Fifth Grade

by Ellery Akers

That Christmas vacation, Serena Evans invited me over and asked me to tell her a secret.
She was excited, looked at me with a gleam and a smirk,
and I came up with a lie about this boy I liked, though nothing had happened,
I’d just watched him that summer jackknifing into the water from a raft;
but Serena pumped me for details, Did I like him, did I kiss him, 
Did I want to kiss him, and then pulled out a tape recorder she’d hidden under her bed.
She’d been taping it all, said she’d play it in front of the class,
and I got into my bulky coat and trudged home in the snow.
As I look back, it’s the endurance that moves me, the lack of surprise:
I knew people were like this, they would hurt you and shame you, that was their nature.
It wasn’t my feeling for the boy that was important—
I don’t even remember his name—it was the sense of betrayal,
how she had trapped my voice like a bird in that box under her bed
where she could summon it at the flick of her hand and it would fly for her.
I remember how snow dissolved as it rushed into the drains,
it was like secrecy itself, so thick and packed no one could see you.
When I got back to the apartment, I knew there was no one
I could tell about this, they were all just the same,
and I sat by the heater, snow ticking against the window
and knew it was just one of those blows that kept of falling
the way snow kept falling, it was how life was and you just absorbed it
the way the ground absorbed the snow: I was familiar with retraction,
withdrawal, the fact closing in on itself, the hermit crab retreating into its shell:
you pulled yourself in that way, deeper and deeper,
and like the giant in the story, you stored your heart
somewhere else: in a hole in a tree, in a bird’s egg
so no one could ever find it: it was just a cold embarrassment, like any other.


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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