we come together we fall apart
by Lisa M. Bradley
Three sisters, then.
It was easier that way.
You wouldn't think
so many mouths
could hold one secret.
But it was a big secret
Six sets of lips and teeth
barely kept the thrashing thing in check.
And what our mouths couldn't hold
we gripped tight in nails and fists.
We were a young man
let loose in the world
'cause Daddy wrapped his hands
'round Mama's neck
one last time
made fists we couldn't scrape away
so she closed her eyes
in red-rimmed relief
never woke again.
We ran, but for years
we dreamed we were still there
lip split and nails bloody
cowering in the corner of forever.
We would've been better
released into the wild
than that mining town.
But it was as far as our legs could run
—we only had two back then.
No wolves in woods or nightmare
were half so ravenous as
the miners' wives. They coal-eyed
our smooth skin, our clean and nimble fingers.
They stroked our back unbent
chewed our kisses
licked us hard and soft again.
They swallowed our seed like
sweet stinging whiskey
hotter than their husbands' ash.
Honest work was no use.
What fences could be mended
what wells dug
when those women uncurled
the hammer from our fist,
the shovel from our palm?
But they kept us clean and fed.
We would've kept their secrets forever
—no soot on the sheets—
had it not been for our own.
Remember: so big and wild and deadly
and still so new.
It needed to be held
between teeth; it needed
to be pinned to the ground
its ruff clenched in a master's grip…
kind of like we wanted him
to take us:
That man in the bar
with the cards in his hands
all hearts and spades
and the whiskey-shine in his eyes
his pick-axe jammed into our chest
cracking our ribs apart
to finger at our heart.
Three brothers, then.
that's what they said.
And who would've doubted them
as alike as they were?
Like chokecherries boiled thrice
the red dye growing fainter every time.
We didn't align by age.
Adelita was in trouble
and she needed an older man
unhindered by whispers
to save her name.
Not to mention
even then, belly rounding
she wouldn't wed a man
who wouldn't bed her hard and regular.
So she took Abe
and I, the eldest
married the next, Micah.
Camille, our little sister
sang a song of gathering
before her vows with Connor
to bind us.
I never had children
but no matter
I'd always had my hands full
and now I had her babe.
(How the happy couple slept,
I'll never know;
many a night I trekked
the path between our houses
unable to ignore
poor Dolly's wailing
a minute more.)
And if Micah never quite looked at me
as Abe did Adelita
well, our farm had six new hands
eager for honest work, even
Micah's, despite his smooth, soft skin
his clean and nimble fingers.
And I had my pride:
Micah's back unbent
his neck supple as whiskey?
They were safe from whip and noose
because he married me
We still remember that man at the bar.
He knew how to hold a pick-axe
but he was the mine owner's son
so he never had need.
Those canny hands of his
cupped his cards, all spades and hearts
caressed the air and we watched
till the back of our neck burned
for his phantom yoke
our lap warmed for his leash.
and the whiskey-loosed bitterness
tugged through our pants, made us
thicker and hotter than the gropings
of any greedy miner's wife.
A bar girl saved us
when words turned rough
when threats unraveled the thickness
overtaking the card table.
The other players tried to club us
and the owner's son, for we were
of a kind: eye to eye, hand to hand
axe to aching heart.
Shielded by his daddy's money
he dodged sledgehammer fists
and insinuation, did nothing
but fold his hand and tilt his chair
to watch the girl pull us upstairs
for our "appointment."
But once we reached her bedroom,
she shoved us at the window.
"Get gone if you love life,"
she said, "and don't come back.
No miner's son wants to see
his eyes in you
and no mine owner's son
will cry if you die
making rope-ripe eyes at him."
So again we ran as far as our legs
could carry us
—just two legs back then—
and we risked wolves and winter's wind
to sleep in the woods.
But rest outran our double-soul
and our darkness bulged with nightmares
long as the leash we trailed
and certain as a noose.
Some might've mistaken Micah
for the handsome one.
Marguerite sure did.
Never did a woman take such pride
in matters she had so little to do with.
