The Skin of our Teeth

i.  from the northern mainland

The sky spits down rain
     into the mud of the fields,
even the goats huddle together
     for warmth. My daughter's
dirty fingers slip from my hand

and she jumps in a puddle splashing
     her skirts, thinks I don't see her
behind me. The babe in my arms
     stirs and settles as the rain
hits his cheeks and I smooth

the blankets to shelter his face.
     The drops shaken from my sleeve
disturb him again. We're climbing
     down from the headland
where we watched the ships

sail out and away, watched
     their father set out west
the high proud serpent on their prows
     singing rough warnings to the wind
in their teeth. My husband sings.

Wisps of his husky voice blew over
     the jagged rocks of the headlands
proud--though he never looked our way
     before the other men--
of the man-child in my arms

and the one that will soon
     stir in my womb. The one who died
from the flux while he last sailed away
     now forgotten, like our first,
the daughter, who coughed blood

in the middle of winter, whose body
     we had to wait until thaw
to bury. Their father.
     I try not to think of him
now that he's gone, though my thighs

still sting with his farewell.
     I would jump in the sea
to wash this blood clean. Maybe
     I'm losing this child... I grab
my daughter's hand, pull her

alongside me from her dawdling
     play. Try not to think
of the pain that makes walking
     uneasy. Try not to think
of the other women my husband

has chafed against; those
     on the raids I try to think of
least of all, whether he cuts
     their throats before or after--
before or after he's killed her man,

before or after he takes
     the girl-child too, before or
after he's thrown the babe
     from her arms. If it's true
that nothing will grow

where anyone has suffered, that
     nothing will grow where anyone
has died, that western land
     would already be a barren place,
with no riches to draw my husband.

But blood makes for fertile
     soil. Look, the ravens already gather
along the trees by the shore,
     one follows me home.
My babe opens eyes wide with hunger,

mouth searching for my breast.
     I give him my braid to suck,
for with the new child coming
     my milk has gone dry. He mouths
my hair in disbelief,

his sky-blue eyes so wide
     his mouth open and crying, squawling
his pink mouth open wide enough
     to swallow all the riches of the world.
I give him my empty breast,

nothing else to offer.
     He gums it till it bleeds,
like the woman on the western isle
     I have nothing to offer
but a breastful of blood. My daughter

slips from my hand. The raven
     cawing, the rain and cold wind
from the sea on my skin.

ii.  from the western isle

News of the northern raiders
flies up the coast.
The skittish priests
have already gathered
their skirts and crosses,

buried what they could not
carry and fled inland.
We stay with the fields
as they ripen toward harvest,
my father and brothers

work to keep the crows
off the corn and share
lookout on the point.
I've had my turn there.
Always fearing each speck

against the sky will be
their serpent-headed prow.
There's not much here
--the empty church
the beasts in their pens

the immature corn, the crows.
They'll take it all, take
or ruin. But when they
come, I'll not hide.
They can take all our treasure,

ransack my home.
I'll hide the baby
then come to fight,
cleave a skull
or two with the best

of the men if I can--
and if it comes to the worst
and one throws me to the ground
I've made a vow
to the old gods of blood

and power. I'll offer
one last prize
for the raiders--a
quick thrust of the knife
I keep warm against

the flesh of my breasts
like a child. He won't
feel it, the gentle slide
of a tongue of fire
beneath his skin.

Copyright © Neile Graham, 1995. All rights reserved.
Previously published in Sheela-Na-Gig and Blood Memory.

Sample poems

From Blood Memory

(at The Alsop Review): Story 1 § Sleeping With Lambs § Furious § The Basement Exit § Paper Rock Scissors Stone Water Air § Storyteller Talking At The End of Her Days § You Designed the Map § Ravenous § Tuppence in Pocket § Sheela-na-Gig § A Course in Sadness

(here onsite): The Skin of our Teeth § Woman at the Edge of the World

From Spells for Clear Vision

My Grandmother's Photograph § Washing at Sunset § Midfire § Hero at the Gates of Hell

From Seven Robins

Heart of Stone § November Arrives on the Coast § Seven Robins § Sky is that Moment § St. Maudlin (La Folle)

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