When Cleopatra received Antony on her cedarwood ship,
she made sure he would smell her in advance across the sea:
perfumed sails, nets sagging with rosehips and crocus
draped over her bed, her feet and hands rubbed in almond oil,
cinnamon, and henna. I knew I had you when you told me
you could not live without my scent, bought pink bottles of it,
creamy lotions, a tiny vial of parfume—one drop lasted all day.
They say Napoleon told Josephine not to bathe for two weeks
so he could savor her raw scent, but hardly any mention is ever
made of their love of violets. Her signature fragrance: a special blend
of these crushed purple blooms for wrist, cleavage, earlobe.
Some expected to discover a valuable painting inside
the locket around Napoleon’s neck when he died, but found
a powder of violet petals from his wife’s grave instead. And just
yesterday, a new boy leaned in close to whisper that he loved
the smell of my perfume, the one you handpicked years ago.
I could tell he wanted to kiss me, his breath heavy and slow
against my neck. My face lit blue from the movie screen—
I said nothing, only sat up and stared straight ahead. But
by evening’s end, I let him have it: twenty-seven kisses
on my neck, twenty-seven small murders of you. And the count
is correct, I know—each sweet press one less number to weigh
heavy in the next boy’s cupped hands. Your mark on me washed
away with each kiss. The last one so cold, so filled with mist
and tiny daggers, I already smelled blood on my hands.
Small Murders, from the collection Miracle Fruit (2003), was originally published in Shenandoah.
Poem, copyright © 2003 by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Appearing on From the Fishouse with permission
Audio file, copyright © 2004, From the Fishouse