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Pine Tree with Fish Head


Nailed to the trunk, jaws forced open,
some sort of pike or maybe a lake trout,
all the flesh rotted off or else eaten by the raspy

mouths of the infinitesimal, drawn to death
those many years ago, and so the fish skull,
mouth agape, sun-bleached to a porcelain white.

But the bared teeth of that mouth—I could not
stop looking, not because it was gruesome,
though it was that. Someone in the family—

my husband's—had done the deed. Maybe his
great-uncle Alfred, who worked for the railroad,
scouring the undersides of engines and boxcars,

always eager to detail his finds—a foot here, a hand there,
sometimes more. But this primitive totem, was it akin
to eating your enemy's heart or parading his head

on a stake? Was it warning or bravado or trophy?
A new bride, I couldn't say why the moon-white
skull, eye sockets staring, disturbed me so.

Today, a photo taken off the coast
of Mexico's Baja, the diver nearly engulfed
by a Bryde's whale feeding on mackerel—

the shot of the gaping maw, jaw flesh pleated
like a schoolgirl's skirt, the stringy baleen
of eat, eat—took me back to that time up north

in a Michigan of pine scent, brilliant stars, chill air.
I remember staring hard at that fish head, wondering
who are his people, to do such a thing? The mouth—

mouthing desire, mouthing fear—gave up no answer.
And oh, we had married fast. In a breathless rush,
the hunger had swallowed us.


Mary Jo Firth Gillett

The Southern Review

Autumn 2017


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