The way she coddled my daughter
—forever carried her between our houses
though the men paved the path
door to door; before,
because Dolly's shoes would get muddy;
then, because she might slip on the stones.
Just so, she preened over Micah.
His supple neck
lighter lined than Abe's
his unbent back…
I caught Micah washing at the creek
more than once
watched the sun set fire to the water
coursing down his corded flesh
and it made me want
and wet down there
but his eyes, paler than Abe's
—like watered-down whiskey—
never reflected my flare, and I knew
he was not a man the whole way through.
Different women may be needing
By then I knew men do.
For someone like Saint Marguerite
a fine view and a perfect kiss
might suffice, but the way she fussed
over his hands so smooth
his fingers clean and nimble…
My hands were always stained.
Marguerite's were thick as a man's
from shearing, knitting, and numbers
and Camille's danced like shape notes
ever braiding and unbraiding
her hair as she sang the flock
to pasture and back
but I was a mistress of color.
I seduced sepia from white birch
and scarlet from chokecherries.
I wooed cerulean from woad
and peridot from pigweed.
I wore my work like gloves
yet my gloved hands never failed
to work a man's magic.
Quite the contrary—
by constantly shedding colored disguise
my hands became quite sly.
One night I worked Abe thrice
and his wits came unwoven
his secrets unraveled
and he told me the truth.
After several hours' crunching
our bed of cones and needles
we roped our shoes around our neck
and trekked into the river.
We slogged against its sawtooth current
embraced the numbness
spreading up our legs
—still only two then—
since it silenced our doubled soul
and staved off the weariness
that would not relent to sleep.
Only when the sun rose
did we see we were going east
and though that twist of river
angled upward, why, a lightness
lifted our shoulders!
It cracked open our chest
split our cloven soul.
And so strong was the sensation
of rising, of some weight shearing off
that we looked behind us
to see what we might've lost.
There was Micah,
as if our reflection had been
bullied back by the current.
But splashing, this shape fought
to keep pace with us.
We turned and struggled on
relieved to be divested of that one
who had yearned for the mine owner's son
(and others too, if truth be told).
He called to us to wait
but we crashed against the current
fists clenched, bare feet plunging
through the surface
into the second, sharper river
the colder one, deeper
that lurks within.
Another tap of the pick-axe
and a second weight slid free,
even as we, four-legged now
dredged up a third river.
We turned to see, not just Micah
and the soft silt we'd churned
into a current, but Connor too
(or three), lighter yet.
And who knows how many more
of us we might've jogged loose
had not that sight, as of
a fogged mirror cracked
shocked me so I spilled onto the verge
and Micah caught up with me
and Connor with him with me
and there we were, all three?
Six legs all'a sudden
but still not enough
to outrun our secret.
We never suspected three souls
hidden within our chest
but it seemed for the best
when we met the three sisters
with their limping-along sheep farm.
For we'd found no escape
from one another
—the pain of further separation
like a pick-axe to the skull—
and there was no re-fusing
—running west, with the currents,
always failed. So, much as Abe
wished to ditch Micah
and both of them estrange from me
we were three in one
one in three.
Camille was old enough to marry
but young enough to pale
at Abe and Adelita's passionate displays
naïve enough she didn't see
Micah and Marguerite's propriety
was its own display
akin to the way we played
house: our kisses little more
than bumped noses
our hands clasped rather than
our bodies, our baby
I liked the sheep, who hovered
over the timothy grass like one
many-eyed, many-legged beast
attuned to the wind and Camille's songs.
Their ears flicked like shape notes
on a rustled page.
And I liked Camille, who corralled
the creatures with one song
set them free with another
who somehow harmonized
with herself, a choir of one.
Before we came, Camille pastured the sheep
with only her song, but after
she let me bring a shotgun
to warn off wandering dogs
the occasional coyote.
We'd saddle up a sheep for Dolly
another with our wrapped lunch
and set out for clover.
We'd return with the sun
chasing our long shadows to the door
and Camille's long braids
slapping her sturdy back.
When Micah went to town
to sell Adelita's bouquets of yarn
and Marguerite's knitting
we rode along, Camille and Dolly
jostling in the wagon.
