My mother believes in saving, in pasting
pinky-sheared edges of the stamps into the books.
On the fabric cutting board, in bed at night, she teaches
us how to rip the stamps into strips, lick and stick them
in the Gift Saver book. My father gone. My father at the bar,
my father breaking down the door to our bedroom.
The three of us inside.
Each night I tell my daughters,
Do you understand I’ll never leave you?
Stop asking that, my older daughter shudders, turns away.
Once upon a time,
the wolf skittered down a chimney,
into a boiling pot.
Once upon a time,
girls hid from him,
his low persistent growl
in the kitchen.
The stamps make me want to swallow and swallow.
The stamps are a puzzle of non-language my sister and I arrange
on our bed. The stamps are pleasure in counting.
Have a second child, the poet told me. She herself a mother of one.
Without a second you are locked in a triangle.
We’re locked in: deadbolt shoved shut. Door won’t splinter.
I’ve always loved the math of it: one girl for each parent.
Two girls, heads bowed over the books of stamps,
pretending not to hear glass breaking.
Two daughters, so one could save the other.
Now I’m the Mother. The one in the bedroom
with her daughters watching them sleep.
They wake up and tell me to go.
The one in the kitchen watching herself
knife through the breakfast toast.
My mother must have believed she was saving us each time she left us at the airport all night to sit in slick black chairs, when she brought us to motels on Airline Highway and locked us in and drove back to our father.
We believed she would never come back.
In the pot, the wolf churns, all body. But the wolf can climb out of the pot,
lift himself on his dirty grey paws, eyes glittering.
Collecting: how many sheets of stamps, how many slick black chairs,
how many missing mothers—
Counting: the math of it: leave, don’t leave.
Nicole Cooley grew up in New Orleans. Her most recent books are two forthcoming collections of poetry: Girl after Girl after Girl (LSU Press, 2017) and Of Marriage (Alice James Books, 2018). She has published four other collections of poems, a novel and a chapbook. She is the director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College-City University of New York.