I am thirty this November. You are still small, in your fourth year. We stand watching the yellow leaves go queer, flapping in the winter rain. falling flat and washed. And I remember mostly the three autumns you did not live here. They said I'd never get you back again. I tell you what you'll never really know: all the medical hypothesis that explained my brain will never be as true as these struck leaves letting go.
I, who chose two times to kill myself, had said your nickname the mewling mouths when you first came; until a fever rattled in your throat and I moved like a pantomine above your head. Ugly angels spoke to me. The blame, I heard them say, was mine. They tattled like green witches in my head, letting doom leak like a broken faucet; as if doom had flooded my belly and filled your bassinet, an old debt I must assume.
Death was simpler than I'd thought. The day life made you well and whole I let the witches take away my guilty soul. I pretended I was dead until the white men pumped the poison out, putting me armless and washed through the rigamarole of talking boxes and the electric bed. I laughed to see the private iron in that hotel. Today the yellow leaves go queer. You ask me where they go I say today believed in itself, or else it fell.
Today, my small child, Joyce, love your self's self where it lives. There is no special God to refer to; or if there is, why did I let you grow in another place. You did not know my voice when I came back to call. All the superlatives of tomorrow's white tree and mistletoe will not help you know the holidays you had to miss. The time I did not love myself, I visited your shoveled walks; you held my glove. There was new snow after this.
They sent me letters with news of you and I made moccasins that I would never use. When I grew well enough to tolerate myself, I lived with my mother, the witches said. But I didn't leave. I had my portrait done instead.
Part way back from Bedlam I came to my mother's house in Gloucester, Massachusetts. And this is how I came to catch at her; and this is how I lost her. I cannot forgive your suicide, my mother said. And she never could. She had my portrait done instead.
I lived like an angry guest, like a partly mended thing, an outgrown child. I remember my mother did her best. She took me to Boston and had my hair restyled. Your smile is like your mother's, the artist said. I didn't seem to care. I had my portrait done instead.
There was a church where I grew up with its white cupboards where they locked us up, row by row, like puritans or shipmates singing together. My father passed the plate. Too late to be forgiven now, the witches said. I wasn't exactly forgiven. They had my portrait done instead.
All that summer sprinklers arched over the seaside grass. We talked of drought while the salt-parched field grew sweet again. To help time pass I tried to mow the lawn and in the morning I had my portrait done, holding my smile in place, till it grew formal. Once I mailed you a picture of a rabbit and a postcard of Motif number one, as if it were normal to be a mother and be gone.
They hung my portrait in the chill north light, matching me to keep me well. Only my mother grew ill. She turned from me, as if death were catching, as if death transferred, as if my dying had eaten inside of her. That August you were two, by I timed my days with doubt. On the first of September she looked at me and said I gave her cancer. They carved her sweet hills out and still I couldn't answer.
That winter she came part way back from her sterile suite of doctors, the seasick cruise of the X-ray, the cells' arithmetic gone wild. Surgery incomplete, the fat arm, the prognosis poor, I heard them say.
During the sea blizzards she had here own portrait painted. A cave of mirror placed on the south wall; matching smile, matching contour. And you resembled me; unacquainted with my face, you wore it. But you were mine after all.
I wintered in Boston, childless bride, nothing sweet to spare with witches at my side. I missed your babyhood, tried a second suicide, tried the sealed hotel a second year. On April Fool you fooled me. We laughed and this was good.
I checked out for the last time on the first of May; graduate of the mental cases, with my analysts's okay, my complete book of rhymes, my typewriter and my suitcases.
All that summer I learned life back into my own seven rooms, visited the swan boats, the market, answered the phone, served cocktails as a wife should, made love among my petticoats
and August tan. And you came each weekend. But I lie. You seldom came. I just pretended you, small piglet, butterfly girl with jelly bean cheeks, disobedient three, my splendid
stranger. And I had to learn why I would rather die than love, how your innocence would hurt and how I gather guilt like a young intern his symptons, his certain evidence.
That October day we went to Gloucester the red hills reminded me of the dry red fur fox coat I played in as a child; stock still like a bear or a tent, like a great cave laughing or a red fur fox.
We drove past the hatchery, the hut that sells bait, past Pigeon Cove, past the Yacht Club, past Squall's Hill, to the house that waits still, on the top of the sea, and two portraits hung on the opposite walls.
In north light, my smile is held in place, the shadow marks my bone. What could I have been dreaming as I sat there, all of me waiting in the eyes, the zone of the smile, the young face, the foxes' snare.
In south light, her smile is held in place, her cheeks wilting like a dry orchid; my mocking mirror, my overthrown love, my first image. She eyes me from that face that stony head of death I had outgrown.
The artist caught us at the turning; we smiled in our canvas home before we chose our foreknown separate ways. The dry redfur fox coat was made for burning. I rot on the wall, my own Dorian Gray.
And this was the cave of the mirror, that double woman who stares at herself, as if she were petrified in time -- two ladies sitting in umber chairs. You kissed your grandmother and she cried.
I could not get you back except for weekends. You came each time, clutching the picture of a rabbit that I had sent you. For the last time I unpack your things. We touch from habit. The first visit you asked my name. Now you will stay for good. I will forget how we bumped away from each other like marionettes on strings. It wasn't the same as love, letting weekends contain us. You scrape your knee. You learn my name, wobbling up the sidewalk, calling and crying. You can call me mother and I remember my mother again, somewhere in greater Boston, dying.
I remember we named you Joyce so we could call you Joy. You came like an awkward guest that first time, all wrapped and moist and strange at my heavy breast. I needed you. I didn't want a boy, only a girl, a small milky mouse of a girl, already loved, already loud in the house of herself. We named you Joy. I, who was never quite sure about being a girl, needed another life, another image to remind me. And this was my worst guilt; you could not cure or soothe it. I made you to find me.