Mary O’Donnell

Basil, βασιλεύς

For the nuns, life isn’t too short to stuff tomatoes.

The convent, perched near cliffs

above a wrinkled sea. We enter the parlour,

then await Sister Mercedes,

my father’s sister.

The doors open and she, a slim wisp,

weeps for joy, then settles,

a black and white butterfly, wimple and veil

her wings at rest as she chats to me.

A special meal, for visitors.

My first taste of stuffed tomatoes

ferried silently from the kitchen

by an aproned novice.

That quick taste of summer,

βασιλεύς, I learn, in Greece.

Forever after, my aunt—mothering,

her fine fingers stroking my shoulders, my long hair—

appears in hasty dashes of basil leaves

across glistening salads, whisked

with parmesan and sweet oils.

I cut into a quivering cheese cap,

that interior flesh, savoury crumbs.

And then: Basil,

            the novice whispers, sweet basil.

Vivid on my tongue, like liquorice.

Mary O’Donnell’s work includes poetry, four novels, three short story collections, essays and journalism. Her 2020 collection Massacre of the Birds (Salmon) is translated and recently published in Brazilian Portuguese with Arte y Lettras. Other work is available in Hungarian and in Spanish. She is a member of Ireland’s affiliation of artists, Aosdána.