Two Poems by Heather Johnson

by Leslie Anne Mcilroy


In fourth grade Mr. Wilson
grabbed my cousin Terry by the sleeve
of his camouflage Salvation Army jacket and threw
him out of his desk, to the floor.
The desk tilted and then righted
itself. We, all Navajo students, learned then
not to laugh, not to say anything
at all.

When I was six, I watched my mother
wash apples in the sink. She held
the weight of each
one in the palm of her worn,
brown hand, and rolled each one so it shimmered,
glazed in water.

She handed them to me and I
stacked them in a wooden
fruit bowl. They were almost too large
for my hands—I had to use both to cradle
them. I imagined
that they were what hearts
looked like, felt like, tasted like—heavy, 
heavy, too rich and too sweet, with a crisp
core that breaks too cleanly.

She found one with a brown spot that collapsed
under the pressure
of her finger. She scooped out the rotted
piece with her thumb and rinsed it
into the drain, afterwards sucking
the residue off her finger. You have to take
out the bad part, but the apple
is still good.

In ninth grade, Mr. Carter, the high
school coach, reached into
the core of me, corrupting
me. And, because I’d been taught
silence in fourth grade, it was a weapon,
razor-keen, which I cut
myself against.

During my college freshman
year, I tried my best
to fit in with the Native students,
many of whom could speak their native
languages. I couldn’t get past good
morning—Yaa’a’teeh abini. They
rolled their eyes and called me
apple. Years later, a friend told me what
it meant—red on the outside,
white on the inside.


Always Been Afraid of the Dark

To provoke that fear, I wander Las Cruces
streets past midnight, hands thrust deep 

into jean pockets, cigarette perched between
my lips, July moon shrouded by clouds 

glimmering like a shuttered eye. On restless nights
as a child I used to slip out of bed, crawl across 

the carpet to the closet, shut the door and burrow
into the heavy dark like a nest—if I immersed 

myself into it, maybe it would recognize me
as part of it, adopt me. Dense cramped space 

crooned that even the dark was not purely so—
shadow on layers of shadow, only varying shades 

of blue-black, I console myself now, my
cigarette’s red glint leading me through.

Photo of Heather Johnson

Photo of Heather Johnson

Heather Johnson is a Diné woman from the Navajo Nation, currently residing in Albuquerque, New Mexico where she writes in the University of New Mexico’s Creative Writing Program. She is working on a novel, a poetry collection, and personal essays. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Southwestern American Literature, the Sigma Tau Delta’s Rectangle, and Anti-Heroin Chic, and she was a blog contributor to Blue Mesa Review. Her subjects are surviving personal and historical traumas, the experiences of marginalized identities, the complexities of mental health and well-being, and the landscape as sacred. She is an avid kajukenbo student and a founding member of the Trigger Warning Writers Group. Find here here.