Mary Jane Nealon

Winner of the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award in 2001

HUMAN-HEADED BULL BELOW EMPTY SPACE



I.
On the lapis cylinders from 2900 BC images of the domestic
and the wild wrestle demons and musical instruments.
A human-headed bull braces a dulcimer while a bear plays and a 
     fox
nestles at their feet. From my life, one scene inscribed
like that, so for twenty years a girl appears and re-appears
in dreams. I am a young nurse, crisp uniform, high-polished
     shoes,
carrying specimens that must be dropped off, when,
in the late after-hours of a cancer center, I get turned around.
I am lost somewhere in radiology.
I slow down. In each darkened room, huge
machinery, and radioactive danger signs. Just minutes before,
on the ward where I worked, I massaged the feet of a boy
with testicular cancer. I rubbed his arch, and on a sketch pad
he drew hands with charcoal. Precise lines he smeared
with his thumb. You know, I just thought I was bigger
than the other boys in gym class,
he said, and added his own feet
to the drawing of my hands. Now the night has stopped itself
in this hall, and in my memory of him, the air is all enormous
cathedral. I turn left, and see a girl, whose back is to me,
standing before the new ultra-modern scanner, alone, arms
     outstretched,
her blue and white striped hospital robe, too large for her  
     shoulders,
has fallen, and her hair, which I know will soon fall out, is
     luscious
and just barely reaches her hip. I watch her for how beautiful
     she is,
for how faithful she is to her position there, her arms held
     exactly,
for how she could be anyone, for how she could be me. The technician
arrives, directs me, directs her, and I resume the pace of
     someone found.
Some nights I dream I am photographing her, or painting her.
     And now
that I have seen the treasures of Ur, I dream I am carving
     her body
onto a lapis cylinder, then roll her onto parchment.
She is my link to a moment still before me in my life, before
I had cleaned the body of my father, newly-dead. A moment
     in which,
who I am is variable. I might have been the bear making music,
or the obedient human-headed bull supporting heavy strings.
But I have been frozen again. Mesmerized by my father's freckled
     skin
as I turn him to place below him, a clean sheet,
one the funeral workers can take with them. I love the way his |
     vacant mouth
accepts his false teeth, I touch the black sores on both heels,
and the yellow, tobacco-stained nails of his right hand.
I carve the sight of him on my retina, roll him
across my cornea, his arms, like hers, once reaching out,
     now folded.
And I know, because I have never forgotten her, that this moment
     with him will
last, just the two of us, in the middle of the night, before I call
     anyone
to help. I sit down for a while, slide my hand under his, and
     watch.

II.
Because now I have raised her up. Because now I have laid him
     down.
I tell her story to a friend who writes.
Maybe he will want to take her, and I will be able to let go
the responsibility of her fate, which has tracked me through
     the years
like a lion. Or the boy, whose testicular tumor
grew to incorporate his brain. Instead, my friend tells me his
     vision,
a night when he watched a dog from his city window.
Framed by the building's edge, the alley's long line,
the light from an unknown source, moon maybe, streetlight,
     this dog
curled, was reduced to form, his head and tail equal and still.
He remembers. I remember. The dog as girl as my father as a boy
as witness. Obedience and repose. My father is a dog a girl a boy
a human-headed bull falling below empty space, and it occurs
     to me
that it is this which held us, this is what haunts, how we both saw,
for a moment, the empty space we are destined to fall through.

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