Betsy Sholl


In my aquarium the fish went round
and round—kissing fish and clown fish
and one very blue fish with a mouth grimmer
than Grandfather, whom we could offend
without knowing. Then no amount of running
next door to beg through the locked screen,
what did I do? would help. No amount of
saying sorry, stammering on the first
snakelike S sizzling into frayed rope.
No amount of whistling to our dog Ruff
would make him stay and not race across fields
as if running were breathing to him.
But we wanted to fondle and smooch,
to throw sticks for him to fetch right back.
We chained him up because we loved him.
Grandfather must have felt this way about
whatever was inside his head he never let out,
his long list of reasons to be bitter,
that gene he fattened and passed on
to three generations, which probably was
passed on to him, locked midway in the chain,
since his own father caught an infection
from a horse and died just days after
conceiving him. Plant matter to coal, coal
to diamond—things pressed down long enough
turn hard, then somebody finds them precious
and snarls or hisses when you get close.
I really thought if I stood outside and stared
till I saw the exact moment the streetlight
came on, my dog would speak, my fish would
let me hold his golden fin-flutter to my lips,
and my own dead father would step out from
the vanishing point at the end of our street.
It was winter, so what I got was frostbite
and a weeping mother bathing my hands
in pans of cool water. But what if
we could reel through our memories
to the exact moment before the salt
went into the wound, that moment of pure
perception before the hardening began?
Leaning from her arms to hand an apple
to a horse’s brown teeth and velvet nose,
laughing at its warm breath—“Little Miracle”
my grandfather was then, child number ten,
birthed out of his mother’s long black clothes.

Betsy Sholl
“Childhood” is from Rough Cradle (Alice James Books, 2009).