the name of a fish :: faith shearin

If winter is a house then summer is a window
in the bedroom of that house. Sorrow is a river
behind the house and happiness is the name

of a fish who swims downstream. The unborn child
who plays the fragrant garden is named Mavis:
her red hair is made of future and her sleek feet

are wet with dreams. The cat who naps
in the bedroom has his paws in the sun of summer
and his tail in the moonlight of change. You and I

spend years walking up and down the dusty stairs
of the house. Sometimes we stand in the bedroom
and the cat walks towards us like a message.

Sometimes we pick dandelions from the garden
and watch the white heads blow open
in our hands. We are learning to fish in the river

of sorrow; we are undressing for a swim.

smoke :: faith shearin

It was everywhere in my childhood: in restaurants,
on buses or planes. The teacher’s lounge looked like
London under fog. My grandmother never stopped

smoking, and walking in her house was like diving
in a dark pond. Adults were dimly lit: they carried
matches in their pockets as if they might need fire

to see. Cigarette machines inhaled quarters and
exhaled rectangles. Women had their own brands,
long and thin; one was named Eve and it was meant

to be smoked in a garden thick with summer flowers.
I’m speaking of moods: an old country store where
my grandfather met friends and everyone spoke

behind a veil of smoke. (My Uncle Bill preferred
fragrant cigars; I can still smell his postal jacket …)
He had time to tell stories because he took breaks

and there was something to do with his hands.
My mother’s bridge club gathered around tables
with ashtrays and secrets which are best revealed

beside fire. Even the fireplaces are gone: inefficient
and messy. We are healthier now and safer! We have
exercise and tests for breast or colon cancer. We have

helmets and car seats and smokeless coffee shops
where coffee has grown frothy and complex. The old
movies are so full of smoke that actors are hard to see

and they are often wrapped in smoking jackets, bent
over a piano or kiss. I miss the places smoke created.
I like the way people sat down for rest or pleasure

and spoke to other people, not phones, and the tiny fire
which is crimson and primitive and warm. How long
ago when humans found this spark of warmth and made

their first circle? What about smoke as words? Or the
pipes of peace? In grade school we learned how it rises
and how it can kill. We were taught to shove towels

under our closed doors: to stop, drop, and roll. We had
a plan to meet our family in the yard, the house behind
us alive with all we cannot put out…

the fox :: faith shearin

It was an ordinary morning: November, thin light,
and we paused over our pancakes to watch
something red move outside. Our house is on

an untamed patch of land and, across the lagoon,
another house surrounded by trees. On the banks
of their shore, facing us: a fox. We thought

he might be a dog at first for he trotted and sniffed
like a dog but when he turned to us
we knew he was nobody’s pet. His face was arranged

like a child’s face — playful, dainty — and his eyes
were liquid and wild. He stood for awhile, looking out,
as if he could see us in our pajamas, then found

a patch of sand beneath a tree and turned himself
into a circle of fur: his head tucked into his tail.
It was awful to watch him sleep: exposed,

tiny, his eyes closed. How can any animal
be safe enough to rest? But while I washed
our dishes he woke again, yawned, and ran

away to the places only foxes know. My God
I was tired of being a person. Even now his tail
gestures to me across the disapproving lagoon.

possum in the garbage :: faith shearin

He was a surprise of white: his teeth
like knives, his face a triangle
of albino dislike. I had seen him before,

on our back porch, where my father
sometimes left watermelon rinds,
and he dipped his tongue into them,

his skin glowing beneath our lights,
like some four-legged relative
of the moon. I knew him
as a citizen of the night:

a fainting, ghostly presence
with a tail so naked it was
embarrassed to drag behind him.

But that morning, terrified and violent,
he was different: a hissing fury
at the bottom of the garbage can,
a vampire bathed in light.

storage :: faith shearin

That year we left the house we couldn’t afford and put
our belongings in storage. We were free now
to travel or live in tiny spaces. We kept our chairs

and tables in a cement cell, our bookshelves,
our daughter’s old toys, clothes we wouldn’t wear
or discard. There were books we liked but did not

need and mattresses and pots and pans. Sometimes
we went to visit our things: sat in our rocking chairs,
searched for a jacket, listened to an old radio. It was like

visiting someone I loved in a hospital: the way, removed
from the world, a person or object becomes thin,
diminished. The furniture on which we lived

our young life had no job but to wait for us.
It remembered our dinners, the light through
our windows, the way the baby once played on the floor.

why i love swimming pools :: faith shearin

I grew up in a resort town where they were
as frequent as houses. I love their false blue

which is more vivid than the sky and their shapes:
rectangle, L, oval, diamond. Some have waterfalls,

palm trees that rustle just above your head.
I like the smell of chlorine, the ladies

in sunglasses as still as human sacrifices
on their chaise lounges. There are umbrellas,

those swirls of happiness, and lifeguards dressed
in eternal youth. We wear sunscreen

thick with coconut oil and the rooms where we change
into swimsuits are like the telephone booths

Superman used. Like him we are different in our new form:
weightless, able to jump from high places and survive.

so many things can ruin a picnic :: faith shearin

So many things can ruin a picnic—
mosquitoes, for instance, arriving
in a gray hum or black flies or a wind
strong enough to blow napkins
over the lawn like white butterflies,
steaks stolen by dogs, unruly fire,
thunderstorms that come on suddenly,
clouds converging over a field,
where you have just unpacked
your basket. It’s amazing, really,
that people have picnics at all
considering how many plates
have fallen in the dirt and how many
hot dogs have erupted in black blisters,
how many children have climbed hills
alive with poison ivy and how much ice
has melted before the drinks
were ever poured. It’s amazing
how many people still want to eat
on a blanket anyway, are still willing
to take their chances, to endure
whatever may fall or bite. Either they
don’t consider the odds of success
or they don’t care. Some of them
must not mind the stains on their pants,
the heavy watermelon that isn’t sweet
once it’s carved. Some must understand
the way lightning is likely to strike
an open field. Even so—they wrap up
a few pieces of fried chicken, fold
a tablecloth until it is as small as hope.
They carry an umbrella or a jacket
that they accidentally drop on the ground
where it fills with bees. They leave
the houses they built to keep them safe
and eat uncovered, ignoring the thunder,
their egg salad growing dangerously hot.

