I am a broken bird, keening into my bleeding chest, a cry of agony, love. I am a soaring star, a lantern lighting the way, a shimmering cloud. I am a bent and courageous rose, weathered, beautiful, strong, I will never die.
I am all of these. I am. I name myself.
It was a cold evening. The frost lay crackling on the ground.
My mother was in the small warm yellow kitchen, stirring something at the stove. She turned to me as I came in.
“Where have you been?”
She was smiling, but there was an impenetrable shield of ice behind her eyes. She has never loved me truly. My father died as I was young and something broke in her then and has never healed. But. But. I cannot help myself. I love her.
“Where have you been?”
“Walking.” I shrugged.
“Walking.” She raised her eyebrows. “Again?”
“Shouldn’t you be studying?”
She lifted her hands inexpressively. Her mouth was red and contorted, as if she was about to smile: But she never smiles. “For—for—what are you doing with your life?”
“I walk. I like to go out into the frost and hum and think about things.”
“You think too much,” she said, and turned back to the stove. Not listening.
“I like to think, mamma. Why does the sun pop and sear so much? I know why, I mean science tells me why, but I like to ask why. Do you understand?”
She huffed and tapped the metal spoon against the pot. The noise knifed through the air. “No.”
“Well, I do. I think about paper. All the kinds of paper there has been and there ever will be. You know how much paper the world has seen?”
“Millions of tons! All the words… so many words. I think about words, too. And bread. And old grass. And the bodies of cicadas, too. Have you seen a cicada shell?”
“Go away, Leonore.”
“What do you think about, mamma?”
She walked away from me, the stove bubbling and humming and laughing behind its hand.
I walk so I can write poetry. And because I have a secret. I love and I ought not to. I love someone I cannot. Someone who hates me and would never let me love.
But I walk, and I think about that person. I think about. About. About. Poems and cicadas and stardust and singsongy words.
The trees wave and so do I. I walk miles and miles a day. I watch the flowers. The others think I’m crazy. I walk, I do not work, I do not study, but I learn. I learn about the sun. About the strange colors only butterflies can see—they tell me about them. Each flit of the wing and twitch of the antennae speaks to me, sings to me, tells me about the things I cannot see and cannot know.
I am a geographer. Explorers come to me and tell me about their adventures, and I write about them, draw them, think about them. I never see the mountain the explorer tells me of, but I see it in my mind the way I see the colors the butterflies can see, and I write about that mountain, that color, I document Orion’s sonnet to his heart’s dear love, the star Vega.
At night, I hear whispers. The stars are laughing, singing their poems to each other. Did you not know? The stars are poets, the cicadas are bards, the swaying reeds are choirmembers.
But they all know me. They know each other, they harmonize together at night, and they listen to me. I tell them who I love, and they listen and sympathize. Orion writes his poems, Vega laughs and listens to him. She tells me she loves him.
I tell them that I love my mother.
I love her, as a child loves her father, as an infant loves its mother. A fawn worships the deer, the caterpillar idolizes the butterfly. The raw baby supernova loves the dying dwarf star that gave it life. The poem loves the poet, strings of music love the composer. All children love their mothers. Dying soldiers scream Mother.
But my mother does not love me. She does not permit me to love her.
“Leonore, set the table for dinner.”
The children come yelling in, screaming for a story. “Leeo, tell us a story, write me a poem, sing me a song!”
They love me, at least. And I love them back. I take them on my knee, tell my younger siblings a story, hum a ditty that Betelgeuse composed for Algol, whisper into their scalloped pink ears a poem that no one else knows but the weeping willow beside the river.
Our mother enters, and the children stand instantly, the four brown heads bowing and straightening into a sharp line. Their hands folded, their hearts folded up tight, so that they might not be hurt by Mamma’s angry words.
I am the eldest, product of the only man my mother loved, a gap of a decade and a half between myself and the eldest of the youngest. Leeo, they call me. I act as their loving mother. The woman who gave them life disciplines them and feeds them.
Pudding and bread and potatoes. Night after night after night. I cannot help but think about the ancestors of potatoes. A potato’s great-great-aunt. My mind laughs at the thought.
I love her. A child’s love. But I cannot help myself. I know she is harsh and cruel and hateful, that her heart is still young and raw, lined and aching like an old woman’s heart. I know I can never understand her or help her heal. But I love her still.
I write this under another name, pretending to be someone else. This is how I write. Perhaps one day, I’ll give myself my own name, free myself of my burdens, tell my mother I love her even if she never loves me.
This is who I am.
I name myself.
But I cannot name myself.
But until then. Until freedom. Poems about potatoes, stories about love, whispered songs about stars and a lonely mother and her lonelier brood of children who try to love her. Until then. I’ll love her until then.