Read an Excerpt
The Last Fight
Papa Says, Mama Says
It is not a conversation,
but serial monologues,
each one waiting for that breath space to say his own,
her own piece.
There is no peace in this house,
only strips of paper,
tatters of cloth,
slivers of glass,
slit lips and tongues.
I pick up the shards and put me to bed every night.
Wake up in pieces every day because of what Mama says,
I don't say.
At first no one screams,
trading whispered accusations.
Papa means, Mama means.
At first no one listens,
words like filth hang between us,
At first no one forgets,
anger anchored way too deep in an ocean of regrets.
At first no one thinks it matters,
Papa said. Mama said.
At first no one denies the sliver of surprise beneath each glossy nail.
The Word That Shatters Trust
Papa does not let us swear.
Words, he says, bind the world,
otherwise we shatter the trust God gave us in this life.
Good words, logos he calls it,
God's words in the beginning.
It's why he's so careful with them,
doling them out like a miser on Christmas morning.
But bad words, he calls bogus,
confusing anger with sin.
Sometimes a bad word is punctuation to a bad day,
makes us laugh, gives us courage,
lifts the heart.
Swearing can be held too tight in the heart,
Speaking it aloud, an artifact, an art.
The Goodest Word, The God-est Word
Has Papa ever said love without warning?
Has he ever said love with warming?
Has he ever said love without worry?
Has he only said love in a weary way?
Has he ever spoken,
Has he ever really said the word?
Soap in the Mouth
I simply say the bathroom word,
the one written on school walls.
The common one in the mouths of angry teachers when chalk breaks.
And Papa calls me filth,
takes the Dove soap,
jams it in my mouth before I can apologize, turn away.
There's no anger in what he does,
only deadly purpose.
He says words have power.
The power to make you feel dirty even while getting clean.
Angels are always clean.
Through the bubbles I ask:
What about feather mites?
This time I remember to duck.
The Taste That Lingers
Soap on the tongue lingers.
You cannot spit it out,
cannot swallow it down.
It is as if that word still tingles in my mouth, a reminder of my father's distaste.
I think of Nathaniel in my kindergarten class,
the only Jew I've ever known.
He told us how he learned to read Hebrew prayers by licking each letter.
They were strange and difficult,
smeared with honey on the rabbi's book.
Words shouldn't be dirty or clean but definitely sweet,
on the tongue, in the mind.
Nathaniel taught me that before I knew the alphabet.
Papa would have been horrified:
at the letters,
at the honey,
at the Jew.
Behind A Closed Door
No words can unlock the door,
can find the key to my cage.
I swing my head like an old elephant well used to captivity. I pace the floor,
count the steps between bedroom walls.
In mourning, I wait for morning.
Waiting is a coffin that confines me,
I have to find the courage.
I have to find the key.
Fence of Bones
Mama unlocks the door after Papa leaves,
the accusations between us like a fence made of bones.
Long leg bones the railings,
arm bones the gate,
eye socket the lock,
middle finger bone the key.
We sit at the table,
coffee growing cold.
My mother grows old,
her face skull-like.
I watch her fast-forward into a bleaker future.
Standing, I fling the coffee cup,
call her witch,
wish I could believe in the magic of escape.
I will be well punished for that word as well.
The Porch Tells Me to Go
I sit in the porch rocker where once I was a child.
The porch tells me to go.
The steps tell me to get away.
The driveway tells me to flee.
The old tree tells me to leave.
The swing hung on a limb,
where once I could almost touch the sky,
Papa's hands on my back, pushing,
before he was pushed into preaching,
that swing says nothing.
A car rushes down the street,
as I should,
singing a tireless song.
The rocker tells me to stay,
its voice a comfort.
But the road beckons,
the highway calls,
the day seduces.
Another word I'm not allowed to speak Unless it's to condemn.
If I'd Made a Plan
If I'd made a plan it wouldn't be this one.
If I'd packed a bag,
it wouldn't be my backpack.
