In this version of the myth
Niobe lost her own childhood,
not her children. Fate took
her father away in the middle
of the great depression, left
her mother impoverished,
relying on the ragged charity
of relatives for beans or collard greens
to fill six empty bellies that always
cried out for more. When kindness
ran its course, Niobe, her brothers
and sisters were dropped off
at the orphanage, where she quickly
became the mother of a hundred other
castoffs before she had her first period.
Each day there were breakfasts, lunches,
and dinners to make, rooms to clean,
clothes to darn and pass down,
cows to milk, butter to churn, cheese
to store and age, peanuts and potatoes
to lift from the earth, corn to shuck
for mouths that couldn’t be filled.
The adults stood around, cruel and spiteful,
like gods who would devour their own offspring
to thrive: men in bib overalls, chewing
blades of sweetgrass between their teeth,
as they threaten with pitchforks; women
in department store dresses, not a speck
of flour on them as they patrolled
the kitchen with steel serving spoons.
At night Niobe folded the two cotton
dresses she owned into funeral pillows
to view the white body of the girl
she used to be when she stepped through the gates.
She taught the others to do the same,
to worship the day of their dying.
They grew up by her side, nourished
in the strength of her example,
came of age and left to enter
an outside world filled with alcoholism,
crime, promiscuity, or a twisted
righteousness of purpose.
Eventually she too left to bear
her own children, watch them
blossom into adulthood, schooled
in the myth of her creation.
But with the repeated telling, their childhoods
began to visibly wither, compress
like coal into diamonds
that carved a channel of terrible beauty
wherever they traveled
waiting for the tears
which would not come
to fill their emptiness with meaning.
Don’t believe what’s been said.
It was Orpheus who died first.
His song faded as the daffodils
tolled like bells in the wind
announcing the arrival of spring.
While the days grew longer,
I cut my hair in mourning. It fell
in motes around the room, stirred
into flight by the slightest breeze
or footstep to sow my loneliness
throughout the house. His lyre lay silent
on the white bedspread between
pillows that still held the silhouettes
our profiles burned into the cloth
from our last night together
before he descended into a darkness
he didn’t understand, and a different
kind of darkness encircled me.
But somewhere in those strings
his vibrations lingered; life beyond life
awaited the touch of my awakening.
I was not curious about love
when we first met, wasn’t looking
for a husband to fill the house
with the cry of children. He took me
so easily into the world of troubadours
where there were gardens, balconies
and oaths of love to be sworn forever.
I barely knew what was happening.
as the tide of notes lifted him off the ground,
up to my window and into my arms
that opened like a night blooming flower
to the waters of the moon. But now I’m enslaved
by the feeling of my beauty being coaxed
into song, the rhythms that swell deep
inside when the music bathes me in its luster.
My fingers hesitate to touch the strings
of his lyre. They have become a gateway
to the twilight world that borders life and death.
Should we meet again in this dimness,
I’m uncertain if I could recognize him, or he me
in anything but the movement of his melodies.
Death has bleached his eyes with a truth
I cannot undo no matter how many tears
are shed as I replay his songs in my mind.
Prayers fold my body into ghost-hands
that reach out in blindness to touch
the steel of the strings. I absorb their vibrations
into my tendons, bones, and marrow
until my whole being resonates with
longing for his presence. My life has become a song
that calls him back from the caves
of the underworld to sing to me again
of how far he traveled for my love,
what he has sacrificed to worship
again at my feet. Even as the cold hand
of Persephone pulls him deeper, the hope grows
he will break free, follow my voice
through the glacial blueness of strings
that open into a birth canal to receive him.
© Jim Doss
Jim Doss is a sometimes poet and translator who can be seen occasionally around the web plying his trade, and who has publish a book of poetry call Learning to Talk Again as well as a book of Georg Trakl translations entitled The Last Gold of Expired Stars.