Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2023  Vol. 21  No.3
an online journal of literature and the arts
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The Zoologist’s Daughter

Because animals were always there     you can’t
remember a time without them     your mother’s
hand lifting yours to the ginger cat’s soft fur     then her whistle
     calling bluebirds     fans of gold seed     birds with sky
on their shoulders     their name your first word     it flew
above a row of stuffed animals     her childhood Scottie
and panda     lined up in the crib by the window where you
     watched the Perkiomen Creek     waterway of your life
run beside the old house     and always     cats nearby
names etched in your brain sixty years later     Sammy, Talky
Boy, Susie     and Grey-boy who turned out to be a girl
     every one given away     when you caught cat scratch
fever     you did not see her cry

At Wild Run Farm     pheasant eggs the dogs brought in
tucked beneath her chickens     just in case     box turtles
rescued from the road     see how they like raw hamburger
     guinea pigs that squealed for green beans     white mice saved
from your father’s lab     at Christmas a family of rubber
animals for your dollhouse     an antique farm under the tree
donkey with the nodding head her favorite     and yours
one birthday a Dutch rabbit     brown and white     fur like down
     the warm fustiness of the hen house     her brood of murmuring
Rhode Island Reds     you followed her     saying here
chick, chick, chick     cracked corn falling gold from your hands
one yellow ball of fluff     a rooster named John
rode on your shoulder     another with a blocked crop she
     cut open     could not save     black stitches threading its throat
like those you’d glimpse on her breast a few years later

In summer you caught fireflies     tiny lamps flickering
beside your bed     Mason jar houses of twigs and leaves
     you were told you must always     empty by morning
empathy the palm that cradles another     then opens
though she never mentioned the word     just said look
     polliwogs in the pond at your grandmother’s farm
a few taken home to your aquarium     to watch grow legs
changing into small jade frogs     gone one day when
you were at school     she’d released them you realize now
see how the world works, she said     tilting your face to the sky
see how the geese return in the spring     and the robins
how the tadpole becomes the frog     how we die then live


Years after her death your father remembered
her saying I knew she’d pick the shy one     when you
chose     corgi-beagle mutt you’d have
till you were twenty     your palms beating a soft tattoo
on the braided rug     here pup, pup, pup     you sometimes
hear short legs running behind you still     even as you
     grieve the collies lost in your middle age     you page
through faded Golden Field Guides     a new one every year
given for birthdays     corners turned down to mark
the names     mourning cloak, killdeer, leopard frog,
white-footed field mouse     she handed you her binoculars
to watch the birds up close     one spring even a child’s microscope
     like hers in photos     drops of pond water teeming     her college slides
filed in slotted cases     packed away in the attic with her texts
what she might have been besides mother     traded happily

for you in the 1950s     the books she read aloud
line your shelves The Wind in the Willows, Rascal,
Ring of Bright Water, The Incredible Journey     pages
     turning slowly as your eyes closed and always     the shape
of her fingers stroking a cat or dog     the bay gelding you learned
to ride at nine     her grief when a weasel broke into the duck coop
the drake she loved best cradled in her arms     blood on her
gray coat     though she killed a copperhead one summer
     an ax chopped through its body     when it reared up
where you played     her tears on your arm hot as the day
a blue pickup hit your pup’s sister     he never even stopped
she said     he never even     together you buried
the puppy     wrapped in blue calico     you and your siblings’ hands
tucked in hers on the way back to the house     where she fed
cheddar cheese to the cellar rat she’d befriended

What to make of it all     Rachel Carson her heroine
dying of the same disease at the same time     testifying
     before Congress     Carson’s books about the sea piled
on your mother’s desk     beside a statue of Saint Francis she’d begun carving
a new bird feeder she meant to set up     before she got too sick
     black stitches turned into     shiny scars     her bright body fading
graying     gone     and forever the memory of her hand
lifting yours to that tabby’s ginger plush     this is how we
     the gesture alive again     a red dragonfly
landing in your palm     as you sit beside your cat’s grave
in honeyed September     the silvery thrum of field crickets
nothing to do with you     but everything  

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