pre-judgment attachment, or the arcane mysteries contained within the Bluebook, she writes strange poetry, weird fiction, and the occasional arch letter to the editor of her hometown newspaper. To learn what rights and duties should accrue to a conscious computer, where to see the monster girls dance the Tarantella, or how the nymphs of Law tend groves of treaties and treatises to ensure the fullest flourishing of their forests despite the depredations of the lumbering Hornbook, visit lizbet.org.