While Micah attended to business
then vanished on "personal" errands
we lavished licorice and ribbon candy
on Dolly. We held her up to admire
the tinplate circus in the general store windows
held dresses up against
her wriggly body.
If Camille noticed
my headache-triggered temper
or Micah's mysterious new ease
on our journey home
she said nothing.
She sang though
the same harmony she used to weave
stray sheep into the flock
as she braided Dolly's
More than once I wondered
if my relief truly came from reuniting
with Abe—who never smiled to see us—
or from Camille's gentle chorus
weaving our straggly family
One night before bed
Camille unwound her braids
and brushed her hair so long
it was like the locks had never
been separated, nor twisted
into trios. I worried what she was thinking
what weighty edict might lie
rope-ripe on her tongue
but then the sheep startled
and bleated and butted up against
the walls of their barn
till the wood creaked mutiny.
I rushed outside with shotgun
and Camille followed with lamp and song.
Micah and Marguerite soon joined us
Dolly in Micah's arms, and a rifle
and then Abe and Adelita
one gun and two blankets between them.
We lit more lamps and searched out
the threat, the sheep still thrashing
in their haven, but saw no sign
of bobcat or coyote, dog, fox or man.
While Camille soothed the flock
with arias of sleep and peace
we edged into the horizon
imagining wolves and notching guns
to tense shoulders. But nothing slunk
through the tall timothy grass or lurked
in tree-clumped shadows. The cicadas
and chorus frogs went silent
at nothing but our stomping feet.
We returned and Adelita grabbed Abe
with hands dyed whiskey-brown
from brewing goldenrod, and whipped him
down the path to their house
to finish their lusty fumbling.
Micah escorted wife and child indoors
but Camille lingered in the barn
still chanting at the nervous sheep.
I crept up and stroked the curtain
of hair from her face, asked her
to come inside. She turned into
my touch and asked
Was she a good wife?
I'd long loved Connor.
First, for the kindness in his eyes
though they were strange
like un-aged whiskey, clear and bright.
Then, for the mercy he showed me
making no demands of a girl
not ready for the marriage bed.
For the lightness of his touch
with Dolly and all small creatures.
For the sweet, simple rest he took
in my arms, in my song
on wagon rides home.
I never understood his brothers' scorn
their jokes about his faded hair
his white lightning eyes
his wrinkleless neck and slight form
especially since his everything
differed in degree not form
from their own. Yet perhaps
his gentle humor wore them down
or my song worked its spell.
they stopped ribbing, stopped snubbing
and one day Dolly and I
back from gathering goldenrod
found the three brothers struggling
to free a fat ewe from the slats
of a paddock
and all three were covered in mud
and laughing so hard, their guts ached
longer than the bruises
from her cloven kicks.
Only, even as Micah and Abe
my sister Adelita turned against him.
To my shame, I first suspected
that she, in a moment hotblooded
had gotten too close
perhaps touched him as she did Abe
or looked at him the way
she did Micah, early on.
I could imagine it; it pecked at my heart
even though I knew
honorable Connor would guard
her pride and mine.
Not till the night of the sheep's panic
did I understand. The stink of fear
twined in my hair that moments before
I'd brushed so long it shone, while
Connor explained that though he loved me
he could not love me
as Abe did Adelita.
His eyes welled
more water than whiskey
by my trembling lamplight
and his pale mouth tightened
unwilling to let loose
some feral, fanged secret.
With cheeks ripe as chokecherries
I wondered at myself:
How could I hope to evoke
the passion Adelita brewed,
I with my childish braids
and skittish heart?
So I conjured from the dark
a shadow of a smile
and I tucked myself beneath
Connor's gentle white arm.
I let him lead me
But seeing our bed with the woad-
embroidered sheets, my heart split open
and I could not bear to lie
beside a brother rather than a lover.
So I twined my fingers in his and said
"I know I've clung to youth too long
and it's no wonder you think me
more little sister than wife
but can we try? Maybe you can love me
at least a little bit?
Like Micah and Marguerite?"
His fingers fisted around mine
and I thought his supple neck
had tensed with fury.
