Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

The Story Our Mother's Absence Left Us

The Story Our Mother's Absence Left Us

By Duane Niatum

We, your four children, sit with you like death clerks;
pretend none of us will choke
on this confusion clot.

While sinking into the last coma,
you told me you hated your mother for abandoning you,
your brother and two sisters.
A teen-ager hungry for revenge,
you ran from your father's house dreaming of the street
drama to be found along the labyrinth
of the city of plenty, plenty clams.

Today, Crow, in the cedar outside my window,
shakes his caw-caw rattle at the ways
we cut and paste our catastrophes,
we two-leggeds who pass through the blood
more poison than genes. Several months
after you died, your youngest sister
said your story was a lie.
Aunt Pearl revealed you were the one who slammed
the door on your father's house
before your mother fell into a trance over the nightclubs
and blue notes of the emerald city.

Aunt Pearl wore these memories around her neck;
the medallion glimmered in the yellow pine moonlight.
She whispered that no matter what went wrong
in your lives, what tantrums or scream filled
the air with the sound of smashed toys,
grandma loved the difficult one with a heart
the swallow-tail butterflies in grandpa's garden
courted each spring. Grandpa told your sister
that when his wife left him a note on their star quilt,

the flowers and vegetables stopped
telling him stories and the bees no longer stored honey
on his path. Without the cherry blossom
dance of hummingbird and fruit baskets,
grandpa handed over his hoe to the next generation.
He had his fill of dirt and its row
upon row of regret.

Aunt Pearl clapped her hands in jubilation;
closed her eyes and saw grandma's fingers
work their magic as humor danced through the cracks
whenever the roof caved in or the door fell
off its hinges. Wrapped in your mother's shawl,
Aunt Pearl spoke with rivulets of salmonberry dew
down her cheeks of your mother's jokes,
laughing and teasing the family from collapsing
inward on themselves.

Your being held in the arms of family
in a house your father built plank by plank,
shingle by shingle, with a foundation framed
by his Salishan red cedar elders
had no bearing on why your story went underground
with the mole, never to surface and be spun
like a thread on the air of honeysuckle.

Our eyes, caked with salt, see in the flakes
carrying us beyond winter, your death shows
your children you were unable to embrace
even your own body as its spirit
flowed out the window.

Prairie Schooner, Vol. 74, No. 4 (Winter 2000), pp. 24-25


Duane  Niatum

Duane Niatum is a Native American poet, author, and playwright of Klallam descent. Born in Seattle, Niatum served in the Navy and later received his PhD from the University of Michigan. He has published numerous books and chapbooks, and his work appears in a variety of journals.

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