Potlatch
by Maria Elena Caballero-Robb

    We long to have the world flow through us like food or air.
    ____________________________________-- Lewis Hyde, The Gift


    Because she asked me to,
    I offered up my palms, and then, to outdo
    me, she laid the cooking spoon

    first in one hand, then in the other. Wood blonded in years
    of cook pots cracked in my open hands.
    It was nothing, she said. There were rules:

    You must give until you have nothing left. I gave my cheeks
    and shamed her when she hung on, twisting skin,
    gasping through tiny teeth.

    She was at a loss until she gave me a doll
    half as tall as me. I gave it back headless,
    the eyes winking on tiny hinges, head swinging

    on hanks of blond, the way kids can be jerked
    across a room. So she decked my ear
    with a ringed fist. In return I planted fresh blooms, green and purple
    for the heel of her hand. Look what you did, she'd say,
    holding her palms open and looking pained like a martyr in a painting.

    This went on for years, our presents more and more extravagant,
    but I never made good what I owed her.
    Another time she gave me the gold tooth
    of a belt. It winked and kissed the inside of my wrist.
    I can't remember what she sent next,

    but after that I didn't get good sleep the way I used to.
    I got cowering sleep, stealing comfort
    I didn't deserve, exhausted.

    A gift must be kept moving
    or it dies. Carry me swiftly, it says,
    or I will turn to poison.






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