Dion O’Reilly: “The man who bathed me in the burn ward”


was middle-aged and patient
as a vulture.

And I? What was I?—a teenager
becoming something else. Remnant
from a burnt-out house. Uncured meat.
Blood-fragment of a butchered bird.

He pulled me from my sticky bed each day—
no—twice a day. He was my morning
and night man.

Lumbering lumberjack of a man. Moon-faced
man with an unshaved neck.
Wide-girthed man with careful hands.

He made me grateful for him—
tested the water, tepid to the wrist.
Shorted the chlorine for me—
that alkaline wire in the water,
piranhas on the back skin,
razors peeling it—

he mixed it first, so it didn’t whip
when it hit. Lowered me gentle
into a robe of pain.
Plush pain. Warm reminder
of that other burning pain.

He cleaned me slow—
didn’t seem to mind
my screams as he debrided
the collops and green clots.
His nemesis was the hungry sepsis
that ate me.

Why did it feel like love?
I was the buoyant creature
of his hand. Strapping ranch-girl
who wasted and healed,
whose skin sucked life
from bones and fat
to lace the corset of flesh.

The grafts took, skin,
fragile as a winged thing curtained
down my back. And when I lay
in the final water, he looked at me
like a tidbit,

told me he’d fixed me up
like a fat farm,
asked me to the movies.

What was he thinking?
Did he think I’d want him
now that I was whole?

Dion O’Reilly has spent most of her life on a small farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Her debut book, Ghost Dogs, was published in 2020 by Terrapin Books. Her work appears in American Journal of Poetry, Verse Daily, Poetry Daily, Cincinnati Review, Narrative, New Ohio Review, Massachusetts Review, New Letters, Rattle, The Sun, and other literary journals and anthologies.

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