Mercy
Fifth grade, two kids would hold each other’s hands
        and the stronger would twist the weaker’s wrist 
until he cried Mercy, and even though 

I was bigger than the boys whose voices 
       hadn’t yet cracked, even though I could’ve taken 
Vince Biagetti’s skinny arm and twisted 

it until he shrieked, I was learning to get hurt 
       was holy; to cry Mercy was to be 
like Christ, who Mrs. McKinley said died 

so we could live, and during Lent we knelt 
       and prayed, Because by your holy cross you 
have redeemed the world. In truth, I wanted to be 

not like Christ so much as like Mrs. McKinley, 
       with her kind eyes and soft voice 
and beautiful cheekbones; who kept a photograph 

from the wedding on her desk: him, looking down 
       at her and smiling; her, leaning 
into his arms, her lips parted in laughter,

and that photograph was a small window
       into a life that I could only begin to glimpse,
that seemed more sacred for my not knowing.

And so the week Mrs. McKinley was out sick, 
       I did not know what she was doing
when I saw her in the supermarket, standing 

in front of the glass doors with chrome handles 
       that opened to shelves of milk, doors like portals 
that reflected the store’s fluorescent lights 

and waxed linoleum, or why she was wearing 
       sunglasses, but when I tapped her arm, 
and she turned, a deep violet ringed in yellow 

spread past the edges of her glasses, eye to temple. 
       When I asked my mother 
what I had done to make her leave like that,

what illness made an eye bruise so badly, 
       she shook her head and patted 
my shoulder and asked what I wanted for dinner. 

Mercy, I said, but Vince Biagetti did not let go; 
       Mercy, I said, but he only tightened
his grip until the pain shot through my wrist

and I screamed, Mercy, and the world went 
       white with agony, and I heard a voice 
from somewhere far off scream, Stop!—

and then he stopped, and released my hand, 
       and stepped back, his face blank 
with shock, and I realized then that the voice 

had been my own voice, and Vince Biagetti 
       held his hands suspended in the air, 
as though he had just realized they were his, 

as though he didn’t believe himself capable 
       of doing what he’d already done.
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