Allegheny County, 1888: Ava Remembers Her Canaries
I christened them with words Papa used—
Sentinel and Lookout and Firedamp.
Ten's old enough for a job, he said,
nestling eggs in box of cotton and cedar chips.
Someone's gotta breed 'em.
Weeks later, the chicks burst into the world
like dynamite. I offered them a flaking metal palace
washed in sunlight, volunteered for outdoor chores
to stay close. I taught them rhythm,
yellow wingbeats timed to my washboard strokes.
When Papa locked Sentinel behind flimsy bars,
my tiny heels dug into dirt: He has a family.
He kissed my forehead. So do the miners.
I used to dream of feathers heavy with coal dust, notes plinking
against blown-out walls, rush of methane swallowing song,
black shards burning in a churn of flame.
That night, I slipped from bed. Crickets chirred.
Lilac thickened the breeze. I crept to their castle
and cradled each small body in cupped palms,
stroked the wheat-gold down of their throats,
launched them from the chapped heels of my hands,
watched them rush to meet the moon.
The morning's only music: rusted creaks,
cage door beating like a broken wing.
What I have left of my father—
on my back: five raised ridges from his belt buckle,
in my breast pocket: a yellowed newspaper clipping,
his face smudged in ink, and a headline seared on my lips
each night before sleep: Mining Explosion Kills 17.
I used to dream that everything I ate hardened into coal,
that if I sliced my stomach open, I could burn
grief in that dark furnace.
This poem originally appeared in Ruminate Magazine.