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Shirt of Iron

by Marina J. Neary

For my first birthday, my clansmen
Gave me a traditional shirt of iron
With names of ancestors and dates engraved
On the collar in mysterious alphabet,
Banners and hymn lyrics on the chest,
Portraits of friends on the right sleeve and
Portraits of enemies on the left.

Years glided by, and the iron shirt molded
My body to fit its shape,
Squeezing and stretching my limbs.
There were days of soreness when every step,
Jump and twist had its price.
There were nights of suffocation when I lay
In bed awake, pickled in my own sweat,
My chest and throat full of cotton balls,
Dully inspecting the wallpaper.

But when my growing days were safely behind,
My jubilant brothers threw a party.
My mother took the iron shirt off
And brought me to the mirror, whispering:
“Look, darling, how good you turned out.
Just like us!”
I took one peek and wished I were blind.

The party went on, and nobody noticed how I
Slipped out of the house, my tears mixing with the rain,
My deformities covered by darkness.
I squatted on the pavement beneath a fire escape
And stayed there for the night, rocking back and forth.
But when the sun rose the next day
I saw hundreds of others, twisted and maimed and myself
Yet free of grief. Some didn’t mind the custom at all,
And some hardly knew it existed.
A kingdom of happy cripples!

One day I’ll learn to look in the mirror
But now I want to smash it with a hammer.
Still, one question will irk me until death:
“Who made the first iron shirt?”

Copyright © 2009 by Marina J. Neary

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