winner of the 46er Prize
Birth is my mother’s original sin. Her body the first home I left in a flurry of blood.
Exodus from the kingdom of the only God I knew. The womb is not Eden. Or, maybe it is.
A garden of dark and buried things. At night I squat in a field behind my childhood home.
Dirt lining the crescent moon of my nails. I rock on my heels, a howl slipping from my wolf’s
throat. In this moment and every one that follows, more feral than girl, speaking finally,
in the first testimony of woman. I call the animal that rips through me by my own name,
In the morning I am first to rise. My mother sleeps in the next room, henna dyed hair, crown
of berries in the morning’s seeing light. There is blood on my sheets, milk leaking from
the mouth between my thighs. It is hard to know the difference between this dream girl bleating
and insistent as memory and smoke, and the girl I lug into the doorway of every darkening
room. It is hard to know the difference between what happens upon her body and what happens
upon mine brazen as a clap of thunder. Both of us strangers here and everywhere else.
Daughter forgive me I say into every mirror shadowed by the twin of me. Like the women
before me I only wanted to grow a country in my womb.
Call it superstition, or an old wife’s tale, or a lesson learned
the hard way. The mothers I know don’t let their children out
after dusk, going out to retrieve them like shiny coins or a wild flock,
during that brief buffer before the hardening of night, when time slows
as if suspended in liquid.
Late afternoons in the days of my childhood mama hollered for
my sisters and me until we came running from the games we played
with the neighborhood kids. All of us dark skinned and laughing
like our parents always meant to raise us in this country.
A storm of girls picking up speed as mama’s voice grew impatient,
blowing into the house before the sky became a squid ink ocean,
outrunning what she feared but never named.
Mama would draw the blinds to keep out what would find
its way in, insistent as smoke or memory.
In the bedtime stories she told us all the women were wild
and dangerous, wicked and scheming. Tell us one more! we begged, oh!
the days of our innocent greed.
In one story an old woman standing at the side of the road asks
for directions only to steal a poor boy’s kidneys.
In another an ugly witch is beautiful under the moon’s milk light.
She lures unsuspecting men to their deaths with the promise of love.
In folklore we are unforgivable, all sharp teeth and round apple mouths.
The witches in these stories followed us into our dreams, spectral women
who looked just like us. We would cry our mother’s name into the room’s
quiet mouth, grateful each time she appeared, body slowed by sleep,
but wearing a face we knew.
She kissed our foreheads and told us not to fear the dark.
I do not blame her for misunderstanding what we did not yet know how to say.
We grew up like all girls in this country grow up watching our fathers talk
over our mothers. Our girl voices reedy unsure evaporating in the light.
Fluent in our mothers’ peculiar alchemy, each time we died we came back to life.
Stepping out of our corpses and into new skins. Wet and pink, gasping for breath and memory.
In every house there is a daughter who has learned the words to the most ancient story.
In every house there is a daughter who knows what women know.
The wounded animal of her mouth, panting and panting and panting and panting,
her rage sharp and blooming as her hunger.
JAMILA OSMAN is a poet and educator from Portland, Oregon.