When I was a sophomore in high school,
my mother set out to teach me geometry.
Seated across from her at the table,
I laid out my graph paper and compass,
wondering if she could prove perpendicular
lines could not be parallel.
"The world is full of geometry," she said.
"Snowflakes are hexagons.
Earthworms are cylinders. Navigators
have always relied on geometry."
Not given to pure reason, I felt
the curve of my hand in Johnny's hip pocket.
The snow was melting.
the earthworms hummed
They measured out their dirty work.
Instruments so finely tuned
they breathed through their own skins.
A ray of sunlight shone through the window
at an angle that made me squint.
Encountering an asymptote,
my mother stretched her arm toward me and said,
"This is a line that goes on and on forever."
Infinity was not a concept I grasped
until our circle was broken, dirges
sung, the earth measured.
Sunday morning, I took my place
between my father and my mother.
I smoothed my blue dress
over my crinoline petticoat,
crossed my legs at the lace line
of my white socks, and jiggled one black
patent leather shoe.
The preacher's voice
boomed. He brayed about the bride of Christ,
the church. Those
outside would burn
in the lake of fire. I
prayed for my grandmother.
She stayed home Sunday mornings
to fry chicken and bake red devil cakes.
Monday morning, I played beneath the giant
shade tree in my grandmother's side yard.
I did not see the snake, did not hear it hiss,
did not feel it slithering toward me until
Queen, my grandmother's dog, snapped up the snake.
She shook it like a dust mop.
My grandmother chopped off that snake's head, then
doused it with lighter fluid.
I stepped back as she struck a match.
The snake's dark flesh melted away as unborn
children spun from her womb
till they were consumed in the flames.
Monday night, I slept the sleep of children
who dream of the people who love them.
Dressed as torch-bearing goddesses,
my grandmother and I walked a rocky path
together. No street of
beneath our feet, we plucked
oranges from the leaves of a summer green tree.
We spoke with no talking serpent,
tasted the flesh of no apple,
heard the voice of no man
looking for someone to whom he could feel
superior in our paradise.
Discarded detergent boxes
fill trash cans.
spin. A lone college
in a white cotton shift
sits on a tall table.
Holding a fat romance novel,
she swings her spindly legs.
I, too, was alone in the laundromat
the afternoon I met you.
The washing machine
juddered through its final cycle,
jiggling my empty laundry basket.
Just as I looked out the dust-mottled window,
the sun blazed crimson and I
caught my first glimpse of you.
Though you abandoned me, I think of you
as I watch our daughter twist
a strand of hair around her finger,
the freckles I used to count
barely visible. Now,
as I sort our laundry,
she pays close attention to how
I separate light from dark.
From an upstairs window,
I spy my cat, Zeus,
crouched on the lowest limb
of a dogwood tree.
Pink blossoms dapple
his smoke-colored fur.
Across the hall, my daughter
murmurs into her cell phone.
"Why can't you see me
at Thanksgiving?" she asks
her father, a state away.
he mumbles some excuse -
obligations, work, his new family.
She says, "Maybe Christmas
would be better."
I keep my eyes on Zeus.
His tail moves like a metronome.
I step closer to the window.
A baby mouse lies
trembling in the grass.
I hear, "I understand."
I tear down the stairs, jerk
the front door open.
my bare feet meet the cold concrete,
His fat paws press the mouse down.
He flips it in the air,
catches it, and drags a claw
across its upturned belly.
He opens the tiny creature's chest
and extracts its still-beating heart.
I turn away just
as he flicks out his tongue
to lick warm blood from his lips.
Copyright © 2014 Teresa Burns
Teresa Burns Murphy is the author of a novel,
The Secret to Flying
(TigerEye Publications, 2011).
Her writing has also been published in
Amazing Graces: Yet Another Collection of Fiction by
Washington Area Women
(Paycock Press, 2012),
Academic Exchange Quarterly,
Pulse Literary Review,
the Science Teacher,
the Washington Post,
While teaching at Lyon College in Batesville, Arkansas,
she was awarded the Lamar Williamson Prize for
Excellence in Teaching and was the recipient of the
Association of Independent Liberal Arts Colleges for
Teacher Education Scholar Award for her research on
violence and peacemaking in the public schools.
Originally from Arkansas, she
currently lives in a suburb of Washington, D.C.
To learn more about her writing, visit her at