Learning to Count

You learned to count, walking home from school.
You learned to count leaves and sidewalk cracks,
segments of dog crap, cigarette butts, and bugs.

Every moment you could count something
you could put off the moment you would see
the face on the stoop, the hands
with long fingers: the gold ring.

“Beautiful,” he said, and when he said it
you didn’t believe him; you couldn’t believe
a stranger with that in his hands. An enemy.

You learned to count
the number of breaths it would take before
your heart stopped rabbiting your chest. One time
you got to twenty and it hadn’t stopped but it would.

When it was time to tell your story,
you stood up and before so many more strangers
you said you learned to count. You learned
to make it not matter: to postpone the inevitable
walk because all walks led past that stoop
with the face and the ring and what in his hands.

So many times you have told your story now;
so many times that you could say it backwards
and so many times that it is a benediction
of all you never wanted. The feel of an oak leaf
crushed snugly beneath your boot: one. His hands
around your neck: two. The worn locks you checked
and touched and needed to keep you inside: three.

Your story, written by coincidence and
rewritten by memory, no longer matters.
The numbers
no longer matter.
Those things
no longer count.
You see a paper bag on the street
and it is just any other paper bag.
When you get home, no locks will keep you safe.

When you get home, no words will undo it. No one
needs this story anymore, least of all you.
You count the things that mean something now.
One: heart that is certain, brain that thirsts,
body that is clean.
Two: hands to hold the hands of your lover,
eyes to see the sky and sun.
Three: breaths it takes to stop crying. That’s all. Stop now.

You count.

© 2005 by Halsted M. Bernard

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I acknowledge that I live and work on stolen Cowlitz, Clackamas, Atfalati, and Kalapuya land.
I give respect and reverence to those who came before me.