Lynne Knight

Poison Sumac

Past the ravine, we made forts from dead branches, whispering 
so the enemy would not find us. If they did, we died horribly, and long.
One day we made a spy hut out of sumac—roof, cots—not knowing 
it was poison. By night the rash was everywhere, the least seam.
All week we sat on the verandah, wearing only old underpants,
that Calamine lotion could ruin. We should practice being languid, 
Linda’s mother said, like Southern belles. She put fresh mint in our iced tea. 

It was this day, or one close to it, that we lost interest in the old enemy, 
turning instead to our bodies, so thoroughly invaded. We drank the tea 
and smeared the thick pink lotion on each other’s back, wherever
we couldn’t reach ourselves. If anyone else came, we cupped
our breasts and looked away. Or Linda did. Mine hadn’t started, 
though I prayed for them, night after night, a sacrilege, and when 
nothing happened except that I stayed flat, I decided God existed.  

The next summer Linda had a lover, one of the hands at the greenhouse.
After dark, she climbed down the elm to his arms. He was wild for all of her,
she whispered one afternoon. That night I used up five days in my diary, 
because what could it matter, my life would never equal hers. I was being 
sent to Catholic school, where I would learn to love my body not for the thrills
it provided but the many opportunities for abnegation. I dressed in uniform,
I wept for the forsaken. I saw Linda less and less. More lovers: one cried 

her name, one barely spoke at all. One afternoon I left her in the road 
where we’d been talking and crossed the ravine to the woods. How small
things were, our sumac hut no bigger than a door, and nothing, then,
but weeds and sticks some animal might have caused. The scale
of things diminished as we aged, the nuns had said, except for sin.
So I stood and prayed for sin the size of Linda’s. I’d slip it on 
and let some lover tongue it off; I’d make rooms of it, stairs, a bed.