The Childhood of Wicked Stepmothers (Crimmins Poetry Prize Runner-up)

Like many beginnings, this is soft and small. Pink,
smelling of flake soap and breastmilk. It has cheeks,
dirt-stained, but cherubic as any. Sleeping eyelids,
perhaps more seldom, but sweet.

The mother smiles. Wipes a slick of sweat from her forehead,
clips to the clothesline an endless procession
of diversely sized diapers, small dresses, medium pants,
large socks. Plays patty-cake with her middle daughter.

The father works too hard, too late. Sometimes,
when he comes home early enough, he will grab
the middle daughter by her hands and spin and spin
until she feels her arms are about to rip from their sockets,
until she is dizzy enough to believe in this sideways flying.

Things spin. The mother dies, the father loses
his job and the family moves to a smaller place in Buffalo.
They rent out the upstairs room to make ends meet. He remarries,
to a woman who longs for stability, for love, but not for children.

Still, she eats, though not enough. She is beaten, but only
upon occasion. A blue-eyed neighbour boy slips bread, tin
soldiers, secrets through the fence. She only lies on her back
to sleep, or to watch the clouds shapeshift.

She opens borrowed books and is surprised to find herself: stories
of ash-covered girls with awful stepmothers, fathers who rarely look,
and never see. And though there is nothing written about the upstairs
boarder’s naked eyes, his close hands, she feels him there all the same,
standing behind the proto-princess, his breath wet against her neck.

Lauren Annette Boulton’s work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Bayou, Great Lakes Review, Gingerbread House, Kenning Journal, and others. She is currently an MFA candidate in poetry at Bowling Green State University, where she has the pleasure of working under Larissa Szporluk, Sharona Muir, Abigail Cloud, and Rebecca Dunham. She also serves as a staff editor for Mi d-American Review.