Cathleen Calbert

Death’s Good Counsel

Death says, “Don’t listen to them. Don’t invite them in. Blow out those black candles, put away your high school Ouija board, unclasp your hands, and throw open the curtains when you catch the scent of oranges or roses, feel a heaviness on the bed, see a solid silhouette, find your milk drunk or soured, jewelry and shoes moved, wine turned to vinegar, mind to the afterlife. Even face-to-face with a manifestation, don’t acknowledge its nonexistence. Spirits feed on courtesies. They will stumble, confused, about your floral bedroom. They’ll linger on the basement stairs, pulsing with electricity. They’ll lie in the iridescent green pooling under pedestrian bridges. They won’t mean to harm you, but they will: a big wind to your mobile home of a body. Don’t believe their stories. Like the demimonde, they can’t help lying.” His girlfriend won’t listen to him. She throws out his sprigs of rosemary and his pepper spray to plead with her dead mother, “Mama, do anything. Torment me. Terrify me. Just don’t leave me with nothing.” Death says, “Dearest, don’t you know the toughest ghosts to get rid of are those that won’t visit?”

Family Outing

The members of the family shoulder their way to the water’s edge in an SUV as large as an armored car. They crowd the sand in their Lands’ End casuals. They clap their hands at seagulls and one fish-heavy pelican. They direct the sun to ease more slowly into the west. They frighten the lone fisherman with his retirement cigar. He’s smoking! cries Slyboots, the youngest of the bunch. Don’t be a chimney, cries the family. He dropped it in the s-a-a-a-nd! cries Slyboots. Don’t be a litter bug, cries the family. Death follows the family as the family follows Slyboots. She’s their Pole Star, their methamphetamine, their Little Hitler. When Death corrects her at checkers, she says he’s being mean. Don’t be mean, Death, chides the family. It’s not nice to be mean. Death lets Slyboots break all his fingers. She breaks all his toes. Her lungs are iron, her will iron, her fists little balls of iron. You’re going to get it in half a minute, Death warns the girl. You don’t know what it is to have a family, chants the family. Death would like to stop the child’s mouth and stop her running around. If he did so, the family might turn into insouciant artists. They’d chuck the tank, lose the house, and spew out bad poetry. He just can’t do that to them.

Death’s Magic Tricks

Death blew them away at the senior center with his Chinese Linking Rings and the Airborne 7-Up Can, then wowed them in Delancey’s Pub, showing off Smoke on the Ocean and the Vanishing Wand, and preschoolers at Tiny Tots gave it up for the French Arm Chopper as well as the Egyptian Water Box. The local writers’ group was less easily amused. No Hole in the Dollar for them, no easy Three-Card Monte. They wanted to see his false fingertip, hunt under his flying carpet, and handle his two-headed serpent from Laos. They insisted on lifting the lids of the Babylonian Demon Bowls and scoffed at the Floating Match Trick though they wrote down the words demon bowls and floating match trick. Death did what he could for them. He sawed a young woman in half. He thrust swords into the boxed man. Death let loose a dozen doves that fell lifeless at their feet as he bowed down with sudden flowers. The writers remained unimpressed (dead doves had been done), so he wheeled in the Disintegration Chamber and invited them to step inside Life’s Greatest Mystery. All but one went. “What’s the magic word?” he asked the black sheep, who suffered from writer’s block. “I give up,” she shrugged. “That will do,” Death agreed.


Cathleen Calbert’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. She is the author of four books of poems: Lessons in Space, Bad Judgment, Sleeping with a Famous Poet, and The Afflicted Girls. Her awards include the 92nd Street Y Discovery Poetry Prize, a Pushcart Prize, and the Sheila Motton Book Prize.