In his record of the gods, the scholar pauses
when he comes to Hestia. There is not much
for him to record:
the first devoured by Cronus
the last vomited out
custodian of the gods’ hearth
a domestic ideal for women to aspire to.
He thinks—more a footnote than a deity.
His stomach grumbles,
and he lays down his quill.
When he steps into the kitchen,
the women’s laugher stops—
only the fire and the boiling pots
continue their chatter.
As the women slice and butter his bread,
as they cut his meat, he doesn’t inquire
into their conversation—such gossip
would lower his lofty thoughts.
As soon as he leaves the room, his wife, his daughters,
his mother, his poor unmarried sister, his servant return to their gossip:
the woman in the house down the street
the missing teeth
how one can turn from the hearth (for only a second) and a stray spark burns down the house.
At least she got the children out,
the scholar’s mother says, pity about the husband.
I pay the grave robbers
though I abhor their necessity,
the dirt underneath their fingernails,
the wink one gives as he mutters
She’s a looker tonight.
But a doctor must explore flesh,
travel the twisted roads of veins,
discover the borders between
organs to understand the living’s ills.
The corpse on my table reminds me
of when my father took me to see
the burning of the witch.
Her head was shaved, her shift smeared
with manure, her face a bouquet:
old yellow bruises and the newer blue-black.
She didn’t flinch, even when
a rock smashed into her head.
She refused to feed those flames
her screams. That superstition,
is why I reach for my scalpel.
It must be cut off like a gangrenous limb.
I never knew what madness
the townsfolk mistook for witchcraft.
Did the grief of a child not born
cause her to fall on the floor,
a heap of withering limbs and curses?
Did some fever leave her with visions
of Lucifer pulling her nightgown
over her shoulders? I pause in my cutting
to study the most likely culprit,
the uterus. Necessary for life—
a demonic creature, the fallopian tubes
limbs which allow it
to crawl about the abdomen,
into the chest, wrap itself about the heart
and squeeze. No doubt this organ
was the demon that caused
the witch to claw through cemetery soil
and collect the infant’s spleen,
the prostitute’s liver, to pluck
the hanged man’s swollen fingers
and toes like peapods.
Oh, if I could make the town see,
it was not a matter of devilry
but that of anatomy, they would have
shown mercy, took the poor hysteric
somewhere where she couldn’t harm
herself or others. Unfortunately,
superstition runs deep, and even I
am forced to shadows and reduced
to cutting open some old whore.