By Mariah Stewart
Why Russia Doesn’t Keep a Diary
My first memory was the cold.
The second a leather strap being tightened
around my neck,
attached to it a chain
that clinked like crystal bracelets.
They didn’t give me a name
but pressed my head to the dirt and hissed,
“Obey your God.”
I have learned that earth and hell are not so far
and heaven is found in a bottle.
I begged Mary to reach through her wooden canvass
and peel the collar from my throat.
Flecks of spit speck my forehead
as the priest shakes his finger,
But I never asked to be a saint.
Killed by other men that then
then they die, too.
I stand in a graveyard of bones
I’m supposed to thank
But they still haven’t given me
When the sky bled orange
and sparks whirled up to kiss onion domes
I asked myself why men
will die for things they cannot see.
Babushka pressed wrinkled thumbs
to the pits of my eyes and smiled
with blackened teeth.
“It’s what God wants.”
In 1702 He gave me a name
but it sounded German.
Skin pulled tight into silken garb,
Winter’s breath bites bare where a beard once was.
The symbols I imagined to be pictures
now roll off the tongue, a spoken word.
I frown at the statues I don’t recognize –
And then peasants became human
and literature a thing I didn’t need to
press finger pads against glass
to see for myself.
The collar around my neck loosened
and I found a voice
though dry with death
they called it art.
the leather was ripped from my skin
muscle stretched and snapped back,
torn by the point of a fountain-ink pen.
As I sank to my knees and clutched the bleeding wound
the poor cheered,
throwing coins into the air they did not own –
falling to the brick in silence.
The streets seep gold
but when I bend down to touch it
sinks into cracks of the earth
with the clink of champagne.
When I ask for a change
lips pull into laughter
bullets snap overcoat thread
and my fingers glisten red.
They tell me that after the smoke cleared
she was crouched against the wall
too shocked to shed tears,
that I crossed the room and rammed
a bayonet through her gut.
I have learned that smoke never clears.
War will bleed us
Gods will rule us
and saints will tell us
what not to remember.
The prisons –
… no ….
And Him ….
is He listening still?
We were a great nation, but ––
Memories blotted out
by pools of ink salt,
parchment pages destroyed
in my rage.
Sometimes it’s easier to forget.
To Those Who Died at my Funeral
Let tears fall for me and
trickle through spider web cracks
drip into the Volga scarlet with
the blood of our heroes.
I’ll catch them in palm wrinkles,
plop in cup of my pipe with a hiss,
They collect like droplets of sweat on my lip,
zig-zag down my back, the sting
of a cold shower. Let tears fall for me
until the streets are slick
and worn boot heel
slips on cobblestone knuckles.
Finger bones snap, crunch,
wet burst of the ribcage as it
punctures fleshed windows.
Poka Zemlya esche vertitsya …
My uniform sticks to my neck
and I open my eyes in the hot blackness.
I run my tongue over my lips
and taste exquisite salt.
Mariah Stewart studies Russian at the University of South Carolina. She is an alumni of the Fine Arts Center creative writing program. She has publications in Glass Kite Anthology, The Noisy Island, and Polyphony H.S., and is currently fiction editor of her University’s literary magazine The Lettered Olive.