Each Thing That Has Been Taken
(Winchester Mansion: San Jose, California)
The dead do not care if their clothes catch & shred
on the wooden ribs of cypress hedge that guard
the widow’s six-acre mansion. What need is there for cover
when they move, resplendent in their own raw gore,
across the vast scalped lawn in its shroud of rusted starlight?
They stumble or crawl past the Serpent Fountain &
viridian crescent, past the bronze insult of “Chief Little Fawn”
grasping his impotent bow. They reopen their wounds
against the rough skin of painted redwood shingles,
scale four scalloped stories to the roof of this puzzle home &
one after one, claw their way down the soot-black throats
of its seventeen brick chimneys.
The dead are hell-bent on taking back each thing
that has been taken...each missing limb whose absence
echoes in the silver faces of two hundred Victorian mirrors...
each gaping chest that shrieks like a window left cracked
in a prairie storm…each shattered harp of rib & gristled spleen...
each this or that blown off or blown open by a Model 1873.
They have taken a vow to take their time, a blood toast
raised by each in turn to a slow descent into madness
for the one whose fortune was built on swift lever action,
whose days & nights of ceaseless hammer-fall sum up
her childish scheme of confusion or conciliation.
The dead have learned to savor the meanwhile,
to take the measure of incremental decline.
There is time enough to navigate the corridors &
twisted switchbacks, count to thirteen at each spindle &
webbed window, rifle through scrawled séance notes
kept by a wizened hand. Time enough for each to squeeze
the old woman’s sluggish heart as she rocks in her satin bed,
to keep her alive one more night & one more night—
until the last muzzle flash has been swallowed by starless
dark. Until the last cursed bullet has been named.
by Frank Paino
[Note: Sarah Winchester, widow & heiress to her husband’s firearms fortune, ordered continuous construction on her mansion in the belief it would either confuse or appease the spirits of all those killed by the Winchester Model 1873 rifle. Construction ceased upon her death, 38 years after the project commenced.]
Frank Paino’s first two volumes of poetry were published by Cleveland State University Press: The Rapture of Matter (1991) and Out of Eden (1997). He’s received a Pushcart Prize and The Cleveland Arts Prize in Literature. He recently completed work on his third manuscript, Swallow.
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