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The Lost Children

Two little girls, one fair, one dark,
One alive, one dead, are running hand in hand
Through a sunny house. The two are dressed
In red and white gingham, with puffed sleeves and sashes.
They run away from me…But I am happy;
When I wake I feel no sadness, only delight.
I’ve seen them again, and I am comforted
That, somewhere, they still are.

It is strange
To carry inside you someone else’s body;
To know it before it’s born;
To see at last that it’s a boy or girl, and perfect;
To bathe it and dress it; to watch it
Nurse at your breast, till you almost know it
Better than you know yourself—better than it knows itself.
You own it as you made it.
You are the authority upon it.

But as the child learns
To take care of herself, you know her less.
Her accidents, adventures are her own,
You lose track of them. Still, you know more
About her than anyone except her.

Little by little the child in her dies.
You say, “I have lost a child, but gained a friend.”
You feel yourself gradually discarded.
She argues with you or ignores you
Or is kind to you. She who begged to follow you
Anywhere, just so long as it was you
Finds follow the leader no more fun.
She makes few demands; you are grateful for the few.

The young person who writes once a week
Is the authority upon herself.
She sits in my living room and shows her husband
My albums of her as a child. He enjoys them
And makes fun of them. I look too
And I realize the girl in the matching blue
Mother-and-daughter dress, the fair one carrying
The tin lunch box with the half-pint thermos bottle
Or training her pet duck to go down the slide
Is lost just as the dark one, who is dead, is lost
But the world in which the two wear their flared coats
And the hats that match, exists so uncannily
That, after I’ve seen its pictures for an hour,
I believe in it: the bandage coming loose
One has in the picture of the other’s birthday,
The castles they are building, at the beach for asthma.
I look at them and all the old sure knowledge
Floods over me, when I put the album down
I keep saying inside: “I did know these children.
I braided those braids. I was driving the car
The day that she stepped in the can of grease
We were taking to the butcher for our ration points.
I know those children. I know all about them.
Where are they?”

I stare at her and try to see some sign
Of the child she was. I can’t believe there isn’t any.
I tell her foolishly, pointing at the picture,
That I keep wondering where she is.
She tells me, “Here I am.”
Yes, and the other
Isn’t dead, but has everlasting life…

The girl from next door, the borrowed child,
Said to me the other day, “You like children so much,
Don’t you want to have some of your own?”
I couldn’t believe that she could say it.
I thought “Surely you can look at me and see them.”

When I see them in my dreams I feel such joy.
If I could dream of them every night!

When I think of my dream of the little girls
It’s as if we were playing hide-and-seek.
The dark one
Looks at me longingly, and disappears;
The fair one stays in sight, just out of reach
No matter where I reach. I am tired
As a mother who’s played all day, some rainy day.
I don’t want to play it any more, I don’t want to,
But the child keeps on playing, so I play.

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