My mother became an ornithologist
when the grackle tumbled through barbecue smoke
and fell at her feet. Soon she learned
why singers cage birds; it can take weeks
to memorize a melody —
the first days lost as they mope
and warble a friendless note,
the same tone every animal memorizes
hours into breathing. It’s a note
a cologne would emit if the bottle was struck
while something mystical was aligned
with something even more mystical
but farther away. My father was an astronomer
for forty minutes in a row
the first time a bus took us so far
from streetlights he could point out constellations
that may or may not have been Draco,
Orion, Aquila, or Crux.
When they faded I resented the sun’s excess,
a combination of fires I couldn’t smell.
The first chemist was a perfumer
whose combinations, brushed
against pulse points, were unlocked
by quickening blood. From stolen perfumes
I concocted my personal toxin.
It was no more deadly than as much water
to any creature the size of a roach. I grew suspicious
of my plate and lighter Bunsen burner,
the tiny vials accumulating in my closet.
I was a chemist for months
before I learned the difference
between poisoned and drowned.
When my bed caught fire
it smelled like a garden.
–by Jamaal May