Bess’s Lament





I didn’t know he was a magic man, a shape-shifter.  When I met him, he was Erik, trapeze artist, diminutive Jew.  I knew he liked streudel, stuffed cabbage, his mother’s babka.  He held me with his bird fingers—cupping my chin—teasing me with his flashing eyes.  I dreamt he was small enough to fit in my pocket.  Fold him up in quarters like a white handkerchief, to keep him near.  


In the beginning, I was his magic girl.  Swish. I hear it still.  The whoosh of the black cloth over the box.  The swords chiseled in.  Never touching my flesh.  Stepping out, I smiled.  Released from danger.  Never scared.  Never scarred.


Then he became Houdini.  The only trace of our act together, the way he twined and untwined my curls at night.  I had my own disappearing act.  He dazzled, unlocked manacles, handcuffs, climbed out of milk cans, trunks, coffins. My upside-down man unleashed himself from a straitjacket in midair as I held my breath.


I wanted to always be his gamin girl, to keep a small flame for him, before and even after death.  Do ghosts have breath?


In my old age I became what I always was.  A forsaken angel with wings of stone









I Am Your Dutiful Daughter


Bess’s Lament


Madison, Wisconsin, May 1970 (After Kent State)