Where the Dead Live

Jacob Butlett

The evening sun sews its yellow strands
in a maple tree’s red quilt, each leaf
a windy star on each limb,
as though stitched down –
a constellation of foliage running its
many-fingered hands through the clouds.

Reclined under the tree like a mossy log,
I close my eyes, breathe in the quiet breath
of alfalfa, my nose tasting every ticklish kiss of pollen,

which makes me cry.
Which makes me imagine taking in the tree
like a baby clutching a quilt in a cold crib.
Which makes me wonder about the dead,
where they go when I’m thinking
about life: about snails skiing down my legs, perhaps,
about snakes coiling upwards on my head like
black pompadours,
which my great-cousins wore when they were still
alive, as shown in their photographs,
which I keep under my bed.

Do the dead rest in photographs
whenever we don’t think about them?
Do the dead wait for us to find them smiling, weeping,
in their dusty frames, in their finger-smudged negatives
in the dark attics of childhood,
in the cluttered sheds of adulthood,
under the floorboards where we dare not look
lest we find the eyes of death itself?

Does death live in the blue shoes
of my deceased grandmother? In the green tie
of my deceased grandfather? In the pink sunglasses
of my deceased aunt? In the silver medallion
of my deceased uncle? Maybe even in a ball
of yarn. In a sewing needle. In a half-finished
handkerchief stitched with the initials
of a long-lost mother,
of a forgotten father,
of a distant cousin who died too soon,
lived too late.

Why is it so easy to overlook them?
Why is it so easy to force nails into their already
buried coffins?

I open my eyes. Twilight glimpses
through the maple tree: raindrops of sunlight
like starlight, like thimbles winking
ghostlike to the moon, whose wide eyes peer
at me through the darkening boughs.

I rise from the ground, listen
to the warbling lamentations,
to the joyous whistles
of obscured birds.

I wonder whether death lives
in the language of birds.
I wonder whether the language of birds lives
in the dead,

like chirping sobs in my late-great-aunt’s shawl
whenever I pluck its loose strings,
like twittering sighs in my late-grandmother’s apron
whenever I wear the warm waters of its fabric.


about the writer


Jacob Butlett (he/his) is an award-winning gay storyteller with an A.A. in General Studies and a B.A. in Creative Writing. In 2017 he won the Bauerly-Roseliep Scholarship for literary excellence, and in 2018 he received a Pushcart Prize nomination for poetry. Some of his work has been published in The MacGuffin, Panoply, Rat's Ass Review, Cacti Fur, Gone Lawn, Rabid Oak, Ghost City Review, Lunch Ticket, Fterota Logia, Into the Void, and plain china. He was selected as a finalist in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards residency competition of 2019. Learn more about Jacob here.