“A Crown of Crows” by Melissa Coss Aquino
Upon her return she will be different.
They gave her a clean slate, upon which
to write a new life, for herself and me.
New and transformed, no shadow
of unmet hunger in her eyes; gone the bony grip,
insatiable in its seeking and want.
She will be clean and new and all things shiny
like the plastic beads I used to love to wear in second grade.
Will I be a reminder of all that
she is supposed to erase, to get her clean slate?
Am I the chalky residue clouding her fresh start
with all that I witnessed, suffered, longed for by her side;
the ephemeral tide insistent in its nature,
destined to drag her back out to sea, to deep and dangerous waters?
Wasn’t I the one who dragged her there in the first place?
Wasn’t I the one who dragged her there in the first place?
Wasn’t it the high pitched wail of infancy’s never-ending
want and need she could not satisfy,
that set her off in search of need she could meet
by following a trail away from me on tracks along her arms.
To our neighbor she would say, “Kids are
nothing but problems.” She had three
abortions, to avoid more problems. Of
four possibilities, I, the only survivor,
because she didn’t notice till it was too late, or so she said.
When in the mood to tell me stories of my childhood,
she would repeat stories I had told her,
since she could never remember them herself.
I would have liked a big brother to protect me or little sister to keep my secrets.
I would have liked a big brother to protect me or a little sister to keep my secrets.
One before me, and two after, I’m flanked
on either side, by unborn babies, bodyguards in the spirit world.
I wear them like a crown of crows.
I would have to be stupid not to wonder
why I was chosen to survive. Singled out
to fight my way through drug-infested birth waters,
maternal ambivalence, narrow hips, and
a cord around my neck, warning enough
that this would not be easy, and maybe
I should have called it quits early on. I
would have liked a sibling who could bear witness
with me, to the cold of being the only fruit
hanging from the branch of a dying tree.
Then again had there been one, I would not have been the only fruit.
The only fruit hanging from the branch of a dying tree.
A fruit so exotic, even bitter tastes good
when you’re hungry. The call that she was finished,
ready with her clean slate to return for me,
came in the middle of midterms. She has
no idea what I am in her absence. Nor I, her.
My social worker called, I have had one since I was born
with traces of her drug-filled blood, to urge me to try.
I took everything good she had with me,
I am the wound that never healed
and threatens to kill us both.
My teacher loves my poems. I feel naked when
she says I have potential. She says I have promise.
She says I have potential. She says I have promise.
I have never met a promise that wasn’t
broken. I am guessing the same will be
true of me. I wonder if a teacher ever
told my mother she had potential.
What was her potential? What did teachers see
in her meticulous handwriting and neat rows of math?
A future secretary? A book keeper? She laughed at me
when I said I wanted to be a doctor.
“Girls like you and me don’t become doctors.”
Do teachers ever see the potential for evil and
destruction? Or do they see it, but never tell.
How do you write on someone’s report card:
Shows great potential for self-destruction.
Shows great potential for destruction.
For Mother’s Day, our teacher had us do
a poem about our mothers. She told us to
avoid clichés, to my great relief rich white kids
hate their mothers even more than I hate mine.
They use words like estranged, distant, cold,
manipulative, and withholding. I use words
like devastated, destroyed, demolished,
and demoralized. I searched for all the d words
I could find that wouldn’t give away the d word
I was looking for, but would never use: drug addict.
They would love that. Of course a few would chime in,
my mother is addicted to oxycontin, valium, and vicodin.
How could they know my mother, like theirs, is a cliché where I come from.
How could they know my mother is a cliche where I come from?
Drug addicted, unwed, teenage mother
living on welfare, hating child and self,
in need of recovery, rehabilitation. Does it
get more cliché than that? Only if you throw
in the particulars. But you don’t say these things
in front of the white folks. They are too focused on how I
defy all the stereotypes and it would get them too excited
to hear I come from the ‘types, am them, none the less. I too am cliché:
High achieving daughter of fucked up mother,
so good in every way, at least while you’re looking, it hurts your teeth.
Straight A’s, free ride to prep school, a smile to light up the room.
A daughter any mother would kill for except the one who had her,
who would have killed her had she had the chance.
Cliches, both of us. Devoid of real.
Clichés, both of us. Devoid of real.
In plastic frames from the 99-cent store you could
place pictures of strangers that know each other better than we do.
How can you know someone who doesn’t know themselves?
How do you love them? The mystery of the love
is strong like sour milk. Disappointingly real.
Like clichés are always a little true, we are also a little
real. Born from between her legs. Only her agony allowed me to live,
as she tried and failed to do the thing her body told her she could do
just because it could.
Motherhood is not biology.
Forced violent reckless love was all we could claim
but it was still love. She remembers and so do I. Blameless love.
First love. Innocent. Mother and child.
Every child a hungry monster. Every mother a terrified source of food.
How do they cope when they can’t feed themselves?
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Melissa Coss Aquino Artist Statement: Melissa Coss Aquino is a writer and an Assistant Professor of Language and Literature in the English department at Bronx Community College where she serves as the co-faculty advisor for Thesis, the Literary Journal of BCC. She completed her MFA in Creative Writing at City College and is currently pursuing her PhD in English at The CUNY Graduate Center. Her personal essay “Una Sinverguenza” (Shameless) was published in Callaloo, and her fairy tale “Pelo Bueno/Good Hair” was published in The Fairy Tale Review.