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Megan Merchant / Luke Johnson: Origin Story (An Epistolary Dialogue)

Origin Story 

-- to, L 

My son stands at the morning kitchen, 
asks how were people created? 
He doesn’t want the answer, wants the silence 
that edges stumped questions. In our house, 
god is more furnace than architect.
Yesterday, I bought a hatchet at the hardware 
store, for slim branches that are spidering 
low on our acre and all I can imagine is it 
slamming into my thigh. Metal, branch, bone. 
Soon there will be nubs and shoots, the cold 
hand of winter lifting. Soon we will have a pile 
split and stacked for another freeze. My son asks 
how was the first tree made? We trace its lineage 
around the edges—body of my guitar, books, desk 
where I write. Ghosts. From our window, grosbeaks 
and buntings tangle into flight. The hours count 
earlier now, because of the way they are lit. 
When my children are grown, will they look 
into the thicket of poems to find me? What splinters
have I left that will redden and ache?

As the body breaks, it is whole,

-- to, M  

or so the silent Buddhists write 
when describing why children die 

beneath burning rubble made
from war machines. I wish I was the father 

who fought harder for peace, 
who believed I too could trade 

collective pain for promises. Pilate 
withered when the chants

of three hundred crazies called 
for Christ’s head. The night before, 
his wife witnessed a warning
in a dream, and came to him crying
Let the rabbi go. I go into grocery
stores followed by ghosts. My father, once,
in an empty aisle, looking for frozen
cheesecake. My friend the next

with holes in his head, mopping
up spilled milk. M, why are the dead 

so demanding? Why, when Christ
was nailed to die, did his mother

watch the thorns woven, her son
a slaughtered lamb? Listen: When
I said boys have a storm inside,
this itch that fills our teeth, I 

was sharing in secret. I meant 
we have mothers who gift us ghosts, 

our heads upon a trigger. We’re 
bred to die. We’re set 
upon a foreign field 
and asked to praise the blood. 

I explain absence to my husband,

-- to, L
there will be a day when I sit and write
with fever—I mean fervor, and again,
language betrays me, shanks the possibility
of reaching another. Every specialist we’ve
seen has said, in order to understand the
ailment, you must first explain. My son
refuses to leave the car while the other
mothers honk in line, his hysterics rooted
in feeling cold. I have shivers, he explains,
which, in the foreign wiring of his brain,
could mean hunger, or pain, or a tap of doubt
that he is enough for this day. The weather—
warm, his body armored in snow gear. I buckle
him back in and try to remember the lyrics
to a song he’s been humming for weeks now,
the one I’ve been blurring to keep room
in my head, for what, exactly, I don’t know.
War. Fear. Fever. Maybe I loved the word
melancholy too much while I grew him,
maybe language is the one thing that allows
me to carry the blame. I sing the words
wrong, and wrong again. In his letters home
from war my grandfather wrote about how
under a ceiling of streaming ammunition,
the soldiers played broken instruments,
terribly. His fists unable to unfurl. Cold.


-- to, M

my son stands
nude in the moonlit kitchen

fevered by a dream
and starts to scream 

his hands are burning boats, 
his mouth a mist of wasps.  

He’s been doing this lately. 
Waking when his eyes are shut

and wandering out 
to greet what whispers

calling him by name. 
The doctors say 

they start in the mind
then move through the body,

a virus eating its host.
Began sometime when his

mind was shaped, 
suspended in the womb. 

I want to sing a song
that shatters his shaking, 

a psalm that sets 
him free. But where 

is the Lord? 
And why, when crying,

he cannot surface, 
despite my desperate calls? 

He likens it to silence. 
Says daddy

is a dying bird
roosting on his tongue. 

Megan Merchant (she/her) is the co-owner of www.shiversong.com and is the author of four full length collections. The latest, “Before the Fevered Snow” was released at the start of the pandemic with Stillhouse Press. Her most recent awards include a drawing of a mermaid from her son for being the World’s Best Mom and the Inaugural Michelle Boisseau Prize with Bear Review. You can find her work at meganmerchant.wix.com/poet

Luke Johnson lives on the California coast with his wife and three kids. His poems can be found at Kenyon Review, Narrative Magazine, Florida Review, Frontier, Thrush and elsewhere. His manuscript in progress was recently named a finalist for the Jake Adam York Prize, The Levis through Four Way Press, and The Vassar Miller Award. 

Photo by Ed Van Duijn (Unsplash)


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