Nocturne for the Firstborn

Brent House


We rented the house we could afford, a house you would not remember, not the kitchen with its faded linoleum, not the August heat, beating as strong as a scorpion’s heart, not the torn screen through which our dog leapt as a new star above the horizon, not the fearful bricks around a cold fireplace, and not the light shining through the space beneath the keystone.

In the weeks just before you arrived, your mother opened our bundles of little of nothing, shower gifts brought from church, a nebula of possessions from the wedding, and spread them across the hardwood, as I pieced together furniture, retouched the blemishes. The patch of carpet stained with urine from the Labrador, we asked the landlord to change.

Here was the place you slept, a home, or, truth, here was a crib where you laid—swayed in the shadows of a nightlight and content in the sound of a lamb’s heart—until your wail, strong as a horse’s shoulder, brought a neighbor to our door.

In a bed we three shared, you slept, finally, just across from your grandparent’s room. They woke early to play peekaboo, to lay you on a quilt and hold the rattles above your head—your wing, your shield, and your morning star.

I came home in the middle of the day, to raise you in my arms, to carry you to the mother who would hold you to her breasts.

Past the overlap of houses, invasive ivy, park with union dead buried, hour-chiming churches, and exhausts of fryers, I carried you across the sidewalks of this corpuscular fall, into a season I never knew. You fed, and I fed, and we returned.

In the winter, you slept through the darkness.

With spread sheets, I sat at the handed-down dining table, figured the balance of a formula, and bills, then found native language instructions for the gifts I assembled from parts elsewhere molded. The colors of your life, a contrast for my monochrome.

Beyond the solstice, our year rolled from its belly to back, and you reached for the mirror, the crescent moon above the firmament of your world, and you grew, as your mother bragged her child’s eyes more beautiful than the blue of the Aegean.

Between us, you grew, slept, and woke. Flesh against flesh, you and your mother, in that warmth, as your cup became a crater, while I learned to eat apples from the flower to the stem, to leave just the seed.

The banks of your toy chest flooded like rivers after a thaw, and you stood with hands reached out to plastic as a fisherman might reach to the waters to capture a fish caught on a lure of great price. I walked in fear of squares, circles, triangles, and constellations that would break the flesh of my feet.

We crawled together on new carpet and sat upright, mostly, until you leaned forward, and I moved to catch your fall. I raised my pen in hand as quickly as a hero’s sword cut heads from the Lernaean Hydra. A spot of ink cauterized at the line of your brow, black as a spot on the face of the sun.

One last snowfall came in April, that year, but the boxes we saved were dry in their stalls. Like a herdsman, I gathered them to the places they would haul—the dining room with the handed-down table, the kitchen with metal-rimmed Formica, the living room with the floor of bricks, the bedroom where we slept together, the other where your grandparents slept, the bathroom where you squirted water from the mouth of your dragon, and the closets with doors we could not keep shut.

In the first days of summer, I carried the weight of our possessions with the strength of seven oxen. I carried you to a place where snow fell only on Christmas, where the days were never so dark. The house we could not afford sat under winds strong enough to lift a kite into the absence of sight. For three years, we lived on top of red soils, and we walked among pine and aromatic cedar.


Brent House, a coeditor for The Gulf Stream: Poems of the Gulf Coast and a contributing editor for The Tusculum Review, is a native of Necaise, Mississippi, where he raised cattle and watermelons on his family’s farm. His first collection, The Saw Year Prophecies, was published by Slash Pine Press.