Gail Koehler

For Linda                       28 September 2001

They bury you today, Linda
they'll say a mass 600 miles north of here
their tears I imagine
and their faces sad
or brave. The ones who shared
your life, its days and
all those hard, last nights

"I'm afraid," you said
I heard it - for so long over the phone
and then the sad grieving gift
but rich, too, a little stolen gift
of me in the room there with you for
one last time

"Afraid," I heard, and thought, yes, afraid
who wouldn't be?

I think of the ribbon of grey road I traveled then
to be there
what lies between me and the part of you buried today
all the space between
and now, the huge space between this heart of mine
that still beats
and the soul of you that has gone

left the fear behind
but all of us too

I know so little, Linda
of how to say goodbye
of what your family might need in the hollow space
that used to be yours here on earth
of what might comfort them

I've offered no words till this point

when the call came
you had died
I did not pick up my pen
and thinking of you all this time I've let the sorrow
and the anger just bounce around in a skull that feels empty
and much too busy, both

I need to pour out my words now
to you, who lived your words
with such big heart

who encouraged, coaxed, cajoled
the words from others, too

and I was one
thank you for that

and me, too, I could be one
who listened
who asked you, too, in my turn:

what got down on paper this week?
how's it going?
is that chapter coming along?
did you send that story out?
have you heard back yet?

what's next?

Our task, together, learning, practicing
moving forward by the tiniest increments
but still, we assured ourselves
and each other
it was forward movement all the same
learning anew every day what it is to write
to keep writing
to keep on
keep it coming
the pen moving
tracing our days, our soaring, our scuttling, our dreaming
our intentions

to let them come as they will
hold them in hands tender
feel the round completeness of them
and then let them go
send them on their way
our other children

the letting go, you said
the hardest part
(our mothering moments, me struggling
my oldest just starting school this year
you sympathizing
your youngest leaving home for university)
I've been learning all this time, you said
how to let go
it doesn't get any easier

it is never easy
to let go


Learning to Read

 My three-year-old son has begun to read.
Oh, not the words on the page.
Not yet
But, in the leaves of a children's book catalog,
the characters he recognizes.
He reads, too, from his internal landscape;
the deep struggles and fierce needs
of a little person making his way in the world.
He reads adventures, crises,
problems met, dragons vanquished.
Sometimes little bear's mommy goes with him
on a quest against a mean monster.
Or mouse's big brother
holds his hand
as they climb, together,
to the top of the steepest cliff.
And sometimes
it is the little boy
on his own
learning to read
his universe.


A Mother’s Symposium

This is what I want to do
with all the little old ladies who,
well-meaning, dole out clichés and
vague talc-scented warnings
in the middle of my sticky,
tantrum-filled crises:
“remember, the bigger they are,
the bigger their problems”
“don’t forget: they get big so fast”
“keep in mind - they’re only little
for such a short time”

I’d like to sit them all down in one place.
We could have an international conference,
with translators, keynote speakers,
and a panel of the worst cliché disseminators
which fine legal minds could question at length.

“Certainly, ‘time flies.’
Does my acute, personal knowledge
of this truism alter its fundamental veracity,
or provide me a meaningful antidote
against its sting?”

“Your advice is to ‘enjoy them while they’re young.’
And did you afford yourself the opportunity
to take that extremely nonspecific
floating suggestion,
nay, direction to heart?
Was it a useful strategy for your chaotic days?
How, specifically, did it change the way you
conducted yourself on a moment-by-moment basis?”

Of course, what’s the use?
As if any of us could heal our regrets,
make our wishes for what was
go back in time
and heal all the opportunities
we missed,
mend the holes
left in our souls
for the could have beens.

Of course, perhaps
next time
I could try to hear
not “you should”
but “I wish I had.”



it wasn't what I expected
nothing like what I
thought I was ready for
because we actually wrote out
a birth plan
we had a whole script
how we wanted things to go
and it all happened
completely differently

the second time
it just wasn't any easier
it was completely different
but not easier
and still
the birth plan
I want to say
went out the window

but once out there
it was as if it fluttered
my hope
all our dreams
bobbing in the breeze
waiting to see how things
would all work out

and what was most different
with the second baby
was how fast things went
and there was pain, sure
but it was nothing like
what I'd call pain

it was like my yearning
and the baby's
were finding a place
to meet

and when the time came
when the ripeness
was splitting
when the world ripped open
when it was time
and now
it really hurt
I pulled back

it was like hurtling
myself at a tall, sky-brushing wall
an overwhelming
of rough, cutting brick
and who, I ask
who in the world
would throw soft flesh
against scraping, gritty rock

my doula's voice
in my ear
at just exactly the right moment
"you need to push

the pain"
and it happened
the brick wall
like so much mist on a cool morning
as it lifts over the hills when the sun breathes on it
the bricks melted

in their place
was a beaded curtain

pulsing, now, I think
in time with the
hovering hope at the window

something to be seen

and waiting on the other side
the baby

then out he slipped
wonderful mess
stickiness and blood
face squashed
limbs clenched

hope came back in
tumbled into his mouth
stretched into a gaping yeowl

the ugliest
beautiful thing.


