Word Choice features original works of fiction and poetry. Read four poems by Leigh Stein, selected by Charles Day, BOMB’s Marketing Director.
The Forbidden Chamber
There are things you do when left
alone you wouldn’t otherwise do, like
leave the house without your phone or
marry someone you’ll wish would leave you
later or throw a party like in the ancient legend
of the call girl who falls in love with a Fabergé egg
instead of her young employer. In this tale, she
steals it from the mantel of his Glencoe mansion
and carries it in her smooth, white hands
while she looks for hidden rooms to enter.
It is apparent how anyone could love her
forever if she didn’t cost his parents so much
money. I’ll be late for school, the guy says, please
be gone when I get home. There are things
you can do if you look like Rebecca De Mornay,
including do whatever you want, which means
stumbling upon a room she shouldn’t ever see,
where the master of the house keeps an armoire
full of limbs of all the girls that came
before her and she drops the egg, which doesn’t
shatter, but then the blood won’t come off and
what is she supposed to do? He’ll kill her, too.
No matter what she does he’ll kill her, too,
and this is not only true of legends, but
also true of life: if you’re pretty, if you go
where you’re not supposed to, looking for things
not meant for your eyes, then you will have to explain
the blood on your hands somehow or else
have a few brothers to break down the door
when you are kneeling on an expensive rug
some day, and there is a famous movie star
standing above you with a great big knife.
Is one of the symptoms remembering the ghosts
one has seen? I am not going to sign my name
to this postcard because who knows whose eyes
will see it besides yours and you should know
who is in Mogadishu right now and who is not.
The passwords to my accounts are hidden
somewhere in the following true story.
When I was fourteen, my father promised
me to a man who lived in the forest.
I never went to his cabin; he always came
to mine. When he asked me why I never came
I said I did not know the way and so
he tied a rope to all the trees and asked my father
to see that I followed it. Sometimes we put ourselves
in danger just to live and tell about it.
And sometimes we put ourselves in danger
because our fathers betroth us to murderers.
When I finally found the house no one was home
so I hid and I waited. Blood as red as apples,
apples as red as blood, skin as white as snow,
snow as red as blood: no one has seen what I
have. My betrothed came home with some men
and a girl and I still have her finger to prove it.
(Is one of the symptoms a constant dull ache?
Don’t answer that; I don’t have an address.)
I ran out of his house when he fell asleep
and I kept her finger under my pillow and I did
not tell what I had seen. Sometimes we
are so close to running, but we do not;
we’d rather sleep on a piece of a body
than steal a boat in the middle of a moonless
night and sail to the northern country where
the people assume you’ve done no wrong,
but if you have done wrong, they forgive you,
always, and maybe one of them forgives you more
than the others, and he takes you on long walks
in shady arbors and you want to tell him how
much you like his sweater, but ever since
the forest you’ve been mute, so you write
how much you like his sweater with a stick
in the ground and he gives it to you
off his back. Then you start to write all
that’s ever happened to you, but
the best parts disappear into the grass
and he doesn’t give you anything else, but
he does say that maybe you should run away
and you think he means he will come with,
but when the stars are all out
and he’s still not at the pier to meet you, you sail
from that barren land without him
and send letters to show you forgive him
for staying. Is one of the symptoms a feeling
like you’ve been here before? I have not
been to a place yet that was not somehow familiar.
This is the end. The sun is just coming up
over the sea. In the desert they dream of water
and snow-capped volcanoes. I dream of amnesia.
If You See Them Tell Them I’m Stranded
In the play everyone thought he was a Croat
because he said his girlfriend bled to death
in his arms, but when they re-enacted her death
it was a convenience store robbery. Can you imagine
being so disheartened? I can imagine bleeding to death
in someone’s arms. You reminded me of my husband
just then, who has the same name as your friend.
Before we could marry, Raul traveled to Djibouti
and toiled in my father’s salt fields for seven years.
For seven years we are on the sea but we are thirsty.
For seven years we ride our camels at dusk
across the desolation. How do I know you love me?
How do I know that when I sleep you don’t write
letters to someone who can read them? Raul says
there is no wasteland he wouldn’t cross barefoot
if I was crying on the other side: for seven years
we have no idea what’s going on. How could we
have known, in the bliss of such tranquility,
the terrible awfulness which would befall us?
You tell me. At the end of seven years we marry
beneath a canopy of some breathtaking rocks;
think of what a good story this will be for our children:
at the altar I said I love you and your father said,
How do I know? I said, the life expectancy here
is pretty low, Raul. My father told him not to
raise his voice at me and I removed my veil.
Let us dance, I said, until all the stars are out,
and we did, and that was the last night I saw him.
All I’ve ever wanted is to ask the same question.
To answer he sends me sealed, empty envelopes.
For Those Who Have Everything, Say It With Concrete
I have been lost before, but not with this many broken bones,
and I had a brighter torch. If you were lying in wait in a cave
like I am, right now, in the darkness, and you didn’t know
when the next sandstorm would be, and you didn’t know
if the next morning the war would start, and you didn’t
know how long your torch would last, would you still
write letters with your only hand that wasn’t useless?
Yes. And let’s say that at this point you still believe
that the person who has promised to come back
for you is coming. Let’s say you haven’t started
to wonder about your flare gun yet and what
it’s good for inside the cave. Can anyone ever
foresee that they will end up like this, in love
with a faceless, amnesiac cartographer?
I have learned from the Sahara the necessity
of white dresses and small airplanes. They didn’t
think I belonged, but I waited my whole life to see
the ancient drawings of the ancient people swimming
in the ancient place. I was not in Italy, swinging
from a chapel ceiling. I was not in Cairo, bathing
in a claw footed tub, because that hadn’t happened
yet. I was just in love with the one person I wasn’t allowed:
you, who I write letters to while I hemorrhage to death
in a place that no one knows exists. It is not on any map.
The map has not been made. I am starting to think that
the only way I’ll ever be found is if you, the cartographer,
trade your topographical secrets, your photographs, your
name, to the Nazis in exchange for a jeep. Please. The light
is fading. If you can’t tell, the picture I drew in the corner
is of a scorpion in an amulet on a chain I wear under my dress
near my heart. This place was once water, but now
it is sand. There is so much I want to tell you, but
I have not eaten in three days and the fire you built
is just cinders. You once asked me how I could be married
to him, but look who died and look who lived; look who I’m
drawing pictures of scorpions for. I can’t feel my legs.
I don’t think you’ll be back in time. Listen: after
you read this, you will be burned in a terrible accident.
You will forget my name and the shape of the land
you spent your life’s work learning, but you will
never forget that you left me to die. My light
is gone. I am writing to you now in the darkness.
Leigh Stein’s novel, The Fallback Plan, was hailed as “beautiful, funny, thrilling, and true” by Gary Shteyngart (Super Sad True Love Story). A former New Yorker staffer and frequent contributor to its “Book Bench” blog, Stein is the winner of the Transcontinental Poetry Prize, and Poets & Writers magazine’s Amy Award.
Leigh Stein will be reading from Dispatch from the Future, her debut poetry collection, at WORD Bookstore on July 17th and at Melville House publishing on July 19th.