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"Ascent to Mt. Carmel" by Jessie Lifton — part one


I once told my Mother, a few years ago, when I was maybe 14, that if she died I would lose my mind. I said it like it was a joke. 

“If you leave I swear I’ll shave my head. I’ll take a plane to Sacramento and I’ll tape a go-pro to my bald head and I’ll put on black lipstick and I’ll write a manifesto and I’ll gun down Governor Newsom right where he stands.”

She hated the part about my shaving my head. 

“No! You can’t shave that pretty hair!”

I run her teasing comb through strands of greasy matts, reaching the scalp. I run the tip of the brush up and down, hoping for the phantom of another human’s touch to wound my throat.

The sun has gone down four times, and risen four more. Rabbi came by four times and sat with me, our hands clasped, before I retreated from his touching too. I held scraps of black cloth in my hand and tore at them. Scraps of black ribbon. I had stopped the clocks, all of them. The one on the first floor that our grandfather liked to pretend was a family heirloom. The small Bavarian clock with its springboard sparrows, bought from Solvang. I mouthed the words silently, because I couldn’t read the Hebrew letters properly. Lisping along, I rang out weak amen. amen. I tore the guts out of the heart shaped locket my mother bought for me two years ago, taking a magnifying glass to their innards. The house was empty, ringing. But the tick tock endless echoed. I needed no tick tock. With the windows all covered by drawn curtains, black velvet, blue printed Hello Kitty blankets, and Lyocell filled comforters no light could get in. Only the dark getting darker to signify night. I had created a huddle of the best blankets I had left on the floor in the living room, with a bag of food and water next to me. This way I wouldn’t have to get up in the complete darkness and grasp around. But still, the sound. The first night the sound of the clocks, all of them one in every room. It wouldn’t stop. Then it did and I was happy. I am happy.

My mother used to recite an old frontier story. A man of nineteen is leaving West. His grand-parents came from the Motherland and landed in New York. To make a new life for themselves, somewhere better. Somewhere where they could be free, and life could be different for them. They would create their own fortune, a new life. 

Their children, his parents, had not been satisfied with life in New York. It wasn’t far enough. And so they had set out West, in wagon carts filled with pregnant women and children, mule drawn into Indiana. And they had been certain, and happy, that this would be their new future. Everything would change, here, together, for the better. They had pushed on and created a new life for themselves on a homestead.

But their son of nineteen wasn’t happy on that homestead. No. He was the type who wanted to push even further. Past the edges of the known Earth. He wanted to reach the flat of the map, the place where it all falls off and drops into infinity. And so he cut through his family tree the same way his mother did, and her mother did before her. That thin green root, pulled out by large tender hands and snipped through. His hands up and out of the loamy Earth. He had kissed his mother goodbye and she felt it. The stain of his leaving, and did not cry. And neither did he. He left on the back of a horse, with two duffels and a cattle dog, and never once thought to look back until he reached California, and the Ocean, and the end of the line. The dog whined beside him, and he stroked its barbed wire back and held it close. 

On the precipice between sleep and living there is a voice in my ear. There is the sound of a man whispering. A man whose voice I don’t know. His hand in my hair. And he is saying…and he is saying…we can never…. But the rest of the music gets drowned out by a minuscule sliver of light burning into my retinas, the stapled up Hello Kitty blanket blown back by the noise of an engine roaring. 


I stand in my Mother’s old Tweety-bird night shirt, stained with jello, hiding the half moon of my slight face behind the door. 

He said his name was Bruce.

“Like Bruce Springsteen.”

“Yeah. Like Bruce Springsteen.”

His bright blue Camaro made it so even the cicadas which loved to scream all day long this time of year stopped and fled into the air, far away from the fields of this place, crops dying, back into the woods. Dirt and stone gravel thrown into the tall grass. He was tall. I didn’t like to be in front of him without makeup. But I couldn’t let him leave. I didn’t know where my makeup was anymore. Locked away upstairs maybe. His hair was short, in a mullet, and blonde and curling. Like mine. His eyes were blue, too, like mine. He had ugly tattoos on his knuckles, the words s t a y u g l y imprinted there, and on the thumb two little crosses, intricate in design. Little doodles worked their way up his chest and neck, drawn on permanently. One I could see was Mickey Mouse with his cock out. The first man to ever rape me had a tattoo of a tear beneath his eye. But Bruce didn’t, and his face was round and smooth like a girl’s and not filled with hard lines. So I let him in.

He was my brother, he said. On my Mother’s couch. Our couch, he sat over the old piss stain from our Papillion Buster Keaton Jr., who died two years earlier, without saying anything. I was worried he thought I was ugly. He was my brother, on our dad’s side, he clarified. I felt like a new fawn, the kind that doesn’t live in this part of California anymore. With soft brown fur spotted white, sipping at the watering hole. I thought of myself belly up, white belly up before him, my soft spots of brown all calling to be touched, and crossed my arms over my stomach to protect my flank. Dad. What a disgusting word. 

When my Uncle was touching me he used to say I was born wrong. My mother never liked to talk about it but she thought it too. I know. I know all sorts of things. He kept saying it, over and over again, his hand, his hand touching and he would be saying, “You were made for this. You were born from it. You’re a fucking rape-baby. This is all you’re good for.”


Jessie Lifton's work has previously appeared in Apocalypse Confidential, The Writer Magazine, and Poet’s Choice.

Jessie Lifton is on X/Twitter @jessiechrxst

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