Once, women grew beards. Some had husbands, many had wives, most took new lovers. As girls, each already knew how to skin a cloud or start a small storm. They chased eels in rivers, tamed vultures. Rode bison or reindeer bareback. On a mountain path their feet never faltered.
Before them, their mothers thought nothing of slicing away a breast to improve the aim of an arrow, drowning the unwanted child. They sheltered in huts woven from gorsewood and pelts, slept with their eyes wide open. They stoned intruders. At dusk they tossed their faces over the side of the mountain to appease spirits. Some were dark-skinned, some pale. They lived twice as long as you or I will and when they died their teeth rattled with flint and ice. Spittle rolled down their chins soaking the valley.
I'm waiting for the ratcatcher. D heard them again, scuttling in the space between our ceiling and the floor upstairs. She heard squeaking too. I’ve opened the side gate for him. I stopped listening to the news a while ago to reduce stress, but now this. Sometimes he brings his lurcher, says she can sniff them out. The squeaking: does it mean a family of them? My loyalties – I have to admit – are torn. But then they always have been. Growing up in the West, knowing what Churchill and Roosevelt had signed in Teheran and Yalta, each day was like swinging on a rope ladder above a chasm. England v Poland in a match? No-brainer. My mother's loyalties lay with the opposite so-called sex. Men were more interesting to talk to, she said and she preferred to visit a male doctor since they were more intelligent.
I didn’t want to grow up to be a woman, wear pointy shoes and smile or maybe I just didn’t want to grow up. The one good thing, she said, was that our genitals were neatly tucked away whereas with boys everything dangled on the outside, easy to attack; which in a different way is what my karate teacher said some years later. Female rats fight males if they’re not on heat. They fluff up their hair, hiss and squeal to defend their territory. Everyone knows they can chew through anything even brick, let alone books, wires, rope. But sometimes they grind their teeth because they are happy. Nothing’s simple however since they also spread all those diseases in their droppings. They can have half a dozen litters every year; gestation only takes a few weeks. Pups are born blind and deaf, huddling with their mothers. In the early weeks before they’re weaned they need a quiet home.
TREES, BOY, NEWSFEED
You could have driven overland to Greece, missing your ferry by a day when the car broke down in the mountains, late arriving in Mytylene to build shelters for refugees. Barely grown, you could have taken your first child to camp near Białowieża* defending spruce, oak, the feminine birch, trees marked with fluorescent pink dots by loggers, could have told stories about bison and kings round a fire. But even if, instead, you ended up cleaning warehouses or hunched over a conveyor belt, discarding twigs and slugs as you sorted blackcurrants, sleeping in a room with five men you could barely understand in a faraway seaside town, owing the boss more than your wages; if your brothers roughhoused you, and if, when you wet the bed no one was there to help you wash and dry yourself, unknown boy, I still want an explanation of how you came to be in this photograph, when you could be someone I once taught or held, a boy tipping back on his chair so far he fell. A boy running away, crying. Chased by the priest, by his grandmother. I won't repost the photograph. Have already deleted it. I’ll only post pictures of lemon trees with their bisexual flowers, and spruce, oak, birch – any trees – fox cubs, roof tiles, comets seen in night sky by someone on the other side of the world. Not groups of angry men, hooded, scarves pulled over faces or like you in a wool cap, fists clenched, shouting ‘Sodomy’. Yet I've been thinking for days about the picture in my newsfeed and your face in particular because it still looked young. Friends say I'm wasting my breath, yet while I have an abundance in my lungs, nothing is wasted.
*Białowieża: endangered primeval forest on border of Poland and Belarus
Boys, if they read at all, read
about other boys: fit bastards
please, daredevil. Let them win
at the end, don’t let them be
crushed! The rest of us, part boy,
part water, girl, if we read at all,
having come away empty-
handed before, read about boys
as well, nest in their dreams –
talented at nesting in anything
broken, gather beakfuls
of waste, picking through bones.
Read about spiders, stars that drop,
death following us on tiptoe.
Since death’s following us, soundless,
we read with our teeth, testing
each word and though at first
we might act nonchalant, cautious, soon
like drunks we lunge, kissing the print,
scratching at screens, chew cables
all to find someone who looks a little
like us, part water, girl, knows
the deserted office, car park, bedroom
and whose sideways story can say
what we’ve forgotten how to. If suddenly
what’s hidden is carried out, held
to the light, we begin shaking, pray too:
let her, let her not be crushed.
© Copyright Maria Jastrzębska 2021
Maria Jastrzębska has published four collections, most recently The True Story of Cowboy Hat and Ingénue (Cinnamon Press 2018). She translated Justyna Bargielska’s The Great Plan B (Smokestack 2017). Her writing for the collaborative project Snow Q was Highly Commended in the Forward Poetry Prize 2019 and shortlisted for the Ó Bhéal 2020 video poetry prize.