Micah Ruelle: “Then”


by Micah Ruelle

“What’s fair of two people
to expect from one another?”

My mother and I ask each other.
We find no conclusions,
agree on no answers.
Only that we must resolve
to keep asking this

one, singular question.


For two years, I left the body.

Whether it was apt to return
remains unclear, but here I am
on his table re-embodying.

I am relieved
when he is stretching
my arms away from my chest,
instructing me to breathe
During a slight—but sure—
tells me —not— to pull air
into the depths of the belly,
but into the upper cavity used to float.

I listen.
It does feel different.

He knows my father is dead.
He leans into this fact with the elbow through the hips.
Rolls it in his hands like a neck
that could’ve so easily snapped
the year before.


There’s a story about the wisest King.

Two women are pleading
their cases as to why the live baby
is theirs and the dead one, the other’s.

The King offers to cut the live baby in half,
which each will have. The true mother cries out,
and gives up her right to the child. And she’s rewarded,
because only a real mother
would make such a sacrifice.

This story is stupid. And was certainly written by a man
putting himself in the middle of things (again).

Sacrifice has become a punchline
I keep repeating over and over again
and I can’t stop laughing at.

Those that have lived long enough know this:

No two people ever offer up
the same thing,

do they?


It’s the second anniversary of my father’s passing,
and I know now that we are both someone else,
someplace else.

I think my father gave too much, too fast,
and it tore through him like a fillet knife.
There’s no saving someone who loves so freely.

The things I prayed for did not save me,
but I was given time.

The things that dismantled my life
became the frames of my life.

Like a child with sympathy pains:

If you are like this?
                                                   Am I like this, too?

I felt like I could die suddenly, too.


I am getting married soon,
which some consider to be a joke.

How many loves does it take to shrink a lifeboat?
How many lives does it take to nail a lossbed?
How many lessons does it take to fix a luckbox?

The punchline for all three:
as many as it takes.
I’m living proof.

Now that I’m older,
when I hold the person I love,
I pray
“Please be different.
Please be different.
Please be like
I’ve ever had.”

And this love
answers absolutely.

And it’s coming this way
like a freight train,
and when it hits
it might just put me
back together again.

With no assurance—
I brace for impact.
This is the hope of all marriages,
also its inevitable assault:
it makes you different.


I had the most absurd dream after my father died.

He knocked on my bedroom door, over-excited, slurring
as if drunk (which he never was) in his white undershirt
and blue jeans with his favorite belt—babbling on about the next life.
And how I shouldn’t be sad, and then ran away wildly.
Maybe becoming pure spirit makes you crazy while exiting.

My father’s spirit elsewhere, his body in the ground,
and now all I have left are these cards.

I shuffle them to be surprised, and draw the one on top:
His favorite hat, now hanging by my front door. If I fan him out more,
and to be clear —there’s always more—always, I select another card.
A jar of mulberry jam homemade from his parent’s farm. Another.
This one’s a revelation: the tumor was just blocking
the part of the brain that would’ve admitted to being wrong
about Obama. When I shuffle him up, a card flies out:
the figure skating coach he trained with. When I reshuffle: a much larger family,
six of us, and I’m no longer the oldest, but I still look most like him.
This card is one of him in his 20’s, at someone’s lake house,
making breakfast for everyone to show off to a blonde that never smiled.
I cut the deck, and in the middle there a time he didn’t quit the rodeo scene.
I fan him out again, and choose three from the middle:
doctor, lawyer, and priest. It’s a set up but it’s not a joke.
That’s all his best friends, waving at me.
I check the card at the bottom of the deck: a life as a farmer.
I’d rather keep shuffling these fathers then think about his birthday,
summers at the lake, and his death anniversary that had me so wild and ravenous
those two years. On Father’s Day last year, I howled in the graveyard
to myself, by myself, blinded by the hotness swelling in my face,
as I looked for my father’s grave unable to find it from memory.
I was about to give up
when I turned around: and there he was,
the wheat imprint gleaming around his name
in the sun, “a son of God.”


I don’t like to think about what I became
for two years, white-knuckling my way
through backwoods roads
in ghost-infested Kansas were the guns
lived under beds and sang low songs
to me at night. Night after night,
until the whole state spat me out.


My father’s spirit
has only visited me once
as I opened the door to a
little farmhouse
in northwestern Iowa
where my fiancé grew
to be as tall as the stalks
that fed and raised him.


I had a dream that I visited myself.

Some older self appeared at the end
of my bed in the middle of the night,
I laughed when I saw her: “God,
you look like death!”
And she pointed at me,
“How do you think I got this way?”
And we laughed and held each other.
Before she left, she put my feet
in her hands and held them
the way my mother had.
She taught me a song
to sing to myself:

I have painted the new walls
with coats of storm,
the hellfire I’ve endured
now warms my hearth.
To have life is to live at the mercy,
and may God have mercy
on those who come
for this life.

What are you looking for?