While I grew in my mother’s womb, a tumor
grew on her larynx – a stone in her throat
she could not sing out. From then
my shadow wore these small black wings
my shoulders could sense, but not flex –
a feel for threat. Radiation
fused my mother’s vocal chords. For months
at a time, she couldn’t speak except
by sign, or by a kind of clapping code –
syllables of emphasis compressed
between her palms – [clap CLAP clap] for my name,
for Emily [CLAP clap clap]. I hate it
she says of the only voice I’ve ever known
her to hum. The guide asks my mother
if she’s got a cold. Though it’s been thirty years,
my mother blushes. Cholera, the guide explains,
swept through this part of Ireland
many times. The Abbey was a ruin
by 1641, but since you cannot unbless
consecrated ground, soul-panicked families
barrowed their splotched bodies here
and banked earth over them, mounding it.
You can see, here the guide gestures
towards a stone arch, peak barely a few feet
higher than the thick viridian lawn,
the Abbey didn’t sink, as it might seem,
rather, the ground swelled with the dead –
a bone tide, rising. I look down at my feet
beneath which I divine a clatter
of femur and ulna and socket and skull.
They didn’t really understand the symptoms
the guide leads us along the cloister’s colonnade,
and in the rush to stave infection, sometimes
people were laid into makeshift catacombs alive.
One young woman’s journal from that time
describes the victims, sallow and blood-eyed,
knuckles black-raw from clawing their way
out of mass graves, staggering
from the Abbey, vomiting dirt and bile.
That young woman, she smiles fondly,
went on to become Bram Stoker’s mom.
My mother rises with her camera
from an eroding relief of winged skeletons
and says, in a voice someone else might hear
as stretched tight with feeling, I bet you’ll end up writing
this down. And I say, O, probably. Wondering
if I can write as far down as it takes
to find where the living are buried.
Rebecca Lindenberg is the author of Love, an Index and The Logan Notebooks, winner of the 2015 Utah Book Award. She teaches in the Creative Writing program at the University of Cincinnati.