Hourglasses have babies. I can see you smile at this funny assertion. But they do. Their babies are egg timers, and they are from birth ready to fend for themselves, the way snakes are, even the poisonous ones. Three sand minutes to set free with a hammer or watch at work—let us take our pick. The sand forms an anthill, this frass of time—don’t hear waste there—that eats away at anyone who catches it in such a magic little bottle, as fragile as test tube glass, that holds even less than a flight bottle’s serving. The filling is this emery board sand, the pink moon–pink salt side with its sidereal grit sparkling for observation, taking its Drinking Bird sips of your life, and yet it takes itself so seriously: the way the furniture of a toy piano is just as glossy and black as a grand one: the way an egg timer has two rosewood pillars, of Boaz and Jachin: this choreography in crystal hips like a music box dancer’s. It is how memory works, prophecy, going back and forth, eating at you—the way the dog suffers you in the window now, its rope brooming a slice of this cold clockface in the snow, a cold angel’s wing, a nice thought to mist a pane.
THE CAUL OF FREMONT ELSBACH
Such awe greeted the veiled child into the world still sacked in a membrane the color of a calla lily, with the fit of a diving bell, the face of a sock-blind cat. Cauls gave the wearer second-sight, a long look under Fate’s skirts. Cauls promised fortune. Sailors believed birth veils protected them from drowning. Celts believed cauls made one wise like the poet Taliesin—tossed in the Irish Sea inside his. Druid priests wore hoods as symbols of the divine caul. One had to be born with a caul to join the Benedanti—meaning “good walkers”—who wore theirs dried and around their wrists amulets and so fought witches in their sleep. The pope outlawed this order and had its members burned at the stake—but burning a caul at its wearer’s death allowed him or her to leave Purgatory. Vonnetta Chouinard, born in 1935, had a caul over her face and claimed at age seven she had died and “rose again on the third day” albeit with the agency of sulfa drugs too. At age ten, she could walk in and out of a different dimension. Gypsies grind their veils with garlic—and a four-leaf clover for good measure. For blue ribbon–winning roses, place a caul beneath the root ball. David Copperfield’s caul was sold in a newspaper, so his life was hard, and in some unwritten chapter of his life on hand here its new owner kept it pickled, safe, and shelved in a cool, dark space where I found it inside this havana box, this Ball jar laid in excelsior shaved as fine as what a china Jesus sleeps in under the Christmas tree. It was labeled with a year and an antique name that screamed someone took its story to the grave, but they forgot it here. I did all the reading you see and can tell you it went like this: A midwife would have lifted it from a tiny pink face as carefully as the gold-leaf of a mummy’s mask, like the skin from boiled milk. All the time, she would blow to prevent the veil from folding, from tearing, so all could see a “page of life.” Sometimes she rubbed them on paper and saved them in the bible. The art of reading a caul is amniomancy. This time she melted canning wax and inscribed the birth date and the baby’s name in the letters of preserves so that anyone could read it on the top shelf—half Frémont of the Golden West, half a clear drink of the Rhine. And this time his father maybe, a bowler hat and with the last of those La Duchess cigars handed out, decanted spirit alcohol from a glass jug to preserve his luck. Two fingers worth remain, and when you shake what is left of his son, imagine brown slush in a snow globe. And I have won and flushed away goldfish in more than this.
James Reidel has published in many journals, including The New Yorker, Paris Review, Ploughshares, American Poetry Review. He is the author of two collections of verse, Jim’s Book (2014) and My Window Seat for Arlena Twigg (2006). His most recent work has appeared in Poetry, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Hawai’i Review, Outsider, Fiction Southwest, The Flexible Persona, The Wax Paper, and elsewhere—including The Best Small Fictions 2016. He is also the biographer of the poet Weldon Kees and a translator, whose latest books include Comedies by Robert Walser (2018, with Daniele Pantano), Goethe Dies (2016), a collection of short stories by Thomas Bernhard, The Collected Poems of Thomas Bernhard (2017), and A Skeleton Plays Violin (2017), book three of the Our Trakl series. In 2013, he was a James Merrill House fellow. Currently, he is preparing a collection of prose poems for publication, a biography of Manon Gropius (the daughter of Walter Gropius, Alma Mahler, and Franz Werfel), and a translation of the collected poems of Heiner Müller.