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Night Terror

Elisabeth Harvor
From:   Fortress of Chairs. Vehicule Press, 1992

His cry of terror brings you,
tying yourself together and running
out of your dream to his dream
into the stunned, winter-ringing
air of his room, which the deep
hour has turned

into a malevolent den,
dead-of-night cosy, your fear
from your own askew childhood
tipped into his childhood, the way
things he is used to could be
mockingly altered.

Cold sweat of delirium
might bead itself down the gold stripes
in the wallpaper so that for a split second
before you turn on his lamp, you are
afraid to. When you do, he raises an
arm to ward off the
blow of the light.

His face the underside of a small
wing of fear in the too-sudden
brightness, he turns it,
collapsed, to your nightgowned thigh.
You rub a small circle over and over
just behind his left ear

and remember how once
just after you got your hair
cut short and feathered,
he looked at you with a narrowed
distrust, as if you might not be
his real mother.

For a whole week he watched you.
Before he would eat his
gingerbread men

he would break off their legs
and sniff them, and once you thought
you saw him smell his milk before he
started to drink it, a dozen cagey sips

while he pretended not to be
spying on you as you packed carrot sticks
and apples into the small blue plastic trunk
he carries to school for his lunch break.

He's read his Hansel and Gretel, he
makes a wide berth around the oven
when you open its door to breathe in the perfect
comic-book heat of the gingerbread men. You've planted
caution so deep in his heart--a hardy, crabbed
perennial to keep him yours, keep him safe,
you know you've got no right to complain

when it turns itself into the gun
a redneck father might buy to protect his family,
the gun he hides under a filmy mound of nightgowns
yoked with bulletholes of smiling eyelet
in a drawer too high for a child to reach
unless he climbs to the top of a very tall stool--
the gun the tabloid baby climbs to, to brilliantly
find and aim at his mother.

From the moonlit, drugged kitchen
you bring him a cookie, a tall glass of water.
In absolute trust, he accepts first the glass,
hugging your thigh with one arm, leaning into it
as with one grateful, breath-desperate
swallow he drinks the water's long coldness
painfully down. Next, the cookie; but this he
eats in maddening slow-motion,

a trick to keep you near him
while you are dying of exhaustion
and already, in your mind, giving your husband
his night moves: move over, warm my feet, hold me.

But not yet! This is a ceremony, it must be
carried out with child-pace precision:
with water, with wafer. Also, you are the woman and he
does not want you to go too quickly back to
that man, his father. At long last he is willing
to part with his glass, another long-last and
he is willing to raise his eyes in night thanks,
but then you see it, the old cunning darkly flowering,
the cunning he must have decided is more manly
than gratitude, the cunning that might
save him if ever he is stolen from you.

It's here, in this room, it's
out of its cage, it is alive, unspoken,
clear as a knell: How do I know you aren't
the bad person I saw in my dream?

Elisabeth Harvor's works copyright © to the author.

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