Back to Issue Three.

Self-Portrait as Mortician



When my cousin was young, she broke
into a window of an neighbor’s home
to steal a bracelet she had noticed
on a table, and instead found the woman

dead on her bed, her limbs grey-blue
and bruised, her mouth open in an
unuttered vowel. Surprise or ache,
my cousin always urged both.

What she remembered were the green
eyes, the fingers pointing to the floor,
the smell of the body, like it had soaked
in sewer water and lilacs, the woman’s

night gown lifted to her chest,
her soft belly tugged over the elastic
of her panties, her breasts uncovered,
slack with gravity. The first woman

my cousin ever saw naked had died
of an asthma attack before turning
out the light for bed. Years later,
my cousin works in a mortuary,

helping families move through grief
and I still can’t stop gazing at the dead
bodies. At every funeral I look for it –
a color, a breath, a nudge. The smell

my cousin described, movement. But,
there are no sweet smells or mixtures
or jolts of casket wheels. I can see
myself in the waxed surfaces,

looking. Just a squint, wishing I could
kneed the skin of these bodies with
my own hands, to reshape them,
to pull an arm up and to lift a leg,

to sit them into rocking chairs,
help them recline on soft couches,
imagining my cousin must forget
to wear her rubber gloves

as she undresses each body,
wipes it down, remolds the wounds,
hides the bruises, imagining
the dead could somehow become

animated once more, if only
we’d keep massaging, touching,
if only we’d just stop looking.

Mary Stone Dockery‘s poetry and prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Gargoyle, >kill author, Weave, Midwestern Gothic, Foundling Review, Breadcrumb Scabs, and many other fine journals. Her chapbook Aching Buttons will be released in January, 2012 by Dancing Girl Press. In 2011 she received the Langston Hughes Creative Writing Award in Poetry and her chapbook Becoming an Island was a semi-finalist in the Mary Ballard Poetry Chapbook Prize. She is the co-founding editor of Stone Highway Review and a co-editor of Blue Island Review, in addition to reading for Gemini Magazine and working for Portal del Sol. Currently, she lives and writes in Lawrence, Kansas.