Back to Issue Forty-One

Pope Joan



Tonight I am holy with Cabernet
so I will confess. When I slip off my dress,
my sins ebb back beneath my skin,
like winged creatures scuttling from light.
Do you know the story of the lady pope?
I heard she did it all for love. Today I didn’t
tell the Witness at my door I once believed
I’d make the cut for sainthood even after kissing
Krissy Swift in kindergarten, at naptime,
lying side by side under the craft table.
In the ninth century, the lady pope’s feet
were tied to the tail of a cantering horse
as the faithful threw stones. Half a league
before she died. I confess I stole
a sleeve of communion wafers and ate them
with the other girls behind the school
tonguing them from each other’s palms.
As girls we knew to be a saint one must be a virgin
burned alive, be a virgin thrown into a lake
with a weight around her neck, be a virgin waiting
to be shot through with arrows. The lady pope
was found out not for her body but its use.
They say she gave birth during a procession,
the child falling from her gilded litter
like a guillotined head. What history do I run from
each time I open the grotto of my mouth?
One that carved a hollow throne
through which some acolyte’s hand reached
like a twisted sapling to feel for what was
or wasn’t there. Tonight I want to believe
in wholeness. Here is my armor
of fine silver scales. Let me take it off for you.
Here are the wounds, jewel-like, scribed
across my thighs. But when I kneel
something inside me slams shut. When I pray
I hear the sound of horses cantering
a thousand leagues. Yes, I’ll come to bed now.
After all, none of that story was true.
Love, I was so sure you already knew.






One version of the story: a lover spent all day in a freezer
Elbow-deep in cadavers

Then took off the bloody gloves, came home, and touched me
With those same hands.

What is the difference? Perhaps none. Perhaps inside of me
Was cold like that.

If dreaming is not unlike death say sometimes I was asleep
Or near to it.

In the version of the story I will tell I am alive but dreaming.
Cold sweat on the sheets.

A memory of bodies getting up from steel beds, zipping skins
Up to their throats.

In another version of the story I leave out all bodies but my own
To bury the evidence.

What is the difference? Not understanding the chest stitched up
Like a divining rod

To be my own, or my lover to be an undertaker not a doctor
Seeking another pulse

Beating lower than the first. Here, I will ask again: what
Is the difference?

If one story is as real as a palmed stone, say I’ve been carrying it
For years, trying

To determine whether the sound of a broken surface is the same
However a stone is thrown.

Say I am truthful: if I were cut open, this too would float out
Like a clot of balloons.


Alison Thumel is currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. She received her MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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