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My Mother, Fetching a Switch


ISSUE:  Spring 2013

By now she knows that just because it’s thin
doesn’t mean it won’t hurt, that green is better
than dead & dried. She needs to choose
between the hot sting of a wasp, or a dull

deep ache that lasts for days, bruises the color
of certain pears when they ripen. There are the canes
of bigleaf maple, willow, alder, the straight suckers
from apple or plum in the orchard. She knows to peel

bark from the wand & shave the nodes flush
to the stem with whatever knife she’s given
from pocket or kitchen drawer. Her first switch
left her bloody, then a web of tiny white scars fine

as lace in the doilies her sisters sometimes helped her
make. Once she brought her father a long whip
of pussy willow with the soft toes of catkins
left on. He laughed so hard he let her off. A second try

made him madder. Once she split a thin strip of cedar
from a shake bolt, lighter than lath; her mother used the edge
like a dull blade. She knows to lift her dress waist-
high, overalls unsnapped & dropped

to her ankles. Her father likes her
folded across a single knee & only strikes
the cheeks of her fanny. Her mother takes her
standing, feet apart, & whales at any skin

she sees: calves, her inner thighs. She knows
if she cries or squirms the blows come faster, last
longer, how anger travels into rage. She knows
exactly how long she has to find & shape

& fetch a switch to its waiting hand.
My grandparents think she’s learning
the wages of backsass, what happens
when you ride the stubborn donkey of disobedience,

but she is learning how short the pleasure is
when she flushes a rabbit from the brush,
that there isn’t quite time to wholly peel
& eat an apple before someone will come

looking for her, that no joy lasts long,
that—father, mother, lover—it is painful
to be alive. All she can do is choose
between one hurt & another.

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