The Maid’s Story

Robert Russell
| poetry


I’m a maid in this hotel, but
in my country, like most women,
I helped prepare the dead for burial,
and I know bodies have their own light
that they exhaust in living.
Sometimes I think I can see mine
leaving me, my own life flowing out of me
into the afternoon sunlight
that runs past these windows like a river.
The day goes on without me, familiar noise,
like the TV in the back of the room,
sounding like game shows or prompted applause.
It keeps me company in the intimate debris
that still makes me feel like a stranger:
someone else’s makeup sprawled beneath a mirror,
a hairbrush, a dying newspaper,
a pillowcase wounded by lipstick.
People always leave the water on in the bathroom,
mumbling to itself in the sink.
Maybe it makes them feel less alone.
In my country the women wash the bodies of the dead
and that water is darkened by death.
They say you can’t pour it on your garden:
it will stop your roses from blooming,
and your trees will never bear fruit.
The water will sink into the ground
but the dirt won’t even be damp.
Once, when I was a girl
I helped wash a boy who had drowned in the river.
I was young then, and terrified of childbirth.
I’d heard my mother screaming,
begging God for her life when my brothers were born,
and I didn’t want to go through that.
I was holding the sponge
and the women were talking to each other,
arguing about someone’s husband.
They left the room and I was alone
and the body, gray as wet newspaper,
the water dripping from it—
it could never have been alive—
the sponge streaming water down my arm
falling on the dirt floor like dull rain.
No one was watching me
and I looked at his empty body,
the water dripping,
and the earth was dry beneath him,
and I remembered my mother screaming
and the blood as my brothers came out of her—
                the water dull down my arm,
                the sponge warm as a breast—
so I raised it to my lips
and squeezed the dead water into my mouth.
It ran down my chin and fell, whispering, in the dirt
and it had no taste at all
like it wasn’t even wet
and it left me thirsty.
I never told anyone, and I never did it again,
and I never had children.
I remember it sometimes now
when I’m alone in these empty rooms,
my own life flowing away
and the TV arguing in the shadows behind me.
I remember that boy’s gray body
and the different voices of water
here in these dull rooms,
all of them lit with no more light
than a river carries
within itself.

Robert Russell is a recovering economist living in San Miguel de Allende, MX. He coordinated the CheapAtAnyPrice poetry series in Madison, WI for fifteen years, and has taught workshops in Mexico, Wisconsin, and at the National Poetry Slam.