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Rachel Lake

Intensive care unit

In the eyes of blue jays, the muddled sheen of dirty windows becomes something to beat against—a crooked blue neck, splintered beak. I open my mouth, and feathers sputter out: dry blue plumes from a dry blue throat. This body, like a plucked bird, hung by a nylon line to drain.

There’s a snake pregnant between the wooden planks of our roost. It watches the birds’ toes curl in their sleep, hears scratching within its belly. Dumb birds made dumber by a smeared hospital window, a serpent—where’s the divine in it? The doctor clucks again, fingers through his bible for something familiar: Like a sparrow in its flitting, like a swallow in its flying…

Tell me dying is flattery. String red feathers in all the bluest parts of this body. Make these toes curl, oh god, touch your fingers to my blue and gaping throat.

When they forget death is animal

—La corrida de toros and my brother
on the opposite side of the bars, a picture
to prove how close death can be, heaving,
blood dripping from nostrils, black
between shoulders splashing redder onto dust.
My brother looks so much paler with hair
less crimson, not gold, more like the yellow
slick substance in the center of joints, something sticky,
possibly weeping—but the bull is colorblind
and knows none of this when el torero stabs
steel into the great bull’s heart (does he know
his sister, the first in a red field?) and eventually, he falls
and falls, and the men sweep the dirt and meat
to make jewels from gore, cut to shine,
hold pieces of bull to their temples and listen—

Browns Mills, NJ

This is not the house where my brother almost shot himself but missed. The crumbling hole in drywall hasn’t committed itself to the top of the staircase that leads into the basement, which stoops like a dislocated shoulder. This place is old, but in a different way, like a stained hand-me-down sweater. There is no well here, and the faucet doesn’t smell like eggs, but there is a dirt road, even now, after I’ve come back to clean the house one last time. There is dog piss on the walls, poison ivy in sly trails beneath the bishop’s weed and woodruff, and the trees opposite the house are filled with gypsy moth caterpillars.

I remember as a child raiding the caterpillars’ white-knit nests and letting their small, flax-furred bodies envelop my hand like bark until I couldn’t stand the itch—their thousand legs—and I dropped them. My mother had told me about the caterpillars: pests that will strip a forest of its leaves and then move on, dangling by threads on the wind into the next patch of oak or aspen. When they crawl across the ground in front of me, I lift my heel, then stop. The proportion feels cruel, the orange diamonds on their backs too perfectly aligned. I don’t have the nerve.

Years ago, my brother flew out the front door of this house and into the woods. His father swung after him, cuffed the doorjamb with the side of his hand. Thrown across the grass and shaking, my brother covered his face and cried. This is the nerve I don’t have: I can’t stop it. I can’t look away.

➥ Bio