“I go back to the hospital and there’s an orange on the bedside table. A big one, and pink. He’s smiling: ‘I got a gift. Take it.’” —From the book Voices from Chernobyl, as retold on the radio show This American Life
After Chernobyl, she sat beside her new husband,
his hair in clumps on the pillow like fallen baby birds,
body crumbling like burned paper in water: first blisters,
then dust. One day he had the orange for her, a gift,
on his bedside table, the one that was big and pink,
the one he wanted her to eat, because she loved oranges.
How can we describe love? The taste of oranges
in winter? The wife who cannot fall asleep, the husband
who holds her hand? Cold skin flushed pink
alongside the fire? These days I dream not enough of birds
and too much of snakes, weddings are more about gift
than give, and my heart is padded in blisters.
And then, on the radio, this story retold: the boils and blisters,
the way the woman saw beauty in them, how oranges
were the only thing he had for her, how she accepted the gift
even though it was poison, how when her husband
slept she whispered “I love you,” how those words were birds
that landed on her shoulders, and stained her cheeks pink.
And the orange he gave her, she called it pink
and I don’t understand why, the way I don’t understand how blisters
fill with water and break open, how every winter birds
find their warm homes in trees with branches decorated in oranges
like Christmas bulbs. I have not yet married, never had a husband
who would give me everything, even if fruit was his only gift.
But the orange had been too close to him, a gift
that would kill her, and the nurses waved their pink
fingers through the glass. He’s no longer your husband,
they mouthed, he’s nothing more than bones and blisters,
and nothing can save him: not holding him, not eating oranges.
He cannot hear you, your voice is senseless as chirping birds.
She carried his tray and stayed next to him, told him of the birds
outside the window, the way a crushed worm was a gift
and small sticks made up nests, their throats like oranges,
bellies red as cherry jam, their babies wrinkled and pink.
Her legs were swollen from staying awake, her heels grew blisters
from walking the floor, but she couldn’t stop loving her husband.
The wife and husband are gone now. Here, it’s spring and pink
flowers are pushing up, the sunsets are soft as oranges, power lines
fill with birds.
The blisters on my feet from a walk around the lake are a gift.