The Sword Swallower's Mother Speaks

Karrie Waarala

I don't recall now what stole my attention,
one of my other children tugging at my nerves,
or my husband barking at the gardener,
or maybe just the way the sheets billowed
on the clothesline like sails.

But when I looked back down to my breast
I saw milk flooding my son's tiny face.

It gurgled down into his lungs, his eyes
mirrored the shiny distance of my own.
My boy didn't know enough to gag,
just kept working that trusting mouth,
and I still wonder if it was all my fault.

If I was the first to smash the gates of his throat
into a wide open invitation to danger.

His childhood frayed me. The queasy rush
of finding him with butter knife pressed
against his small voice. The need to break
all his pencils to stubs too small to swallow.
The bullying jostle of his older brothers.

The hostile smolder of his father barely hidden
behind the dinner table evening newspaper.

Eventually I hummed loudly enough
to almost wash over the shouting as I
scrubbed crusted blood from the steak knives,
learned to turn away from his lacerated tongue,
the restless hands, the bruised knees.

My throat never let loose the words
that would teach him how to choke.

The night he left I listened to the cloth
of a young life being shoved into bags
and did nothing to reel my boy back to me.
I just whispered to his closed door and went
to bed, tried not to be relieved in the dark.

In the morning I pretended not to notice
that everything sharp was gone.