“Brushfire at Christmas,” a poem by Judy Longley, appeared in our Spring 1996 issue.
—for Lawrence, my brother
I’ve followed the crumbs to your feast,
share the table with Father again,
his anger smoldering belly-deep
while Mother smiles, eyes darting,
ready to peck with her sharp words.
In this version of our lives
I’m Sis and you’re Sonny, once children
of a powerful king. You serve platters
of spiral-sliced ham while I butter
my tongue, trapped in my wish
to become an angel of peace, to swallow
lies past the lump in my throat.
Hands schooled to the courteous
passing of bowls, I’m the daughter
Mother intended, silent when her sugarplum
version of the past clashes
with my memory of dishes flying: Mother
hurling china into the dark that cowers
outside our kitchen steps, a crash
and a curse for each year since my birth
until strawberries clotted on our last
unshattered plate. Now we’re polite,
mouth good-byes into the stiff wind
worrying a Christmas angel on your door,
hot-pink gown blazing against a pine
swag, horn mute at her lips.
Then a neighbor shouts, smoke writhes
from the broom he beats at crumpled
Christmas wrapping ribboned in flame,
the field between us unraveling with fire.
You mount your tractor, plow a firebreak
around your house, the despondency
where our parents tremble, caught
in the witch’s spell of illness, old age.
Overdressed for a fire in my purple silk,
The mauve felt shoes that won’t return me
to Kansas or even my youth, I’m released
into a more exuberant self, brandish
the hose, spray water into a dragon’s mouth
hissing back. My pulse a castanet
I stamp errant sparks until firemen arrive,
save the forest of tall pine where creatures hide,
no river to halt the angelic choir of flame,
should it rise, sentient, over everything.