wood bird winter leaf Photo by furkanfdemir on

When she wouldn’t eat anything else,
the boy began to fold paper swans
from newspaper clippings and magazines.
Some swans hid beautiful men
in their sloppy intricacy, while others hid
overdose statistics, political subterfuge,
new and exciting manners of broom.
He lined the swans up on her nightstand
in the order of their creation. No matter
their contents, each swan sat sternly
and obeyed. The boy got much better,
which can only mean that the mother
didn’t. He couldn’t fold them fast enough.
The hospice literature (which, too,
became swans) was clear about her appetite.
Still, he microwaved bowls of broccoli
and cheese soup, ecstatic when she,
with assistance, accepted a spoonful.
It’s hard to explain how hopeful he felt 
when she said it was good or asked
for another taste. The frankness
of hospice pamphlets is so cruel.
Runes didn’t glow like ox bones
in the remains of a four-story blaze
of honeysuckle and could-be witches.
The stars didn’t spell out ruin
nor the grapes sweeten in lament.
The boy learned the simple language
of the dying, how across all walks
and predispositions, shadows speak
strange tongues as the darkness nears.
Would the swans seem alive then,
the boy thought, as The Golden Girls,
deathless, immaculately creased,
bantered in perpetuity on the tube.
In a dream he watched his mother
inhale the swans. Her mouth opened
like a hanger bay and the swans
vacuumed in. Their wings
outstretched in the alveoli wasteland,
revealing the bad news and beautiful men
they’d been made of all along. None
of this sustained her, and when he woke
she was gone.

James Ellenberger was born and raised in Chicora, a small town in western Pennsylvania. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in River Teeth, Copper Nickel, New South, Third Coast, and Beloit Poetry Journal, among others. He was awarded an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award in 2020.

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Issue 12

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