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What You Find at the Center

By Elizabeth R McClellan in Issue Twelve, December 2023

after @notaleptic

six feet down and you sat
in the garden filling your notebooks
with scrawled labyrinths; circus tents
overlapping the paths and midways.

ten feet down and you cried
over some girl who liked math and uppers
better than cartography or tracing
the lines she drew between you or me.

fourteen feet down and you're a bad dream.
my mother says I never had a friend like you
and she would know. I have your notebook,
followed it here, carrying a shovel.

twenty feet down and here is tile, a floor
patterned in your doodle loops, inlaid
green as your eyes in your brown face
when you made me promise not to tell.

I didn't tell, even when the cops
came. how does Mom not remember
feeding the police brownies while
they asked me if you talked about a boyfriend,

if you had plans to run away. I said no,
you never talked about boys, did not say
a word about girls, drawings, carnivals
or your dreams of falling deep below the earth,

following the guides you took with you,
leaving only the one meant for me. my hands blister, crack.
When they bleed onto the soil

the tile slides away. my hands jerk empty.
I fall breathless, tumbling,
praying there's a net to catch me, a tent
full of townies to be rooked.

my hands grab air. you're
the girl who ran away with the circus and I
have come in the third act to join you.
the earth has swallowed me up like

an endless tunnel of love ridden solo. I stop
hard, thudding painless in darkness
that smells like salt and honey and dust,
no popcorn, no fried dough, but a hint

of shit and straw and regret.
but there’s no big top in sight,
no Ferris wheel creak, no light,
like the circus left town when I hit.

I feel your unmistakable hand slip
into mine, hear your voice tell me don’t panic.
Let’s go. There’s no ringmaster but someone’s watching,
someone’s in the boneyard still.

so I play pretend, tell my panic it’s only a
practical pop quiz, follow the familiar cues
that don't smell like you but walk in your
hop-skip rhythm in your clacking shoes,

silent fearing a spell, me who never
runs out of words, eyes fixed forward like
a cautious Orpheus. Whose hand
is in mine as I turn back toward the surface mapless?

© 2023 Elizabeth R. McClellan

Elizabeth R McClellan

Elizabeth R. McClellan is a white disabled neurospicy gender/queer sapphic demisexual poet writing on unceded Quapaw and Chickasha Yaki land. Kans work has appeared in many venues including Nightmare Magazine, Dracula: Beyond Stoker, Strange Horizons, Utopia Science Fiction and many others including the Bram Stoker Award-nominated anthology MOTHER: TALES OF LOVE & TERROR. Ka has work forthcoming in Worlds of Possibility, Corvid Queen and the SALT, SAND, BLOOD anthology. Ka can be found on most social media as @popelizbet and on Patreon as ermcclellan.

Poetry by Elizabeth R McClellan
  • What You Find at the Center