But before my shock slid to panic
he shook his head and said
"Micah does not love Marguerite
not as a husband does a wife.
He hides behind her skirts
and grateful, performs as best he can.
But her apron strings are still a noose
for one who loves other men."
As if reading shape notes
I grasped his sense
before I understood his words
and I trembled, anticipating
the next verse, but Connor struck
a chord I couldn't foresee
explained my husband
—in name though not in deed—
desired neither man
felt no burning of that kind.
He only wished I'd be his single friend
the way he begged to be mine.
I couldn't speak, no more than
I could pull out the phantom needle
piercing my heart
or maybe it was a pick-axe
the way the pain
cracked open my chest.
All I could do was scrape
his hand from mine
I crashed into the woods like a blind beast
snapping twigs loud as a herd of
clumsy cloven feet and startling
the choral frogs into silence.
Wild sobs unwound from
my mouth, endless as the lies
woven to trap me in this life.
My sisters must've known
how Connor differed
yet still they let me cleave to him
thinking only how neatly
this knotted all their loose ends:
Abe to absolve Adelita's sins
Marguerite to harbor Micah
Connor, my consolation,
and three new backs, strong and unbent
to prop our struggling farm.
Did they never think I'd want
what they had?
They'd been as careless of me
as with Dolly.
Part of me slept there in the pines
and part of me raved through the night and dawn
and yet another part
grew hungrier in my belly than
between my legs, but I refused to rise
from the marsh of my tears.
Connor didn't come for me.
Abe did, a smile on his lips
chiseled from stronger stuff.
And true, after years of Adelita
he was wiser in the ways
of luring wild-eyed women
from the ledge of ultimatum.
He knelt beside me, stroked my hair
his words timed to the soothing
passes of his smooth hands
two shades darker than Connor's
two wishes warmer…
"There, there, girl.
Don't cry no more.
Here's the morning and ain't nothing
we can't mend by its sweet light."
I twisted away and sobbed.
"Don't speak to me as if I'm Dolly
with a skinned knee. I'm married
to a man who can't love me
who can't bear to touch me
and you knew it, all of you."
Which was when Abe bent
and whispered near my ear
about knowing need
and what, if daring, we could do.
I sagged with relief
unseeing but knowing
Abe had returned, finally forfeiting
his wild-girl chase.
Camille had trudged home
near an hour before
and though she glared Connor into exile
—he slunk next door—
now she sucked honey and cornbread
from her fingers, while Marguerite
carded pine needles from her hair
and Dolly watched Adelita brew
walnut hulls for coal-black dye.
Abe opened the door and smote
one headache, only to ignite another.
I saw the sickened rage flare
from Camille's still-red eyes
and disgust pinched my lips,
mimicked Abe's mouth pursed
in silent threat.
I felt a fist in my throat, a stopper
of frustration fit to match
my clenched hands.
Abe's impulses: so pure and
and always pitching us
by now well versed
as Dolly in let's pretend
was too engrossed in her carding work
to notice the storm surge
her hands, drenched black
stopped stirring and she glanced
from Abe to Camille
and she understood his betrayal at once
as a sledgehammer.
to the comfort of her sheep
or perhaps to comfort her sheep
for again they bleated and beat
their heads against the paddock
in unison: their wont whenever
unease ruffled Camille's spirit.
Abe and Adelita argued
with mouths more teeth than lips
and fewer words than kicks and fists.
Marguerite escaped under guise
of shielding Dolly from her parents' fury
but I, though not so fair as Connor
had fallen out of Adelita's sight
as well as favor
and Abe considered me
less than piss or shadow
so, ignored, I stayed and sipped
my coffee, let their repetition
drift me back
to old regrets.
The mine owner's son…
did his daddy's money still pull
the punches of suspicious drunks?
Or had his whiskey-bright eyes
gone dull as the dust on a hanged man's
shoes? Had he found saint's rest
like me? Had he nothing left to lose?
