Mary Jo Thompson

When Mousehood Was In Flower



1.  In black and white
—there was no color—she taught me
that mischief was the work of cats
and oilcans. My grandmother warned that evil
came in kinds and sizes. Pint-sized oilcans
squawked like crows and squirted when they saw me.
If a girl got saucy, Harry, the dirty barrel,
carried her off to the sawmill, strapped her
to the tracks. He once tried to hurt a girl
named Fanny—Grandma pinched my butt.
Then she sang a song: “And the Villain Still
Pursued Her,” and chased me around her kitchen
with an oilcan in her hand. All of the cats were hiding
under her bed by then, and the sewing machine
was quiet, thirsty in its corner.

2.  When she’s out
I pick the oilcan up,
put my thumb against
the metal butt,
pop it in and out—it sounds
like Dorothy tump tump-ing
the Tin Man—but deeper,
a chamber filled with heart.
Three drops of oil
the colors of fool’s gold
spurt from the tip
of the tapered spout.

3. On my own
Deep in the woods I find
a bone-carved doll. A magic
ball of yarn has shown the way.
With the doll in hand
I feel accompanied. She
whispers to me to keep on moving
through night’s oily stares.
Just as I grow hungry
I come upon a hut
surrounded by mouse skulls.
They are lit like lanterns.
I’m not afraid,
even though the hut rises
on giant cat legs.
I climb a ladder to enter but I
barely can—my feet
touch one corner,
my head bumps the ceiling.
The house begins to stalk
and purr. Grandma, in a red
housedress, fills the window.

4.  The mouth
So badly lit, the place I do not fit.
She tries to smooch me through my fingers.
Goodnight, she says, her shadow twinned.
Not yet, I say. I’m not sleepy.

5.  I sing soprano
and the house walks,
half groans, half talks
in bass-baritone.
How can I fly into action
against red Grandma,
her cats, her cans?
She sings in deep alto:
I clean the children first,
before I eat them
, and she nibbles
at my neck. On the counter
I spot a metal lid:
“Oil Can Grease and Grime
Soap—everyday, for worker’s dirt.”

6.  The fine gauze
Grandma says my soul
is a gossamer cloth. Venial
sins leave small ink spots.
Mortal sins spill oil.
I watch seven goslings
and their geese serenely
swimming inside gasoline
rainbows. I feed them
in hopes they’ll be mine.
In the nearby reeds, a fine film
of webs, the kind spun in August
like the Virgin’s winding-sheet.
Pure, she was lifted to heaven.

7.  But back in Mouseville
It’s Saturday morning
and black and white cats
have captured
all the mice but one.
I am the one, Pearl,
with pinched fanny.
My ears are slim.
My hair is red as osiers.
I have topaz eyes.
Smiling, I show a small gap
between big-girl teeth.

8.  And at the supermarket
I find and eat Super Celery
that’s been dipped in Super Cheese.
I rise, bolt away from Grandma’s
grip, and with my one silver
forearm held high I smite
each tank and cat, smash small
oilcans with my holy heel.

What a Girl! The crowd is singing.
Here she comes! What a Girl!

Mary Jo Thompson

Mary Jo Thompson’s poems have appeared in the anthologies Best American Poetry and Another and Another from Bull City Press, and in Beloit Poetry Journal, Field, Prairie Schooner, Rhino, Indiana Review, Carolina Quarterly, Great River Review, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, and Minnesota Monthly, among other journals. Poems that appeared in Field and Rhino were nominated for the 2014 Pushcart Prize. Thompson holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the Warren Wilson College Program for Writers and teaches arts education at St. Mary’s University in Minneapolis, MN.