My mother and I were alone the night
our house burned down. I was nine that summer,
and the smell of smoke clung to my clothes.
And after the fire a tree in the yard
grew crooked with scoliosis, its back bending
away from the remains of the house.
The years that followed took on a winding
cadence, some torsional writhing like a ghost snake
muscling on its belly through tall grass. And when
I married, I knew that my memories were made
of smoke. And some days I spoke to the river
and to the stillness of the trees, and after
our son was born, I believed that to touch
his bare feet to a first snow of the season
would keep him safe, that seeing a white horse
in a dream would portend that I might die.
And some days I stood on our back porch
and studied the way the empty fields offered
their sorrowful soliloquies. And my wife
asked about that childhood crooked tree,
and I described how I would climb it every time
my father returned us to the ruins and assigned blame.
And I described for my wife how my mother and I
would sit sometimes at the back of my bedroom closet
while she smoked, how other times we escaped
outside to hide behind the tree while smoke swirled
its forgetfulness around us, and how that night,
while my father was out, she touched the tip
of one of those cigarettes to the living-room curtains
then returned to sit beside me on the couch.