When I was on the playground with a mute child, coaxing, a staff member ran across the brown lawn shouting New York is bombed, the towers are falling. I thought drama queen but the radios were blurting through the barns & general store and the upper grades couldn’t imagine a building taller than the 4 story Coke-Cola plant. The total dead in New York would mean this village and the next two hamlets would empty: the story of mismatched socks, strewn lunch bags and the unraveling sleeve of the worst girl vanish. Scale matters in a tragedy, the size of absence and smaller tragedies invisible. What happens in late winter, a student tells me, is a car goes off the road. He’s an EMT with a shiny forehead. The car slides into a ditch filling with icy snowmelt and the driver, an older woman, is trapped, the driver’s door held closed by the bank and the car is filling with icy water the woman is saying help me and touches the blood on her face he doesn’t know how to break the window a fire truck arrives with a hammer punch and he says watch out and taps and the window breaks. The woman is cold and her leg is caught. She is baffled by the blood. Help me, she says, help me. He’s holding her head out of the water and he’s saying stay with me, stay with me the water is cold his hands ache terribly as the water rises but she’s just sleepy now. People really say stay with me because our stories are so lonely. The EMT and I go on telling stories until someone promises to stay through the night, though we know they can’t. A war veteran in my class had been driving in a convoy when the guy in the back tapped him on the shoulder and said look out. He was turning his head as the shell glided through his shoulder, but it took the center of the guy in the back I loved his scarred head and the stories of his childhood and the careful voice in which he gave up and disappeared. That’s what it means to be lost: silence, your story muffled by the transit of bodies shuffled from the battlefields. On a husk of stained carpet in a rented room in a warren of rented rooms, I was watching a baby stretch. I traced this baby several times; the father in jail, the mother on the run but I keep calling and now I could see he looked like his grandfather. The way people rattle against each other in a small town: 20 years ago his grandfather worked for me before he raped a client and went home to his wife reading the newspaper and shot her. His two daughters endure the state’s care until one of them dies at 16 — I can’t tell you her story, I don’t know if anyone was listening. But the daughter that runs and keeps on running – I want to tell her, as though he was reaching out from prison to strangle her, don’t let him win, but a cliché won’t release her from the terror blanketing her. I keep waiting for her but she’s not here today, just the young daddy newly on parole. Is this how you hold him, is this, he asks, her child born strung out and wandering himself. Help me, I say, the EMT and I pacing by the side of the road. The EMT is watching a woman speeding around a blind curve, and the woman on a side road here somewhere being shot by her drug dealer and so on always just behind me. The EMT is kind enough to share my haunting and hold my head but will there be a memorial, a black wall, a reflecting pool? I mean, we should hear their voices, it’s the least we can do. The EMT and I bring our tools and push through the detritus of lives that never really began, then return to our good dinners and walks afterward across the park; the enjoyment possible from a shared meal and a walk, the way love and hope are sustained by ritual and utterly beyond transmission. What I would really say to the mother of this baby waving at his shadow is I don’t want my hands frozen in a cradle for the dead. I’m not really sure where we are but help me look for another exit. Maybe I would match her footfall for footfall, kicking at the substrate. Public tragedies offer some mutual island. When Kennedy was shot, I ran back to my house, but it was the year of no affect and voluminous depression for my mother, so, no one was home. And when the Challenger blew up and blew up on the wide TV of the group home I was working in, no resident had an I.Q above 20, the voyager covered in miles of space and recalculating, puzzled and adorned in scraps of burning cloth, orbiting an empty planet — Adornment is the ear of culture, an echolocation of place so we don’t forget where we belong. I hurry to keep in front of the ambulance or the convoy, not knowing what station I’m headed for. I imagine the sound of the sirens is always around me. Up the road from me an apartment burned containing a young acquaintance and her boyfriend. I mean the ambulance went past my door and the smell of smoke drifted down. I had seen her a few days before, admired her second baby, and imagined the future contained her, if not me. The neighbors could hear them yelling for help, pounding on the walls. When will I stop hearing the ambulance go by my door? You’re probably wondering about the trajectory of the orphans of the burning parents and the grandparents, themselves the anarchy of loss, and then keening forward over the years — not everyone reunites with the living but remains orbiting. When my mother died, she wasn’t more lost to me than she had been before. Schizophrenic, she was unappeasable. I never said stay with me though she has. I suppose she was trapped in her own burning building when she wasn’t racing in a car filling with icy water saying help me, help me, take me home.
Samn Stockwell has been widely and well published. Her two books, Theater of Animals and Recital, won the National Poetry Series and the Editor’s Prize at Elixir, respectively. Recent work of hers has appeared in Salamander and Poetry Daily. She has an M.F.A. from Warren Wilson College, has taught at the New England Young Writer’s Conference (Breadloaf) and the Community College of Vermont, and works at the Family Center of Washington County.