The Butcher’s Wife’s Tale
His heart was a poppy, paper-thin.
From the women’s balcony I heard it
during the silent prayers.
His shoulderblades trembled under his tsallit, weapons
I wanted for myself. Blame it on Lilith,
on boredom. Blame it on dirt
got into the mikveh. Blame it
on my red hair, or the gap between
my front teeth, which is a sign
of lustfulness in women, or at least distracts men
from my lack of beauty. But on what
shall I blame love? I asked him
to bring me a loaf of challah,
made in his mother’s kitchen.
I was his first. It was easy from there.
The rebbe’s son, I would meet him
a bit before dawn, holding a lamp,
the cellar door barely open.
Koomt tsoo mir — my hand in the door,
pulling him in, under the earth
fragrant with apples. We kissed
in the darkness of apples.
Upstairs, we smoked cigarettes, and the last of the night
clung to our skin: the dark gold of tobacco,
red gold of his hair, the silver of moon
and of smoke. Our picnics in the garden
of my hand-embroidered bed. A few braids of challah,
the twice-blessed wine, the spiciest
wursts, slaughtered and stuffed by
my husband’s callused hands.
On the trousseau, a half-eaten apple
bruised red to gold.
How could I do it? you wonder,
soft and snug before dawn,
as my husband fed cows
from bare hands? I did it because
of my husband’s hands, because
they were twice as big as my own, animal-
grizzled and freckled and red, pushing
me down and inside me, pushing
beyond what I had. Understand, he was
what I wanted. But then, I wanted a pet of my own. I wanted
white skin of my own to whip,
to kiss and surprise, to bind.
We’d smoke my husband’s cigarettes, rolled
between his thick fingers, pilfered
from his gold case. One morning,
(my husband in Chelm to see about buying a goat)
we woke late to embroidered sheets smeared with ash,
dirty vines on the hem of the bed,
gray pomegranates where we laid our heads.
A dusting of ashes covered the floor —
my lover was the first to notice
the tracks in the ash, like a bird’s,
but the size of a woman’s foot. And the lid
was off my jewelry box, my necklaces scattered
in front of the mirror. Who had been trying them on?
My husband’s gold cigarette case
was newly engraved with some letters — Hebrew —
I cannot read — when I asked what they said,
my lover just clutched at his curls and wept.
Dybbuk, dybbuk, he muttered. Lilim, lilim, ach…
He drew diagrams in dust with his fingers
as I pulled up my stockings and braided my hair.
He told me to hide the cigarette case.
I dropped it in the well, watched the gold
Flash in the sun and the water.
There were spots in my eyes all day.
I told my husband it was an accident.
Today, the rebbe’s son barely looks up from his books
when I buy bread from his mother.
Every morning there’s a sea in my belly.
I can’t bear the salt sweat
beneath my swollen breasts, or the scent
of meat, though my husband makes me eat it,
for the child, he says, for the roses
in my cheeks. He hopes for a boy
and is happy, but I know it will be
a girl like me, that the restlessness
I bear inside me will beat
in her poppy-thin heart. For her I won’t bother
with ribbons, red ribbons in my hair,
or hers, in the doorway, the bars
of her cradle. I will name her after me. Everyone
will whisper, How can she do such a thing?
The Angel of Death is not so smart.
When he comes to your house, two with one name,
he won’t know who to take.
I am an animal, an animal in love.
Love is lodged in the muscle, the best cuts
of meat. Fire cannot wash love away, nor
can salt scour it clean.
Of ashes will always be embers.
When my daughter is born, I will hold her,
glistening red. I will kiss
her pink hands, her gold curls.
I will call her a shayne maidl.
I no longer fear
the evil eye.
I will take her
to the well, toss
my gold bracelets in first.
When she reaches for them,
I’ll give her a push.
All day long, I know,
I will be punished
by spots in my eyes
from her gold curls
flashing in the sun as she falls.
When they ask, I will say,
It was an accident.
Because, in a way, it was.
Colleen McKee is the author of a collection of poetry, My Hot Little Tomato (Cherry Pie, 2007) and co-editor of an anthology of personal narratives, Are We Feeling Better Yet? Women Speak About Health Care in America (PenUltimate, 2008).