It’s a supervised visitation,
a controlled contact.

– Two fingers only, in the center of the back!
– Put your whole hand in the water, and wait!
calls the zookeeper.

The rays flow past in their elegant capes.
Their eyes are dark and recessed,
spiracles for brows.
We can’t read their faces.

Now and then they rise to the surface,
arching against my hand. It feels
like petting a cat and also
like preparing sole filets. After the first time,
I never ate fish again.

Water seems kinder than wind.
With cartilage for bone, the rays are
more graceful than birds, and more distant.

I emerge into bright sunlight,
turn from the Mississippi up Canal Street.

– Foo’ massa’, twel’ dolla’!
call the shopkeepers.
End consonants fall away; their words are soft and liquid.
They pull me into their touchpool.

The guidelines are set for controlled contact.
Sitting or lying? Water or lotion?
I think of Yeats’s “ceremony of innocence.”
By such rules, strangers may touch one another.

I lie back. The stroker becomes the stroked.
Under the waves of benevolent pressure, I relax
until the street noises blend into a bath of sound
where I may safely swim.

This is a reprint of work originally published in The Blue Nib.

Cheryl Caesar lived in Paris, Tuscany and Sligo for 25 years; she earned her doctorate in comparative literature at the Sorbonne. She now teaches writing at Michigan State University. Last year she published over a hundred poems in the U.S., Germany, India, Bangladesh, Yemen and Zimbabwe, and won third prize in an international contest for her poem on global warming. Her book Flatman: Poems of Protest in the Trump Era, is available from Goodreads and Amazon.

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