VII. The Flock
The one called Adelita, she had black hands and a black web over her heart that We have learned is called hate and is knit from bright barbed wire (vanity) and begging, bloody wool (hurt). The Adelita threatened to leave us and the songs We sang in the backs of our brains stopped, as still as the chorus frogs when they sense the shadows with teeth and claws. For long ago We were separate: some had arms and legs and eyes they called their own and they wandered from the flock and were lost, only they called it freedom and thought it sweet. But the Adelita was already lost, had forgotten the binding song, and her threat was thunder drowning the notes that shaped our flock.
In the Adelita's arms fought the small one, much loved by all, she who rode with us and smelled of sticky ribbons and climbed the separate arms and legs, and she was called Dolly for her smallness and how she was passed around. The one called saint and Marguerite wept, which is like rain but bitter, and the one called Micah reached for the Dolly, who reached back. But the Adelita kept the Dolly trapped in arms like paddock locks and howled what is Truth: that even longer ago, the many were one. Only her hate-laced heart spoke to hurt not heal us, and this made the one called Abe roar and run at the Adelita with hands clenched into fists, which is a way of turning many into one also, but still to hurt not to heal.
Yes, it is awful all the things We did when We were not We but Them.
The one called Camille ran from the paddock and We followed her, for even then We sensed her sameness and would be where she was. We saw the Abe squeeze his fists around the Adelita's throat to stop the words from coming out—words are broken bits of song that sink and fall and sometimes pull the world down with them—and there was much screaming—which is words pushed past song and shattered. The Dolly, still in arms, she was not screaming but singing a song of gathering—she had learned the harmonies from the Camille—only her voice was small and the tune lonely and the separate ears would not hear.
Finally the one called Connor, beloved of Camille, he made a thicket of himself and pushed between the Adelita and the Abe. He fought to scrape fists from throat. But then the Dolly fell and there was a shattering inside her. The one called Camille shared the shattering and we ran to catch her on our huddled backs. But she did not fall, though her song fell silent under ache.
Our many hearts beat many notes. We were afraid.
Unknowing, the others rushed to lift the small one, while the Camille thought scarlet thoughts of things we did not understand, like pick-axes and knitting needles, sledgehammers and shotguns, until her ache gave way to screams. But, like ours, the Camille ' s throat was not formed for screams, and with our muzzles nudging, she quick pushed past the shattering inside her to sing a new song, a song of healing. Like the whispering of wind over clover, it had no words, only verses. But the song was round—never leaving, never letting go—and the chorus was Forever.
We are here. We are a part, apart. We remember no names but Camille. We have long loved Camille.
We will not say "in our own way." Love is the way.
We are some of us restless. Even now, we remember other bodies and make skirmishes in our self. But We are strong enough to break the bonds of wood and wire, broad enough to raze the meadows. Together, We are free.
There are other flocks who roam the valleys, and they look like us but they bolt from us for they are not like us. We carry a strange bouquet. We reek of coal and whiskey, licorice and lust, chokecherries and woad, wolf and rope and rust.
We age and die. We bear and grow. But our number is no matter. There is no I or him, her or them, me or you to know.
Sometimes the wind carries our song. We feel it on our muzzles and in our blood, looped through our wool, like a leash we've come to love. We can no longer sing, lyrics useless to our tongues, but we have no need: We are the song.
Lisa M. Bradley's poetry ranges from haiku to epic and has appeared in Strange Horizons, Mothering, Weird Tales, and other venues, including The Moment of Change anthology. At age nine, Lisa decided that being a good writer meant discarding the idea that, "I would never [insert bad thing]" because maybe even very good people could do very bad things; her job was to understand how that happened. Since then, she's decided that some "bad" things aren't bad at all. Originally from Texas, now in Iowa, she loves calacas, gothic country, art in unexpected places, thresholds, taboos, and tofu—see cafenowhere.livejournal.com.
Read Lisa's discussion of this poem and other matters over at the Roundtable!
Recording: A communal endeavor! With Mike Allen as Abe, Dan Campbell as Micah, Judah Sher as Connor, Alexandra Seidel as Marguerite, Samantha Henderson as Adelita, and Shira Lipkin as Camille. Photography: Shepherdess – Morocco, by Robert Croma.