a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Each year, monarchs re-populate in the Corn Belt, that vast
agricultural region in America’s heartland where they lay their eggs
on milkweed plants in spring while migrating north to Canada.
My friend Cruz and I stand in what used to be a cornfield, now
his handiwork of garden plots for immigrant families and milkweed plants
to provide a landing pad for sojourning monarchs to lay their eggs.
Here, they reproduce, and the caterpillars are sometimes whisked into jars
and kept in homes, then freed after incubation to ensure that yet
another butterfly survives the season despite
their overall declining numbers worldwide. I hold
my own jar frocked with milkweed stem as Cruz tells me how long
until the caterpillar will incubate and how long incubation will be. But,
once home the caterpillar eats and eats its way up the stem in the jar
then dies there, a long white string extending from its body.
My daughter says that this string is a sign of a pre-existing parasite.
Not your fault mom, she says staring into her computer where she reads
all about monarch diseases and death. Still, that gnawing sensation
that I failed a whole species by not saving this one, not knowing
what could have been done to cure it of the tiny predator
under its flesh. Peering into the glass jar, insect shriveled and dangling,
I am reminded that three years ago, my family witnessed
my shaken mind as the memories of childhood sexual assault
came rushing back and, like a tiny predator, traveled through my psyche
feasting on the tissue of my present and future
with terrors from my past. They watched, but could do nothing
to save me from this unraveling and, in their own fear of exposure
as helpless and vulnerable gods, accused me then and there
of dying, then turned away—as I began, alone, working out my narratives
hoping they would appreciate my trying. The caterpillar
hung in the jar for a whole two weeks before I decided to clean it out
as I let our mutual helplessness exist between us, refusing to ignore
its obvious shame. Love is never a failure, a friend of mine tells me,
and I know he means to add, even if its lost.
I caress the side of the jar consoling myself concerning this dead would-be
monarch, its tiny fingerlike worm sutured to the lid
knowing how long and hard it fought to accomplish just this much.
Strapped to a gurney, I watched the sky frown and close behind me
as the ambulance pulled away from the civilized world
just hours after our new president was named. Homeless, broke,
I would never see a bill from this visit
and I would also never have my democratic say. Now,
nearly a term later, my daughter and I sit
at Denny’s Diner considering candidates, as she stares into her phone
reading their values and plans. I tell her stories
about how Medicare saved me, the importance of listening,
and all the reasons not to follow the voting advise of her dad.
There are many women like me I say, remembering the moment
the psychiatrist wrote PTSD and handed me a script
for medication to level serotonin. Mere hours earlier her father
had stated emphatically that this was not his fault, not
his responsibility, that the years of pounding and thrashing, screaming
and threatening were all in my head. He was right—
a few scribbles on paper to confirm this, and the gaping silence
of family and friends—my packed bag plunked down
on a floor next to a hospital bed as the skin on my legs began itching
from not shaving. This morning,
I poke at the stack of pancakes swimming in syrup
as my daughter lifts her eyes in revelation: Mom! I know who I’m voting for!
I smile, Yeah? Yeah, she says. At eighteen, she leans into me, telling me
often I am the only parent she can trust.
We finish our coffee and stare out the window. I still don’t know
who to vote for this primary; I only know
who not. She breaks my contemplation with the inevitable question
after a long explanation of Medicare-for-All
during which the clouds shallow and part losing their possession
of this unusually warm Michigan spring day: Who will you
vote for Mom? The servers and cooks clink and shuffle
behind us, their jocular demeanor exposing our northern vulnerability
to a little bit of post-winter sun. I didn’t see the sky outside
that hospital room for almost three days, or even realize it’s happening.
Kimberly Ann Priest is the author of Slaughter the One Bird (Sundress Publications 2021) as well as chapbooks Still Life (PANK 2020), Parrot Flower (Glass 2020), and White Goat Black Sheep (FLP 2018). Winner of the 2019 Heartland Poetry Prize in the New Poetry from the Midwest anthology by New American Press, she is currently an Assistant Professor of First-Year Writing at Michigan State University, an associate editor for the Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry and a reader for Embody at The Maine Review.