Williamson Brasfield, Wildflowers, Poggioreale, from Cathedrals in the Desert, 2016 (photograph)


It seems impossible now how we used to walk the shade, 
the ditches full of purple phlox and frogs,

and talk about the boys we’d marry. 
You want to know how it is

so I tell you sometimes it feels like the sun will always
be slipping through the leaves like this, the sprinklers
always on, the children always laughing,

not the annoying squeals of other people’s children
but the sweet giggles of my own, 
like an organic popsicle, or a creek around your ankles,

and other times it feels like someone has placed his rough
hot hand over my mouth
and pressed it too hard to my lips
so I cannot speak.

You’ve been gone now for twenty two years, 
and I don’t know if you can hear me
or read the stupid things I write
or the slightly interesting things I occasionally write
though I do remember in college
when I first touched myself
and wondered if you were watching me, 
saying Hell Yeah Girl you figured that out
or turning away the way dead people might do
to the actions of those of us still dependent on air and water
or if you were indifferent as a cloud.

I’m writing this and I hear my husband you never met
say for the love of God
from the back of the house. It’s what we mutter
to the children when we want them to behave, 
even I say it, as if I think they will listen to me
in the name of someone I don’t even believe in
anymore. Maybe you know him, 
maybe not. Letters to the dead only go one way, 
like streets, our friend Jessica would say, 
or love. You can’t love someone

the same amount as they love you. One of you
is going to die first, and the other
has to keep lying there in the crushed driver’s seat, 
waiting for the paramedics, 
the plastic clothing bag behind him full
with your perfect blue dress for prom. 

When they found you, the story goes, they thought the dress was me, 
my body back there behind you both, 
you’d come for me in Astoria, but I wasn’t home.

A year after you died your boyfriend married
someone else. I went to his wedding. He looked
fake happy, the way people do in advertisements
for the living. No one there had shadows
in their glasses, they were all full of flowers.

We know what happens to flowers.

A year later, they divorced.

Every year on the day of your death your mother
posts to Facebook a picture of the garden she tends
for you. The wisteria has outgrown the small
mounds, the dogwood blooms a hundred girls

in their tutus, bees buzz around a little stone
that says Nellie’s Garden. It’s idyllic, 
like my yard in a moment when I nearly feel content. 
And your mother is lucky you passed in May, 
before the annual drought. We have fires every summer
now, Danelle, each year more of these forests turn black
and the earth turns black and the sky turns black
with its bidding. Yesterday we kayaked a stretch of river
along a hillside where the charred trees and rocks
seem now only fit for snakes. And this morning
on the trail, a snake as long as my body. 
I stepped over him, running, remembering
how I could be dead.

I hope your garden stays green
as long as your mother lives, at least.

It’s like she didn’t realize how long
the grief would last. No one thinks that when they make
a baby, or a friend, or lose a baby, nearly grown,

though I remember her sobbing
as she sent me off to college with your college money.

I promised I’d make something of myself in your name. 
What did I mean when I said that? 
That I’d help someone overcome something? 
That I’d be happy? 
How could I know how it would feel to be alive
in these times when love is often the last thing
on our minds?

Here I am now, all these years later. I have a house, 
two children, and it’s my anniversary. It’s like
you plant something in the ground, and you watch it
come up, spring after spring, and some years the deer eat it, 
and others it gets to the part where it blooms. 
I like the part where it blooms, 
or the juice of a fruit.

We planted only one tomato this May, and when we came home
from the river, we found it chewed down to a stem. 
The doe was sleeping in the blueberries. 
I didn’t have the heart to wake it.


Maya Jewell Zeller