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            This kind of desire feels like a brick; it is not the razor cut of sex.  Grace dries her hands on a dishrag and thinks about her wedding day, about the way her fists opened and closed convulsively, the way she felt her heart slow down, like the faltering footsteps of a suitor climbing the porch stairs.  After, when her husband smelled like beer and cigars, she gripped his back in agony, different from the agony she would feel in 9 months, and then again another year after that.  To be a wife and a mother, she knows, is to remember the exquisite distinctions of agony.  The boys are all in the backyard (she says boys and includes her husband, as though his thick beard and oil-stained hands are no more than childish disguises), climbing over a fallen tree riddled with spiders and grubs.  The tree is rotting; the yard is hot and smells like October, blown back into July.

                She has been watching too long, but it doesn’t matter, because she isn’t seeing anymore.  Her hands absently knead pie dough that has softened and become sticky in the heat of her long kitchen, a kitchen long enough to take up the whole back of the trailer.  Inside the trailer smells like cardboard – she said so the day after the wedding when they moved in, when he said, baby, I’m gonna buy you a big house made of stones and bricks one day – and the smell of cardboard is no more, really, than the smell of disintegration in water.  The AJAX is on the counter from her scrubbing earlier, when she scattered the white powder over the counter like sprinkling flour on fresh dough.  

                  The boys are shrieking in the yard, the animal yell that comes from boys who are little army men and have found an enemy hiding in the bush, and when her eyes refocus, she sees the younger one holding up a snake by its head. (They have always been fearless, rejecting the cocoon of love she offered, the kind of love that is measured in the powder blue walls of a nursery and the ache of milk-full breasts.  She would give that love even now, even though they prefer to live in dirt and bugs, like skunks or possums.  They are no longer her sons, really, and might never have been, even in the womb, even as they emerged pink and hairless.)  She looks back down to the counter, because she knows what will come next, and she prefers the soft flesh of dough to the red bouquet that will flower across their shirts, that will stain them as they watch the death spasms of the snake’s long body.

                  When she was fourteen and first met her husband, loving him was not a choice.  She did not sit in her closet of a bedroom and twirl her hair, writing their initials in hearts.  She obeyed him like he was her father, or so she imagined he was, because she loved the feel of walls where there had been none.  True walls, proper walls, not the kind that can blow down in a storm or fall apart in a flood, but the kind that soaked her underwear with blood and determined what type of meat she should learn to roast; the kind that pressed into her from behind, even when she slept, even when she was sick, so fevered that she imagined she was choking on sand.  Walls, she reckoned, were better than kindness, because they were always there.  You could count on that kind of wall.  It is always easier to make a perfect chicken than to wend into yourself like smoke, craving something unknowable.   Her mama was kind some days, for hours on end, even, but eventually her kindness would wear her out and she would leave, not returning until dawn or dusk the next day, jittery and distracted.  Her mama’s love couldn’t define her, so Grace seeped through the cracks and floated around their tenement until she met her husband.  He pushed her back together again; he walled her in, until she could see and hear no one else.  So she married him.  She was fifteen.

                    Now this desire fills her.  This desire that feels like a brick, like a hundred bricks, building the walls he had promised ten years ago.   Her hands knead the dough, her fingers patiently finding the pockets of butter or airy spaces.  She scatters a cloud across the counter, the powder floating down like flour, so perfectly white, the white of a soft nursing blanket in a powder blue nursery, the white of her shoulders when she slipped off her shirt for them, so they could take her love.  She smiles as she begins rolling out the dough.  She will bake a cherry pie, one ripe berry for each of the bricks.  The boys will love the cherry pie, moving through it like acid eating through the soft tissue of a stomach, their mouths smeared with red.  They will not thank her, she knows.  But their eating it will be reward enough.   

         

Kate Benchoff's poetry has recently appeared in Gravel Magazine and Literary Mama. She teaches English at Hagerstown Community College, just barely on the wrong side of the Mason Dixon line. 




 


One winter night, in the midst of Christmas planning and piles of snow, I had a dream about a woman in a trailer on a sweltering July day.  As I watched her watching her children, I realized that she was about to harm them in some way, but instead of feeling simple revulsion and fear, I felt a complex kind of compassion.  The dream made me consider what would drive a mother to hurt her family, what kind of alienation and hopelessness might make her not even recognize them as her family any longer.  After several weeks of percolation, "Grace" is the result of that dream.




 





  


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