Where I Find Comfort

Oh, God, make small
The old star-eaten blanket of the sky,
That I may fold it round me and in comfort lie.

--- T.E. Hulme

Where I find comfort:

            in a sense of forward movement
balls of my feet taking their turns to push, giddy, from the earth
            in my mouth, against my tongue
teeth slice orange membrane-sudden, chin-dribbling juice
            in the persistence of weeds
stubborn dandelion's toe-hold in concrete
            in flesh, made manifest
my palm against child's shoulders, kneading skin-to-skin
            in wet, throbbing lungs
gratefully grasped gasps of air this side of water's surface
            in morning-quiet clean spaces lit by first rays
pooling in hot crevasses of toast: eddies of butter, wafting cinnamon
            in what continues of its own accord, with no help whatsoever from me
cricket sound this time of year; the loyal beating of my heart always


Short Stories

Gail Koehler

What Belongs to Us

Sam reaches his arms up over his head, out of the warm covers, into the cool air. Makes his fingers into fists for rubbing in his scratchy eyes. Listens for the shifting sounds that signal the end of the night. Since he woke when the morning is still dark and the day is stretching into itself, he feels the hours of sleep he slept the night before tuck themselves into the walls, tidy, just ahead of the day. He knows there is sleep yet to be gathered, waiting in the upper corners of the room near the ceiling for the next night. His fists still in his eyes, Sam stops, mid-rub. Was that a movement under the dresser drawers? The sleep, either claimed or waiting, he can feel and hear, but not see. It does not scurry. Under the furniture there is something else. Furtive, dark, small things hide from the light and he, in turn, pulls his arms in and becomes suddenly aware of his full bladder, pressing hard against his tightened stomach.

He hears his father in the hall, those big footfalls, and then the click of the bathroom door and the sound of water rushing into the toilet. Sam brings his knees to his chest. The bathroom door opens and his father calls from the hall: "Sam. Are you up, Sam?" He closes his eyes, rolls to his side. Pretends he has not stretched, yawned, rubbed. If daddy will only come in - he will be alright if daddy will stride into the room in his big man steps, turning on the light as he comes, making the bed lean into his big daddy bottom, and then running his huge hand in Sam's hair. If he will do this, and also find Sam's slippers, push them on feet warm from under the blankets, then Sam can leap across the floor, the hall, to the toilet. The dark things under the dresser would leave him be if daddy were in the room.

Daddy comes in. Slippers are found. Sam leaps. In the bathroom, daddy tells Sam a monkey joke as Sam stands at the toilet, tummy out, penis extended, his bladder grateful. Sam laughs at the monkey joke, glad for it. As he climbs the stool to wash his hands, his face, he smells toast and hears the clinking of plates and bowls in the kitchen. The dark things under the dresser will be settling for the day, now. He may not see them again until after supper. They will certainly not come out until then.

Sam does not hate these dark ones. He would not make them leave from under the furniture even if he could. After all, where else could they go? Unloved, kicked at or stomped on if discovered, he knows they do not creep out until night, when they make their way across the floor, crawling tenaciously up the covers, skittering on coverlets. He is sure they are there even when he doesn't know it, that they ride the rising and falling of his breaths the way he rides the movements of mommy and daddy on the late mornings when there is no work to go to, no preschool to rush for, and he can crawl into the burrows of the big bed, against large, warm bodies that snuggle with him as they sleep.

When he is in his own bed, though, if the creatures wake him, if he feels their feet through the quilt, he cannot lie still, knowing they are there. Weeping, he rages at them. They're gone by the time mommy stumbles in, heavy, dull, "Go back to sleep, sweetie," she says, and he sees her hair all funny on her head in the faint light from the hall. He wants to ask, but cannot: HOW can she say that?! When he peeks from between tears, from the lacy shield of eyelashes, he can see the creatures, still. Little eyes, blinking back at him, waiting until the stumbling, large big person leaves the room again.

Last night she said: "You can stand up to your dark dreams, Sam." Today in the kitchen after he has taken a big bite of warm toast, cinnamon in his nose, butter pooling at his teeth, sugar gritty on his tongue, she says it again. Also: "You are a strong boy, with power, tell them you want them to go away…"

He looks back at her, unbelieving. What he wants is for her to know without him saying any of the words. He has tried to speak to the creatures - well, to yell, to scare them with the most ferocious roar he can muster. They would have none of that. They stood their ground, stared him down, dared him. He was in bare feet when it happened. Seems always to be in bare feet when he sees them. In bed, or other times, when they catch him. Unexpected they have always been. No matter how he vows to wear his slippers always, when he sees the bright wood floor in the day, his toes twitch: they want to grip at the wood and his legs want to stretch out, to run so fast he breath comes in quick gasps, and before he knows it there he is, taking corners in a blur, his feet joyous, grateful, out of the slippers.

