A Small Sign
Still in a canyon of grief my mother worked with a hand spade
in the backyard six weeks after my brother's murder
frantic for company. The house was loud with silence;
her closest friends visited less each afternoon
and my father, arguing a need for money, had disappeared
behind the grey fog of work.
My mother was digging up dirt for a tomato garden
she would never plant.
It makes sense when the bird flew by a third time,
placing itself on the lowest branch of the only tree in our backyard,
she considered it a small sign: she was desperate
for another round of Scrabble with my brother at the kitchen table,
his fingers delicately picking up the small wooden pieces,
counting off points for each letter; his twenty-one year old forehead
without a hint of blue from the tire iron that cracked his skull.
In this way the bird's reappearance, its exact positioning
five feet from my mother, was filled with meaning—the shifting
of its head from side to side, like jagged movements in a flip-book,
suggested to her the universe was not simply an ocean of darkness.
My mother held to it tight—on knees bruised with dirt
she stared at the bird, its grey feathers unremarkable, convinced
the void in its black eyes, as if looking at nothing,
understood sorrow after all the other birds had moved on.
Year my sister sat in front of an oval mirror covering traces
of my mother's face in her own. Year of the pea-green winter jacket,
my paper route with 37 houses—a windstorm always blowing.
The cat's body ached with tumors,
its stomach a concrete block of suffering. My father drank Riuniti
watching endless episodes of Matlock.
Eight years after my brother's murder,
fourteen years after my brother rescued the cat
abandoned behind Little Peach, and still my mother waited
for her oldest son to return home—29 in 1993.
Year of cat shit in every hidden corner of the house.
My mother insisted we not touch
my brother's yellow lamp on the porch, a crack down its side,
terrified it would break.
My sister sealed herself in her bedroom
listening to Simon and Garfunkel's "Cecilia." She went to the junior prom
with Dan Corsten; year of my first date to the Paragon Fairgrounds—
Anna Valley's blue skirt on the carousel,
the white horse I rode chipped brown.
Always my mother stranded in the house.
Always my mother, lungs clouded with nicotine, refusing to get out of bed
before nine. My father backed out of the driveway each morning,
3 AM, escaping to work; my sister, school over,
drove with friends to Dairy Queen.
Day my mother, alone, cat laboring to breathe, unable to stand,
finally carried it out of the house in a brown box.
Afternoon the veterinarian stuck a three inch needle into its back.
We ate a frozen pot pie for dinner, my mother silent,
as the family failed to notice the cat's absence.
Morning I waited for the school bus on the sidewalk, still not aware,
preferring cold morning air to the heated house.
Afternoon my sister stayed late for softball practice. Day my mother,
always in a blue bathrobe, alway's with a cigarette,
sat at the kitchen table even more alone than she was before.
Steve Coughlin lives on a horse farm in southeast Ohio. His recent work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, New Ohio Review, and Slate.com.