Three Prose Poems by Melissa Benton Barker
Our father takes us out past the breakers, into the swells. We can’t touch the bottom, but he can. The water licks his chin but he makes sure we never go under. He holds us girls in his palms right where we split apart. Our legs kick out like scissors. He peels off the skin of our bathing suits and we are naked like fish in his hands. He turns us inside out and all that’s been collected drops out of us, sifting, falling, dissolving into the ocean floor. From where our mother sits, it’s peaceful, her daughters with their wet-seal heads, her husband, a mute dome, a man who can take water up to his neck and hold two girls without drowning, or a man with twelve limbs and girl heads for shoulders, or a man who wears an ocean like a cloak spread out all around him, a man who will leave dragging all of this behind him: sun, moon, sky, sand, daughters.
We were out by the alphabet, out by the avenues, each long block jolting us just a little closer to a chalkboard slab of an ocean, and each time the bus crossed an avenue, we called its name as if there were a personal vendetta between us and the avenue, as if each avenue had done us a travesty. Well, maybe they had, the way we were, certainly we had been disassembled. Or maybe the rest of the riders, the ones who still thought of space as something neutral, who thought a sidewalk was just a sidewalk, a curb was a curb, or an avenue was an avenue–maybe they were the ones who didn’t understand the necessity of puffing through the chest and waving their arms because that’s how you get past an avenue with your life intact. Maybe they had no understanding of the way they dragged their lives behind them, looped around their wrists and necks and shoulders. We wondered who would get off the bus first. We wondered where we were going, if we had a destination, for no one had bothered to tell us to buck up, this was it, from here on out, like it or not, we’d be riding those avenues on the outside. We stood and held on to the leather strap all the way to the dead end, where the bus emptied, where we spilled like froth, where the waves left a line of scuzz, a litter of crab gut, burnt grass, tarred sand—
We climb the staircase to the attic, lean our elbows on the windowsill, open our throats to the dark. My cousin Jolie’s house has a next-door twin, same size and era gone to rot, loose-shuttered, smothered with ivy. Jolie says the other house is haunted. We wait until two sets of eyes appear across from us in the twin’s darkened window. We don’t know we are waiting for all that will be left, distilled, from all that we will gather—we know nothing of our ghost-selves, but the eyes in the window of a broken house, before anything has died there.
Melissa Benton Barker’s writing can be found in Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Jellyfish Review, Peach Magazine, and elsewhere. She has received Best of the Net and Pushcart nominations, and is a first reader for Vestal Review. She lives with her family in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where she is currently at work on her first collection of hybrid/flash fiction.