A Halloween Poem

I love Halloween in a big way, and I don’t even mind how gory it’s become over time. There’s something healthy about confronting mortality, laughing in the face of death and its brutalities, and flirting with some of life’s darker mysteries (whether we actually believe in ghosts and spells or not).

The poem below is about an incident that happened to my cousin exactly 40 years ago last week. Eleven years old, he was goofing around on his bicycle, showing off for a girl in his class, when he hit an uneven patch of pavement and shot over the handlebars and landed in a way that caused severe internal injuries.

Things were a little uncertain for my cousin for a few days. They took out his spleen and later had to remove one of his kidneys. He was in the hospital for weeks. I was thirteen that autumn and shaken by the possibility my younger cousin could die. “Haunted” is one way of describing my feelings, which stayed with me over the years. Later, my aunt confided how the accident had haunted her, and the poem tells the story from her viewpoint:

You catapulted toward death
over butterfly handlebars,
on an afternoon of smoldering leaf piles,
cornstalks painted on the bakery windows.
We got the news that evening
just as a storm arrived to bear you away
on blasts that made the trees toss
like keening women. The first bolts crackled
as your mother headed home from the hospital.
Confronting her was the skeleton
she’d hung on the front door that afternoon.
It grinned with a phantom cackle,
flapping its cardboard bones
while you lay endangered
in intensive care, your pumpkin-
round cheeks highly colored,
a triangle of flame in each eye.

You survived that night,
although you lost the damaged kidney,
shrivelling in your recovery
like a hollowed gourd.
Your mother later said
she neither cried nor prayed,
but swept the house
of those emblems of death
and malicious spirit. To this day
she has no fondness
for the hallowed eve, for the
snaggle-toothed deity
who stared her down.

(from Clifton Magazine, (C) 1994)

Here’s wishing you benign hauntings this Halloween.


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