SPOTLIGHT: ‘A History of Resurrection’ by Rachel Mallalieu

Lake Language

I grew up near the lake and
learned its language early.
When fish hung motionless,
I stood on the bank and placed one foot
on the ice, searching for hairline
fractures that would splinter
if I applied any weight.

One day when I was twelve,
my mother threw
her head back and laughed,
and I found
her weak spot—the space
where her molar wasn’t.
Her father was discreet and
rarely left visible wounds.

Yesterday, at work, I tended
to the ruined skin of a heroin addict.
I sliced and probed the tense lesion to
release infection.
When I removed my gloves,
she stared at my vein laced hands,
her eyes violent with want.
I recognize this desire for
things you do not have.

Recently I sipped wine
and listened to my friends’ drab
complaints of motherhood—
never ending laundry and the
incessant need for wine.
I wanted to join the conversation
but couldn’t find the words.
I’d watched a man die the night before.
It was his sixty-first birthday and
before his heart stopped, he choked
on his own blood.
Instead of speaking, I nodded
and willed my face to kindness.

When I was young,
my mother challenged me to swim
to the middle of the lake.
I jumped off the dock and
water lilies snagged
my ankles.
I floundered—
then kicked,
refusing to be pulled under.


At night, I no longer kiss my
children, for fear the errant
wind of my bedtime prayer
carries dissolution.
I am dust.
My particulates hang
deadly in the room.

I didn’t give up anything for Lent,
and then I gave up everything.
No ashes on my forehead, but rather
on my tongue— my mouth parched
behind the mask.
If this Friday is still good,
the seal will hold.

I am faceless.
I stop smiling at patients,
but I’m close enough to kiss them
when I place the blade
in their mouths, and search for
the pale glisten of cords
when I pass the breathing tube.

Last week, there was still
time so I let him call his son.
He wept and said I love you
then swore it wouldn’t be long
before they spoke again.
I never make promises I can’t keep.
It’s simpler to say he will die.
And if miraculously he does not,
no one ever begrudges
a resurrection. 


  1. On Tuesday night, a man and woman
    were seen holding hands on the Bay Bridge.
    They found her body the next day.
    On Thursday evening, the same man
    climbed the steel trusses at the highest point
    of the bridge and hung on with one arm.
    He swung to the cement barrier, and leaned
    toward the water when anyone came near.
    When we left for the beach on Friday,
    he was still there, swaying with exhaustion.
    It took 21 hours of persuasion
    before he came down.
  2. In a forgotten corner of Shenandoah County,
    Ethel and Marvin occasionally visit
    their joint headstone, which is tucked away
    in a small graveyard that borders
    the shooting range.
    Of course we’d like to go together,
    but if we can’t, at least I know we’ll rest together,
    Ethel is fond of saying.
    One morning, Ethel awoke from a dream
    in which she saw the death date chiseled on
    Marvin’s side of the stone.
    She gasped, rubbed her eyes and
    held a hand near Marvin’s mouth until
    she felt a reassuring gust of air.
  3. Every summer, my husband times
    how long it takes to
    power wash three cement steps.
    When he moves quickly—four minutes.
    At a leisurely pace, it’s longer than seven.
    In 2014, my youngest son drowned
    but did not die in the moments it took
    to wash three steps.
    I’m the one who compressed his chest
    and coaxed a thrum of pulse.
    I do not know how long it took.
    But now I wait.

June 2020

You took them hiking today
where the river smells green
the way the Schuylkill smelled when
you ran beside it in med school
before you married,
before you bore the boys and
adopted a girl—a brown skinned child
who suddenly wore your pale name,
back when the only dead body you’d touched was
the one you dissected in anatomy lab

Before you intubated the woman already
four hours dead when her husband
carried her into the waiting room
her eyes wouldn’t close but you
gave her the benefit of the doubt
and when you moved her
tongue aside you felt the chill of it
through two sets of gloves
Before a man’s tears collected in the
pools of his temples when you
told him he needed the ventilator and
all you could do to comfort him
was stroke his hair and tell him you would pray
Before your life became masks & goggles
& gowns & hair nets & fear
which settled in your throat

Before the country convulsed and some
of your friends didn’t understand why
though you knew it could be your daughter
under that knee someday
And you needed to write, so you
tried to write about an old Black
cemetery whose advertisements promised
undulating hills and tree canopied paths
where lawyers and Civil War veterans
would rest together beneath the willows
But later, when the land became valuable,
they quietly razed the graveyard
and built a dollar store
(only history would tolerate such a cheap metaphor)
The bodies were discovered
beneath the parking lot last year and
you imagined the dust of
pulverized bones riding
the wind like seeds and landing in soil
made rich with blood

These words are slick and slippery things like
the minnows which darted between
your fingers in the lake
behind your childhood home
And while you construct the
story you think she needs,
those seeds have already taken root
in your daughter’s wild heart
Tonight, the river scents her hair as she
leaps into the pool, silhouetted
against the sun’s dying embers,
arms flung wide as if to say,
This too belongs to me

My Grandma Lived on a Lake Like This

My grandma died alone today.
The home refused to let her children
bear witness to the quiet end
of 93 years.
My mom trembles with rage
filled guilt, and I do not know
what to say.
So I swim the length of my lake.
I swim past the cemetery where
they buried a baby 200 years ago—
his gravestone little more than a broken tooth.
My grandma is dead and I swim past the
forest where red capped mushrooms
hide poisonous gills.
A few gold veined leaves
litter the floor and winter
no longer feels distant.
But today, the water is my warm skin.
My liver is sick and no one knows why
and I swim quickly over the pockets
of cold water that hide below the surface.
I swim so far that I no longer
hear my children, only the
tinkling music my hands create
as they push and pull.
My grandma is dead and
I am sick. The lake smells organic
and ancient, the way it smelled
when my grandma persuaded me I
was strong enough to swim
to the other side.
When I return,
my youngest son uses me
as a mattress.
My body accommodates him
in the way known only to mothers.
My grandma died today and my liver
is sick and I don’t know why.
So I huddle under a blanket
of knees and elbows.
And warmed,
my soils settle and the
waters still.


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