Born to Dance

Julie Batten

“To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.” Pol Pot

Gifted they were called, those first drawn to dance
in the red sea of the womb, their mothers’ hearts
no less than a mandolin in their ear buds,
their own feet crescent moons. Children who dreamed
of flesh on flesh, knees fanned up to their ears,
their own sinew pulled into long whistling strands.
Those endowed with Em Theay’s disproportionate ease –
an unnatural length of neck, bend to their bodies, point to their toes – 
were hand-picked by the Royals to dance for life,
like so many gleaming lottery winners, lucky tickets
stuffed into the toe of a point shoe, soaking up blood, for good measure.
Storytellers these, sprites whose beauty could black the sun, inebriate
the audience with a leap that lasted nights, curl torsos
into adjectives that whispered of wars not yet fought.
Perhaps this is why in Cambodia, they were the first to go,
the Khmer Rouge slaughtering them in their leotards mid-air –
what remained of toenails torn out and made into wind chimes,
so that their parents, thigh deep in rice paddies,
watched over by pick axes, could hear that they had died
                                                                        and curse their grace.

Blue Water Village

Feathery is my flight
from Santa Fe to Phoenix,
driving on my way
to where my father lies
bleeding inside himself.

A laundromat-hot afternoon
pounds through open windows,
tangling my hair into the froth
of my most unloved dolls,
gagged by the want
of a mouth on theirs.

Rising up, three,
four miles ahead, a herd
of shadow-ribbed stallions
lend a brittle silhouette
to the horizon.

Minus distance,
the horses morph into huts -
an Indian village halo-ed
in blue heat, home of the living dead,
an old cartoon of itself.

Pumping fuel,
I gulp down curdled heartbreak,
country love songs spooned
from the neck of a guitar
onto the gravel of airwaves.

The air eats at my eyes
and the diseased metal
of a Coca-Cola sign clangs
haplessly at an unseen thirst.
The words, Blue Water, taunt.

Hearing a semi go by on the highway,
I think of horses stampeding,
my father breathing out through his mouth.
Tumbleweed too heavy for the earth.

His lips,
baked into parchment C’s
by the papery fever of a last stand,
drink in the petroleum jelly
the nurse smears over them.

The day endures,
the taste of gasoline
beginning its slow, acrid creep
across our tongues –
organs too far gone
to spit and swear.

Nothing else in the
passage of nine, brown-land
blue-sky Ford-Mustang hours
it takes to get to where
she sits stroking his hand.

                                                            Hours later
                                                            before she pulls the sheet up over his face,
                                                            I rub my sunburned face
                                                            across his dead mouth
                                                            until I gleam.

First Steps

My daughter walks like the world is a boat.
Checks the horizon and looks down
before lifting her foot to meet the next lilt in the sea.
I wonder how many times she will look down
in her life, at her shoes, the floor, a blade of grass,
a crack. I hover at the edges of her puddle
with a stick, pushing her toward a deeper center.
The wind takes her elsewhere, keeps me scrambling
for a different angle. I watch for beauty,}
knowing the sandbox that is wealth,
and wonder if her hair will always be falling
about her face the way it does now? Up,
instead of down, seductive as a light snow.

I look from the stick I hold
to the gleeful bobbings of this cockleshell
before me, wondering in my threadbare way
if the greatest kindness would be
to mar her beauty before someone else does?
Hurt her so violently
as to endow her with her own mother’s
injuries, the beginning and end simultaneously,
the thoroughness of disappointment,
a life’s lessons, call it her birthright.
At least it will be over with then.
And she will say the word Mother
with Tabasco on her tongue.
Announce that it is my fault.
Slam doors until their hinges give in.
I could live with that.

Instead, I am left here wanting to know
what I cannot, so that I might close
my eyes at night and never awaken
to a sweaty game of Truth-or-Dare.
I want to know so that I might be
free of the double vision that is worry.
I want to know so that I can stay here
on the pier when she rounds the point,
leaving only an outcropping of rocks
in her wake, and not slip through the slats.
She is a sailor who wears me like overalls -
sturdy, corduroy, meant to be torn.

Julie Batten
Julie Batten

Julie Batten currently teaches personal essay at the Lifebridge shelter in Salem, Massachusetts, where her students are a constant source of inspiration to her. She has an MFA in writing and literature from Bennington College and has worked extensively to promote MassPoetry, a local non-profit committed to bringing poetry to the people of Massachusetts.