If I'd left a letter,
I couldn't have written a word.
See, it all begins and ends with that.
But which word:
Never Look Back
Never look back at the porch,
the house, the bedroom,
Never look back at the kitchen,
the soap, the lock, the key,
Whatever I'm wearing, I wear.
Whatever's in my pockets, I have.
Whatever I think I know, I know.
Whatever I forget is gone.
Goodbyes are not an option.
All Paths Lead Here
I run out of the house,
across the road,
forget to look both ways,
hear the door slam behind me.
No one follows to beg me to come home.
No one sends me a letter.
No one tracks my email.
No one calls 9-1-1.
All paths lead here,
the Baba tells me later.
No paths lead out.
The Hardest Part
The hardest part is not looking back.
The hardest part is looking ahead.
The hardest part is not turning the corner.
The hardest part is crossing the street.
The hardest part is not passing the school.
The hardest part is walking out of town.
The hardest part is not thumbing a ride.
The hardest part is getting in the car.
The hardest part is not getting out of the car.
The hardest part is going in the 7-Eleven.
The hardest part is not stealing the chocolate bar.
The hardest part is walking out the door.
The hardest part is not eating the chocolate.
The hardest part is ...
There is no easy part.
Phoning a Friend
With almost the last charge of my cell phone battery I phone a friend.
She says come over,
stay the night.
I who have never come over, had dinner,
stayed the night before.
When I get there,
my mother's battered car idles in their driveway.
I don't go in.
Only then do I remember —
I have no friends.
What Happens Next
There's only forward,
There's only inward,
There's only away.
A Long Walk to Nowhere
Your back wears out before your feet do.
Your shins complain before your stomach.
It's no longer easy to live on candy bars stolen from the corner store, though the map's good.
Rain takes a long time to dry on your clothes.
Sleeping on the ground is harder than you think.
Learning to pee in the woods, in the scrub,
means unlearning years of potty training.
Hunger is a bad companion and a worse friend.
Somewhere becomes a nightmare.
I knock on no doors, make no phone calls.
Nowhere becomes my destination.
You can find it on the blank spaces of any free map in any old store.
Just turn a corner of your mind,
and it's there.
First night I lie on a picnic table looking up at the stars.
All I can pick out are Orion and the Dipper.
Maybe I can borrow a library book.
Learn the names of galaxies, constellations.
Find out about the moon and tides.
Remember then I have no library card with me.
I have no library to go to.
I turn angrily, fall off the table.
Washing Away the Filth
It's too cold to wash in the river.
Besides, I've left all that soap behind.
I think of it suddenly, the Dove resting in its plastic nest, wondering when Noah will send it forth.
My mind wanders over the endless sea of my leaving. There is an ocean between me and the safety of some Ararat.
Who knows what toothy creatures hunt in the dark waves.
I'm filthy now just as Papa always said There's no sea, no ocean, no rainfall,
that can ever wash these stains away.
Stain — almost an anagram for Satan,
one small letter difference.
Things always come back to the word.
This Is Not a Fairy Tale
Expect no princes.
Expect no magic rings.
Expect no glass slippers.
Expect no fairy godmothers.
Expect no singing dwarfs.
Expect no talking dragons.
Expect only seven deadlies delivered:
All part of God's taketh away.
The Last Road
I turn off the highway onto an A road,
cross to a B road, sidestep onto a thin blue line,
numberless but still paved.
Cars brush by me, one so close, my map flies into the air on its own wings,
a fat, lazy pigeon, not a dove.
When I find the map again,
along the shoulder of the road,
the page I'm on is crossed with tire tracks.
Finding a space in a hedgerow, I plow on through.
My options narrow to this: A simple path into a wood of ghostly white trees.
Above me a murder of crows discuss dinner.
A wind puzzles through the birches.
Like the hero in any good tale, I boldly walk in.
Into the Woods
This is the abacus of my journey.
A stone for the days I was on the road: 7.
