by Ronnie Hess
In 19th century
it was not uncommon for Jews to have several first names – an official name,
such as Mari (or Mary), and a Hebrew one, such as Miriam. Austria-Hungary
The census man asks an impertinent question:
not just how many children but how many pregnancies.
As if this is his business. She decides to tell him the truth.
He writes the numbers in each small box, six and ten,
while she moves in and out of the room’s shadows.
The first one came soon after they were married,
when she was in her teens, a dull ache in her back,
the blood running down her thighs
the morning she plucked and gutted the chicken.
The village women told her she was young yet,
had good hips, was made for bearing,
and within a year there was
their little queen, the fair-haired girl.
May it please the Emperor, she had laughed.
Still, there were the others, in the middle,
after the two boys. It was her own fault –
she had carried in the wood,
lifted the laundry tub, visited her mother
after the hailstorm, bumping up and down in the cart.
Each time it happened, Benjamin had brought her
an apple, cornflowers, pinecones,
asked for her forgiveness.
Miriam, beloved. the name God meant for her.
Mary, Queen of Hungary, what bureaucracy had required.
She had held the presents to her nose.
He had touched her cheek.
Each time, she had wrapped her legs around his.
Still, she gave them names she never mentioned,
Dora, Sonia, Erszebeth, Rifke, imagined their faces,
the shape of their hands, their dispositions.
They would be old enough now to bring in extra money,
haggle with the butcher, fetch groceries up the dank staircase,
sit at her feet, listen to her singing in the day’s released heat.
~ previously published in Whole Cloth (Little Eagle Press)