Julia C. Alter, “Nothing Smaller”

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Nothing Smaller

When your mom has colon cancer, you become
a student of anatomy. You stare at a picture
of the large intestine until it becomes a sausage, a scarf,
of course a serpent, a harp, a heart, a home
to hide the shit you can’t digest yet. You try
to teach yourself to pray. Palm to palm, you play along.
You put your cheek up to every tree you encounter,
learning that’s where God is. You forget, and turn on the TV.
You turn off the TV, then turn on the TV.
You vomit thirty times in twelve hours. You go to the hospital
and get hooked up to IV fluids, praying your body
becomes nothing more than salt water. Your skin becomes
a bag of ocean, and still you do not cry.

You feel better in her hospital room than walking a city street because when you’re walking you’re not with her. You become a jittered ghost. You float from seeing a hole in her body to trying to order a coffee. You forget the words. You forget any words that aren’t colostomy, drainage site, complication, and surgery. You turn around and go back to the hospital without a coffee, feeling nothing. You learn it is possible to feel nothing, to be a bowl of eyes scrunched shut.

You sleep in room 1302 every night in her white nightgown,
which was her mother’s nightgown. One night
you watch her belly inflate into a grotesque melon. Five doctors
try to understand why it is so distended. You understand
pain that even morphine can’t fix, her jaw going slack,
big teeth creeping forward, morphing into her mother. An animal,
an angel. You remember that you watched your grandmother
die in Austria. You held her hand. You remember you are Austrian.

Your ancestors visit you and your sister one night when she’s delirious from pain. Heavy farm women, saggy arms and ragged aprons. Magic only known from deep forests just beyond the barn. Women who have witnessed cows and sheep and horses passing from one world to the next on straw floors under unimaginable stars, never anything like this. For the first time in your bones, you’re not alone. You thought guardian angels came with a shower of light and a subtle field of safety. You learn they come with a growling moan in your pelvis and a sudden craving for spaetzle.

She says, We’re eating in a restaurant on top of the world. You wonder
if she’ll ever eat again. You lock yourself in the bathroom
every hour to scream in utter silence. You eat a whole cake
even though you’re gluten free. Everything goes out the window.
The windows are glued shut. You watch her put on lipstick with a tube
coming out of her behind. You close your eyes
and the tube is not hard plastic with a sludge of guttural gunk,
but a strong, sleek tail that twitches and wags, that tells the world
she’s alive and kicking, that shines. You watch her leap out of the window,
scrapping and skipping her way across the city, across the sea,
through a field of lily-of-the-valley. So alive she becomes
the light itself, the sun and nothing smaller.


Julia C. Alter hails from Philadelphia and has found home in Vermont. She is a writer, birth doula, social worker, and conscious-dance facilitator, among other things. Her poems have been published in Wag’s Revue and Keep This Bag Away from Children.


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