A stone for the nights I slept rough: 6.
A stone for the days I saw no one to talk to: 5.
A stone for the days I had nothing to eat: 4.
A stone for the days I longed to go home: 3.
A stone for the days I tried to return: 2.
A stone for the doors I walked out of: 1.
A heavy heart with all those stones weighing me down.
A February of them.
I leave the abacus in the woods.
The Forest Opens Like a Yawn
The forest opens like a yawn,
as if it knew I was coming,
has seen me before,
can't be bothered to resist.
The forest parts like a curtain,
once drawn tight against the night,
now opening for the performance,
an invitation to applause.
The forest lies like a carpet,
like a bathmat, like a woman used to being beaten, like a girl who runs away from home.
The forest opens and every tree holds out its leafy arms.
Stopping to Consider
Whose woods these are I think I know,
a line I learned at school but never really considered.
Miles to go before.
Miles to go after.
Though I think I know now there are no happy evers.
Only happy moments.
A spotted fawn as dappled as the shade.
The oratorios of frogs.
A single butterfly.
And the deep thrumming of the forest that too many people mistake for silence.
Call and Response
I hear birds calling back and forth,
a duet I will later learn.
This is a place of correspondence,
letters written in the air.
River asks a question,
rock asks one back.
Aspen asks birch, birch asks bracken, bracken asks earth,
earth holds all the answers tight against her breast.
I have questions I don't know how to ask. There are answers I don't know how to hear.
Here everything talks at the same time.
I need to learn how to frame a question.
I need to learn how to listen.
Stones Across a Stream
The water sings as it rushes by.
If you drink me, you will become a wolf, a fox, a deer.
Hunger brings strange dreams,
Papa says water over twenty-one stones becomes pure. People take longer.
Counting the stones, I step across.
There are only nineteen here.
Papa says we must become water.
I think I must become stone.
I want to get through Autumn without having another fall from grace.
Here Where the Path of Healing Starts
This is the path of healing,
silver in the moonlight,
white stones glowing like will-o-wisp signposting the way.
On either side, pulses of bloody trillium warn the weary:
do not step out here,
do not stop out here.
Trees bend over with burdens of old leaves, new,
baring shadow teeth,
whispering secrets only trees can decode.
Behind, lies only the cutting knife devil's bargain,
Behind, the clean words sulk in their dishes of soap.
Bubbles burst on their way to a stainless heaven.
Here the colors run riot,
little birds mob a hawk,
bats jitter on parade.
The forest is anything but silent.
I step onto the path,
knowing it is but the beginning,
one foot, then the other,
till I gleam silver all over,
in the moonlight,
starting with my hands.
The hallelujah chorus of birds,
a feathered symphony,
mossy grass beneath my feet,
trees standing silent watch from the edges of the meadow.
A fox makes a parenthesis in the air,
hunting a meal. A woodpecker jackhammers his invitation.
Leaves tremble when I pass as if fearing contagion.
I am becoming a poet.
I am thinking in metaphors.
I am walking through a poem.
Learning the Words
The longer I am in these woods,
I learn words.
I become cornucopic with language which rolls around my mouth like dark chocolate,
like butterscotch like peppermint.
There's no one to caution my tongue,
no one to soap my mouth,
no one to bridle my brain.
Here I find such words as smut,
putrefaction, ordure, sludge,
all synonyms for filth my father doesn't know.
But beautiful words, too:
allure, taradiddle, calliope,
mellifluous, dulcet, paradigm
which he has never spoken.
There is no end to such learning,
And no seeming end to these woods.
Little House in the Wood
It's unassuming, uninviting,
a pimple on the backside of the birch forest.
It makes no good first impression,
no impression at all. Reminds me of a girl like me, on the first day of school,
on the last.
A light in a window, flickering,
smoke making curlicues above the chimney like a child's first drawing of a house.
The little hut is fenceless, defenceless.
I am not afraid.
