Linen Song

Safe passages, old dreams where I am a senseless conduit, a conductor
calling out place names in slow, melodic bellow. No strident voice, only
hands like doves with some gift of direction, some quiet coo of appella-
tion. What shall we call these images of easeful births, those sounds:
cries, crying, sucking, suckling (the gentler word, the groping sound) and
then, sleep. . . a houseful of sleeping, bedroom doors opening onto a com-
mon hallway. Births, rebirths, and eventually a death like a birth, ac-
companied by the groping, suckling sounds again. Pitchers at bedside,
cups askew in saucers. Water, water. . . and then a hand reaching up
from the bedclothes. She says, I never was so alive as when I was put-
ting you children to bed. Now she wonders, why do children remember
the most vulgar losses? We drain their bathwater, we flush their stool,
they weep and then surrender nightly to their heavy sleep, then blame
us for their fright.

And if they will not surrender--say they are the ones who court the
darkness, who listen and remember all the punctuations of the dark--a
lifetime of lost nights, an accumulation of fetid humors, should have
been slept away, should have been wept into sheets of sleep. . . .

I remember putting the other children to bed, they in my arms, asleep,
all their new and eventual heaviness concentrated in the bends of their
knees, the warmth of hardly breathing on my right shoulder. . . putting
the children to sleep, a safe passage, with ether of stories, lilting dirg-
es, kisses, the reassurance of flesh and cloth. . . and then, easeful
awakenings, rising to sunlight and glasses of juice. That's what I want-
ed, fat mornings, clear, not those grey bony dawns, with the shades
drawn tight down to the windowsills, and us made to eat the toast we'd

I have no mouth, only a smile, in these dreams. The mouth is a danger-
ous chasm, a kind of monster that smells like too much sleep or not
enough. In dreams I have no face. The face is a dangerous place, a map
of forbiddings. In dreams I have only palms, fingertips, perhaps. . .
money to give, inconspicuous, weightless coins to dispense. Have you
seen a centime? A French coin, the least obtrusive of currencies--passed
from tongue to tongue--that would be right.

Lifetime of a million suppers, a pantomime where plates are smashed,
or turned face down upon the vinyl tablecloth, as players leave the
kitchen, saying: No more, no more, until the loudest noise the kitchen
hears is the brush-brush of broom across linoleum. Eventually, who once
was tall to children stoops and shrinks, and asks to die without the vi-
olence of grudging stones pressed against her chest. So we lay down, as
we lay down on the sand we knew as scorched and dry, then damp and
shiver-cool. We lay down books and swords of words, we lay down,
friends, we lay away linens for the day when we will lay our friends
down. We lay away from each other, alone, furled, sprawled. We re-
call doors opening out to the common darkness of the corridor and well
of stairs. . . wallpaper grey, the rot of green after years, ladies-in-
waiting amid fading peeling rosebushes. . . and we hear the sounds of
sleeping in a darkened house. . . a brother's rasping half-breaths, eye-
lids that never fully closed, even when his sleep was deep. . . a fugue of
footfalls on the creaking stairs, and then the slamming of a door. . . the
streetlight blanketing my sister's flanneled hip.

Eventually, oh pray! for an easeful death, like a slippery birth. With
flesh, with cloth, putting mother to bed, telling her stories, kneading
the past with songs, lullabies. . . death's tugboats. Dirges are for the
living. The mourners keen with an articulation which courts the dark-
ness, keeps grief alive, cultivates an elegance mindless of that mean
body. I counsel silence, I counsel inarticulation, but all of you are
laughing, your faces contorted with remembrance and the utter lack of

And afterwards: tables, here (I gesture, my ring is loose, and I notice
that I have no palms, no fingertips, only bones and this loose gold band)
and here, tables replete with loaves, olives in crystal relish dishes. . .
more cloth, the linens of hospitality and burial, heirlooms from a cedar
chest. Sound reverberates off the crystal, linen absorbs the shrillness of
our voices as the night gets late. We are old now, that retiring age
when skin's as soft as kid and babies like the feel of it. Still, all this
night I've thought in the blue that's the color of bruises.


Linda Norton

read the author's Working Notes

go to this issue's table of contents