turtle in the road :: faith shearin

It was the spring before we moved again, a list of what
we must do on the refrigerator, when my daughter
and I found a turtle in the road. He was not gentle
or shy, not properly afraid of the cars that swerved

around his mistake. I thought I might encourage him
towards safety with a stick but each time I touched
his tail he turned fiercely to show me what he thought
of my prodding. He had a raisin head, the legs of

a fat dwarf, the tail of a dinosaur. His shell was a deep
green secret he had kept his whole life. I could not tell
how old he was but his claws suggested years of
reaching. I was afraid to pick him up, afraid of the way

he snapped his jaws, but I wanted to help him return
to the woods which watched him with an ancient
detachment. I felt I understood him because I didn’t
want to move either; I was tired of going from one place

to another: the introductions, the goodbyes. I was sick
of getting ready, of unpacking, of mail sent to places
where I used to live. At last I put my stick away
and left him to decide which direction was best.

If I forced him off the road he might return later.
My daughter and I stood awhile, considering him.
He was a traveler from the time of reptiles, a creature
who wore his house like a jacket. I don’t know

if he survived his afternoon in the road; I am still
thinking of the way his eyes watched me go.
I can’t forget his terrible legs, so determined
to take him somewhere, his tail which pointed
behind him at the dark spaces between the trees.

shopping :: faith shearin

My husband and I stood together in the new mall
which was clean and white and full of possibility.
We were poor so we liked to walk through the stores
since this was like walking through our dreams.
In one we admired coffee makers, blue pottery
bowls, toaster ovens as big as televisions. In another,

we eased into a leather couch and imagined
cocktails in a room overlooking the sea. When we
sniffed scented candles we saw our future faces,
softly lit, over a dinner of pasta and wine. When
we touched thick bathrobes we saw midnight

swims and bathtubs so vast they might be
mistaken for lakes. My husband’s glasses hurt
his face and his shoes were full of holes.
There was a space in our living room where
a couch should have been. We longed for

fancy shower curtains, flannel sheets,
shiny silverware, expensive winter coats.
Sometimes, at night, we sat up and made lists.
We pressed our heads together and wrote
our wants all over torn notebook pages.
Nearly everyone we loved was alive and we

were in love but we liked wanting. Nothing
was ever as nice when we brought it home.
The objects in stores looked best in stores.
The stores were possible futures and, young
and poor, we went shopping. It was nice
then: we didn’t know we already had everything.

three dog night :: faith shearin

In the old days, before houses were warm,
people did not sleep alone. Not even
widows went by themselves into

the cold sheets of night. Rooms were
lit with lanterns and children were
encouraged to jump on their beds,

warming themselves, before they
crawled inside. You might sleep with
your cousin or sister, your nose

buried in the summer of their
hair. You might place a baked potato
in your blanket to help it remember

warmth. A fire would be lit but, after
awhile, it would smolder down
to the bone silence of ash. Everything

was cold: the basin where you washed
your face, the wood floor, the windows
where you watched your breath

open over the framed blur of snow.
Your hands and feet were cold
and the trees were cold: naked,

traced in ice. You might take a dog
to bed or two or three, anything to lie
down with life, feel it breathing nearby.

places i have heard the ocean :: faith shearin

In a cat’s throat, in a shell I hold
to my ear — though I’m told
this is the sound of my own
blood. I have heard the ocean
in the city: cars against
the beach of our street. Or in
the subway, waiting for a train
that carries me like a current.
In my bed: place of high and low
tide or in my daughter’s skates,
rolling over the sidewalk.
Ocean in the trees when they
fill their heads with wind.
Ocean in the rise and fall:
lungs of everyone I love.

retriever :: faith shearin

My father, in middle age, falls in love with a dog.
He who kicked dogs in anger when I was a child,
who liked his comb always on the same shelf,
who drank martinis to make his mind quiet.

He who worked and worked—his shirts
wrapped in plastic, his heart ironed
like a collar. He who—like so many men—
loved his children but thought the money

he made for them was more important
than the rough tweed of his presence.
The love of my father’s later years is
a Golden Retriever—more red

than yellow—a nervous dog who knows
his work clothes from his casual ones,
can read his creased face, who waits for
him at the front door—her paws crossed

like a child’s arms. She doesn’t berate him
for being late, doesn’t need new shoes
or college. There is no pressure to raise her
right, which is why she chews the furniture,

pees on rugs, barks at strangers who
cross the lawn. She is his responsible soul
broken free. She is the children he couldn’t
come home to made young again.

She is like my mother but never angry,
always devoted. He cooks for his dog—
my father who raised us in restaurants—
and takes her on business trips like

a wife. Sometimes, sitting beside her
in the hair-filled fan he drives to make
her more comfortable, my father’s dog
turns her head to one side as if

thinking and, in this pose, more than
one of us has mistaken her for a person.
We would be jealous if she didn’t make
him so happy—he who never took

more than one trip on his expensive
sailboat, whose Mercedes was wrecked
by a valet. My mother saw him behind
the counter of a now-fallen fast food

restaurant when she was nineteen.
They kissed beside a river where fish
no longer swim. My father who was
always serious has fallen in love with

a dog. What can I do but be happy for him?