by Ellery Akers

When my mother fell face down onto her salad at the table,
or dug her carefully polished nails into my arm and said, “It’s all your fault,”
or when Miss Harper, with her knob of hair, threw our turtles out the window,
and they turned in the air, and their stumpy legs pumping
before their shells hit the pavement, five floors down,
I expected the world to be violent and unpredictable,
and what you could do about it was to be good.

I never cried, or talked back, the way my sister did,
I held on to each rule as if it were a bridge I could cross
and get to the other side:
when the door banged behind us in music class,
everyone turned around except for me, because Miss Drake said not to,
and when the doctor slid the cold otoscope into my ear
and pushed the wire in, I didn’t say anything, because you weren’t supposed to.
I tried to understand what was required.

One Halloween, when the older kids hazed the fifth graders,
they set up a tunnel, turned off the lights,
and pushed us through: they brushed us with mops,
they bit us and grabbed us
with rubber gloves filled with ice and coated with lard
and all the time one of them kept screaming and flashing a green light
so we should see just a glimpse of black lips and teeth
an eye, a mouth filled with blood: They told me later
I was no fun—I didn’t scream and run with the others,
I just walked through, slowly, as if I could walk that way into the Arctic
where the penguins stood the cold for months on end—
they stood it, we watched it in the movie: they had blades of ice on their feathers.
They kept their eggs warm on their feet so they would hatch
in the blizzard; that’s the kind of birds they were, they were good.

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