But if he runs too fast, outruns his mother, stops in a sudden catching of himself, and looks under the chairs in the shadows, he finds he is again staring at glittering, cold, teeny eyes. Though they stay where they are (it is day), their eyes peep out. And challenge him, his growing skills, all the things he is learning to do. And he realizes again that he has forgotten about his feet. Bare toes could never stomp on those dark, spikey, angry things.

He's seen them get stomped, of course, but always just because the big people are so high up there - they don't have any idea what's happening at their feet. Shod, they don't feel the floor, warm in the patches of sunlight, cool in the hall, away from heat vents and windows. They don't know what they're doing and they certainly don't look the frightened, raging, scuttling little creatures in the eyes. They have no idea, these big ones, so they stomp with their huge feet, their floppy slippers slapping the floor in the dark night, and wipe out a couple, now and then, sure enough, but it only makes the creatures that are left madder, more bent on revenge. He's sure, Sam is, that after one of those adult stomps that gets a creature, the ones left look at him with even more venom, more concentrated hate.

After all, he's the one the big ones spend their time on: he can get an awful lot of what he wants, some days. The creatures, lurking in dark, hidden, places note this, and are jealous, in an unthinking, animal kind of way. Sam is sure they want what he has - else why would they hate him so? He did not hate them the first time he saw one: he thought, at first, that they might be friends with him - after all, they and he together are the small ones in the house. He did not know, then, how many of them there were, or how quick they could be.

Yet they do not come with him to the preschool. When he lies on the mat in the midst of other children (it is a blue mat. He would not use the green), there are no dark things, hiding. Of course it is not dark but only dim, and it is never, never, as quiet, as still, as in his room at night. Always there are whispers, shufflings. If he opens his eyes he sees the legs of big people moving past during the waiting time, as he lies on his mat.

But the creatures did not come, either, to his grandparents', the nights he spent there. There were shadows, dark places, and he was afraid out of habit, but in fact nothing watched him from under the furniture there.

These creatures, then, seem to be his. His alone. Of this house, his house. Whether he wants them to be his or not.
There are things like that. His, even though he'd like to say "no thank you" in his best polite voice, the one the big people like so much. Like the water he makes every morning in the toilet. Or the sharp pieces that jump from the ends of his fingers and toes when the clippers snap. Some of them have places to go: sweep up the nail clippings in the tiny dustpan and tip them, carefully, in the waste basket. Dirty clothes go in the hamper. But sometimes, there's the hard bit left on the apple, what held the seeds when they've been too - quickly scooped out. It sticks in his teeth, and when he picks in out, wet, sitting on the end of his finger, there's no place for it to go. Unless he has a pocket. Or it someone's noticed and offers him a tissue. The point is, it belongs to him, it is his, until he can find out what else to do with it.

So these creatures, too, seem to be his. No one else seems to see them. And, in the end, he remembers that they are still the little ones in the house, with him.

He imagines, sometimes, that maybe they will become friends with him yet. That night, after spaghetti for supper, after splashing in the bath and making daddy laugh with the funny voices he gave the plastic whales, Sam lies in his bed, rolled by his father's hands into a long sausage in his blankets. Next to his mother, he hears a story so delicious that the words reach out and gather in all the world's sunshine (though the sun sleeps) and its warmth (though the air has a chill to it), all the syrup on pancakes, the warm cheese melted on toast, the best soft pjamas warm from the dryer, all the good things that fill his chest with a bright heart so heavily full of good things he needs to wiggle further in, to bury himself in the glory of it.

The book, he sees held just so the pictures are clear. It is under a small lamp. The face of his mother, reading, has shadows. He watches her lips move when he doesn't look at the pictures. He feels the light on his face, too, warm in the cool air. He knees, though, are in the dark. Warm under the covers, but dark. Beyond the lamp's circle there is dark.

On a night like this one, folded into the words, warmth, glory, he is sure the little creatures are on the edges of the bed, outside the circle of light, listening. There are so many, more than he ever imagined could live in one house, and they curl up together, their sharpness softened, their eyes half-closed, murmuring a chorus of contentment and - even - happiness. If the story could go on long enough, if the words just pulled in enough of the really good stuff, the rich handfuls, armfuls, of inviting, wonderful, fall-into-it-and-sigh-into-the-falling-……..

Copyright © 2001-2002 by Gail Koehler

About the Author

Learning to appreciate all the moments life provides, Gail Koehler lives with her husband and two sons in Lexington, Kentucky.

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