Emma Cairns Watson
The house at the edge of the world
A housekeeper came to the edge of the world and knocked
on the door of the house that was there, and a woman answered
unquiet children at her elbows and said, Thank Heavens, I’ve been hoping,
Please, please come in.
The playroom’s a mess, the woman said, even though we’ve been expecting you
and meant to clean it, but you could start there. She told the children to pick up their toys
but the children stood like pictures, blue eyes licorice-thin, licorice-hard, and so the woman
broadcast a helpless smile at the housekeeper, and wandered through some silent door away.
The playroom was a mess; she started there. Organization was as yet unthought of
in the house at the edge of the world, but she did her best, and all she did
the children watched, statues that seemed once or twice to breathe, unless it was
only an inaudible trick of the strange flat light that stopped at the windows.
An hour later she was sure there was no kitchen to be found; that, at least, was a relief.
They did not set much store by hot food at the edge of the world.
She climbed the stairs on her knees, polishing every palewood step gold with her poisonous rinse
and behind her the children crowded, enchanted by chemicals.
It was very cold in the house at the edge of the world.
On the doors to the rooms on the upstairs landing there were notes from the children, cursive
Please don’t move my toys I’ll cry they said and thank you, like she was meant to pity
children in the house at the edge of the world.
At that the woman opened the door she was reading and smiled in prologue and said,
Please don’t go into my bathroom when you come to it; you’ll know it by the blue door,
I’m very private and I can do that bit myself. And the housekeeper thought
I have not the courage nor the brothers to be the seventh wife.
There was a better view up there; she scrubbed out the children’s enamel baths with bleach
then grew distracted, rubbing the cold fogs from the glass with numb fingertips
to see what the view was like at the edge of the world.
It was an edge and not an island; she had driven her brother’s car
from the city that morning to get here, so she could not understand
how she could see the gray toss of ocean and nothing but from every window.
There were black hairs on the floor of the house at the end of the world
even though the children who lived there had hair of miller’s daughter gold.
She came to the bathroom with the blue door
and passed on quietly. For her sake or theirs, she looked for a black dog but found none.
She cleaned the children’s rooms, left their toys untouched,
the woman’s study, the woman’s closet, skeletonless,
thought to tap for hollownesses, and thought again.
There were mirrors on every side that needed cleaning, just of dust.
She looked at herself in those mirrors, she could not help it,
and was distracted for just a moment, pleased by how smooth her skin seemed in the
processed cloudlight at the edge of the world.
There was an attic no one had told her not to enter, and so she climbed up through the trapdoor
in pretended search of dust, with her force of cool cloths.
Up there she found the things she was looking for,
the things no longer needed in the house at the edge of the world.
She spent a while looking, then turned away.
At the edge of the world it rained very hard indeed, so that out of the attic window
she saw her brother’s silver station wagon spun by the flood, and carried off the edge.
She climbed back down, out of the attic, out of the inextricable mass of curious children,
and went and found the owner of the house at the end of the world.
But Don’t worry, was all the woman said
or would say, you are welcome here, you are so wonderful
with all the children.
The man’s last moments by the mermaid
All the women I knew will shake their heads
to hear of it. When this yacht washes up tagged derelict
shedding debris like a wood dog, Marlboros on the shoal
and shattered gin and tonic on the rocks, they will imply
they always knew that it would come, for me, to this.
No trade wind ever turned me from that course.
But she: the one singing to me – Te Deum, Syrenii
my softest blasphemy! Nunc dimittis–
now dismiss me to my death, for I have heard my own salvation.
There it flashed, in the arpeggios of her canticles: those scales staggering
my hearing and my blinded eyes at end of evening, evensong
in indigo, sacrilege in cartilage
entering and abandoning like tide the beach of my barren ear.
She smiled then. Her ancestors had no jaws. But
my lady lamprey smiled, her eyes entire aquaria, enacting
ichthyologic ingénue for an audience of one.
When she smiled her operculum gapped. How then
could I have been deceived? Her sisters: gulper, spine-and-bonyfish
and yet when I saw the brine breaching her, breathed by her
I wanted to be brine.
I watched her as she reached up both hands to me.
Along her pharynx of ivory, pink gills blushed at the presumption.
Her hands were cold. A girl with metabolism
as economical as herself, no wonder she rockbasks;
needs a summer-blooded man.
Some dangerous and ancient yellow day,
Helen swam naked in the sea, and was perceived.
From that gloom-white body and the
mouthwatering men that begged her back ashore
bloomed the rich moss of this aggressive mimicry: her floating hair golden
orb weaver-false, her dark shining eyespots
so like a woman’s. The Mexican Milk
of the girls that I have loved on land is mocked,
meliorated by the thalassic Texas Coral at my throat.
She looks as much a flower as any opalescent
orchid mantis, my ocean lotus awaiting
not pollination, pollinators.
And this is what women do not understand: we understand,
what it will come to in the end, we men who give ourselves to mermaids.
There has been long debate regarding baptism, but I would hold
that complete immersion is the only way. And if that does not work,
of course, there is, between the maxilla and mandible at some later,
darker moment, baptism by blood: the kingdom of heaven beneath the lowered crowns
of her gleaming teeth. Those incised roots travel like a drowning man
down, and down, into the dark meat-rich body
of the ocean, one breast-pocket cigarette and nothing else still moving
upon the face of the waters.