“A Certain Childhood” by Michael Hettich

Michael Hettich


For years my sister spoke only backwards 
while our brother, her twin, talked like any normal boy. 
Though she spoke clearly, no one but he 
could understand her, as they wove their strange braid 
of language, laughing as happy children do.
Our dad went off to work at first light
and he often came home with the darkness.
Our mother mostly leaned against the counter, 
smoking and trying to mimic her daughter,
asking our brother to tell her what she’d said. 
I spent my days reading and looking out the window. 
Sometimes a small herd of deer—a family—
ventured out of the woods, to stand 
quietly watching our house, while I
reread my favorite novels, mostly
tales of adventure and death in the far north. 
I stayed up late, beyond everyone else,
imagining those hearty young men trying 
to survive in a cold so intense their spit 
froze before it hit the ground; their words 
froze like snow in their beards. Would that be
another form of silence? And what about their eyes?
Sometimes they gave up and lay themselves down 
in the snow to fall asleep there, dreaming of their families 
back home in sunny California 
or somewhere in the South where it was always warm.
Only then would I close my book and slip it 
beside the others on the shelf; I’d turn off 
my night light and wander through our big house trying 
to hear them breathing, this small group of people 
who made me part of a family, these strangers
who resembled me like my own hands resembled 
each other. Sometimes I’d lie down beside 
my sister for a while, without disturbing 
her dreams, then get up to lie beside her twin, 
but I never dared slip into my parents’ bedroom, 
since my dad’s night-breathing was a strangled sort of growl,
a howling that made me imagine a wilderness
I had no desire to enter, after all,
though sometimes I got up and listened at their door
until fell I asleep there, curled up on the floor,
shivering a little in that drafty hallway
but happy to be lying there near them.

from Rattle #79, Spring 2023


Michael Hettich: “When I was a child, my father would sometimes read poems to me, in the evening before dinner, while he sipped a cocktail. T.S. Eliot was his favorite. Though I didn’t understand what they were about, the cadences and images charmed and moved me deeply. They also haunted me. Then, 15 years later, in a creative writing class taught by James Crenner, I came across Casar Vallejo’s ‘Black Stone Lying on a White Stone,’ in the Bly Knopf translation, and was transfixed and transformed by the language, and by the possibilities. I knew then that I wanted to try to do something like that, someday. Maybe, if I was lucky …” (web)

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