Night Work:  Walter E. Fernald State School

Once on a clear night in the spring

I stood in the nurse’s station

with the new boy they brought in,

a black boy with arms as thin

as reaching branches of the lilac

bush and eyes wide as an empty pond.

Blind.  Deaf.  I perched him

on the counter, lifted a spoon

of applesauce to his lips and watched

as he sucked it in.  A dark form

moved in the doorway and the prisoner

came in.  Jim.  Part of a special

release program.  As though throwing

the retarded and the damaged together

would somehow heal them both.

There must have been something

of the dad in him, because he lifted

that sliver of child to his chest

and cuddled him, as if this were

the seed of his race, its scarred

history, as if somehow a man’s voice

and the hardness of his hands

could reach past soundless

dusky shadows, slip into moving blood,

fill an aching belly.  He jostled the boy

as if he were a normal child and

for a moment I thought there might

be a reaction, some remnant of a smile

on the boy’s face.  But it was really me

Jim had come to see, slipping out

a joint, teasing, trying to pull me out

into the star blown night.


It was a fluke, the way he sucked

the applesauce in.  After that no one

could get him to eat, not even

from a bottle, much less a spoon.

They put a tube up his nose,

lay him in a crib in Ward 1

where the hopeless, cripples stayed.


Published in:

Verse Wisconsin (Summer 2010)