One step, two,
and then the house itself moves,
shows me its door.
The lock grins open, baring its teeth.
It spits out a word.
Meeting the Baba
That First Word
That first word hangs in the air between the house and me,
droplets of spittle suspended in the dusk.
Later, I learn spittal meant hospice,
hospital, journey's end,
so foreign I don't know if it's clean or dirty,
whether welcome or warning.
I smile, say the magic word Please,
that all wheedling children know.
An upstairs light trembles.
Curtains twitch like eyelids reading text.
The door sticks out its tongue testing for, tasting for honey,
then sighs with happiness,
lets me come in.
Knock Knock, Who's There
It's a joke, you know.
You don't know?
Who's on second,
Which is on first.
Something like that.
I saw it on tv.
One of the few shows Papa allowed.
Two old guys,
one fat, one thin.
A routine, Papa called it.
Rhymes with clean.
Well, it was funny at the time.
Before the door was closed.
I See the Bony Hand First
I see the bony hand first,
knuckles broken on the wall of time.
Dirt under long fingernails.
It signals me in.
I see the crusted eyelids next,
the crafty blue eyes, so startling in that face, wrinkled as the sea.
Hair the grey of winter waves.
And then she smiles.
It proves no improvement.
Cheekily, I smile back.
If she's surprised,
She doesn't show it, grunting an animal acknowledgment.
It's invitation enough for me.
Meeting Baba Yaga
She's oceanic, a mighty force.
Teeth so full of fillings,
they might as well be made of iron.
Swollen knuckles on her fingers,
plain and round as worn wedding rings.
It aches to look at them.
She shuffles about in tired slippers that slap at her heels like velvet-pawed cats.
Veins in her ankles broad as the River Don.
Eyes as light blue as a waterfall,
shot through with mica glints.
I cannot read her intent.
First she smells like a musty closet,
then like a garden of herbs,
tansy and thyme and the musk of sage.
I hold out my hand in greeting.
She grips it so hard, I wince,
whisper — Damn!
Papa's voice in my ear saying, Don't swear.
I taste soap.
The old lady laughs.
You'll do, girl, you'll do.
And I do.
Touring the Little House
It's so much bigger than its seams,
room after room, appearing along the hallway; river pearls on a watery strand.
Here rooms grow like gourds in a garden, all sizes, all shapes,
all colors, with windows in each wall,
no two ever the same.
It's so much bigger than it seems,
as if expansion, like a land war in Asia,
is the point of living here.
It seems I have a bed, bathtub, closet.
It seems she knew I was coming.
It seems the house knew how to prepare.
The Baba is unsurprised by seemings.
They are part of her witchy trade.
The Baba doesn't ask, just tells me,
the list as long as a death sentence,
but not as final.
Sweeping of course. And dusting.
A house that can walk about has rooms full of sand, weeds, seedlings, burrs.
Making turnip soup each morning.
That ugly, prolific old root gives gladly,
like a missionary in a cannibal's clay pot.
Sprinkling poppy seeds around the foundation.
For the hut's protection, she says.
Get an alarm, I think, but don't say it out loud.
Washing the dishes, drying them on the cutting board.
For one old person, she uses a lot of utensils, especially sharp knives.
Answering questions when the Baba asks.
After a while, I just make things up.
She seems to find that amusing.
Baba Yaga prefers them bright, asking questions,
challenging her, turning their backs.
She likes the ones who stick out their tongues,
laugh at death threats, use foul language, never beg.
She wants them to sweep the hut without whining,
empty the compost without complaint,
cook the soup, put a hand on the pestle,
learn to steer.
If they can sing the Volga Boatmen song,
dance the Kazachok without falling over,
recite Pushkin from memory,
know all the patronymics for Rasputin,
that's a plus.
Boys, on the other hand, she devours whole,
spitting out the little finger bones.
Even if they can dance and sing.
Excerpted from "Finding Baba Yaga"
Copyright © 2018 Jane Yolen.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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