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Elizabeth McBride

The Atoll

When the tide was low

and the ocean water flowed

from the still lagoon and into the sea,


I wanted to walk out

on the crest of the coral ring

and circle the reef,


past the shallow pools

where spiny lobsters feed,

crawling at night from ocean side to lagoon.


One day I went so far

I saw the shark’s fin slitting a line

through the dark water toward me.


I could barely hear my mother’s voice

calling, barely see my father standing,

still, on the shore.


When I was a child,

my father took me to live

on an island.

Day after day the light

fell through the window

and into my bedroom

and day after day I woke

and ran to the sea.

There with my feet deep in the sand

I looked across from the beach

to the coral reef.

It appears even more clear

to me now than then,

the sky spread around

the rim of the atoll,

and the sun bright in the sky

and again in the sea.

When I imagine that child,

my eyes are green as the shallow

lagoon and my skin as smooth

as the underside of a palm

leaf. I can almost touch her,

almost feel her hair,

long and straight down my back

as a memory.


That year, I fed the tiger-striped cat

my father loved, the one

that howled all night from the water tower

and slept all day beside the back steps

guarding the shells.


Buried there in the sand, they

yielded their meat to the ants.

Then my father, satisfied, dug them up

and soaked them in acid until

their surfaces were rippled glass.


When in my play at the edge of the water

I discovered shells still

full of flesh and smelling of the sea,

I took them to the steps—

my prayers, my offerings.

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