jen stein as child
Indian Paintbrushes
by Jen Stein

Orange and yellow bristle blossoms grew on furred stems
smelling of rusted water, of peat, wood rot and pine sap –
we called these Indian Paintbrushes. We gathered them

by the armful, with long-stem dandelion and roadside daisies
to festoon our bodies with garlands of spring. We made crowns
and queens. We painted our noses yellow, removed our shoes.

We dug deep into the mud until we found the hard permafrost.
We scoured the rock shores of Lake Superior looking for agates
with steadfast amber eyes inside, or bits of purpled quartz

prized as diamonds to fill our pockets, protection talismans.
We set traps for moose made from tangled brush and rolls
of workshop twine. Our traps were empty, but we strung them

near blackberry brambles by the train tracks. We were trains,
we moved fast along our tracks, we canned beans and found
your grandfather’s WWI jacket in your cellar. We tried it on,

became invincible. We scrubbed our hands with pumice to take
off our fingerprints, we were spies. We knew it all – we could see
the future. We glowed – we were resplendently eight years old.

At your father’s funeral, you tucked your agates into his casket.
I wanted to bring you a garland of Indian Paintbrushes. I wanted
to tuck purple clovers into your braids. I couldn’t remember how.

PHOTOGRAPH: Duluth, Minnesota, four years old, 1981.

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: I moved many times when I was a child, always near Lake Superior, with my family. This poem is dedicated to my friend Lisa, who was my first best friend I ever had. We lost touch when I moved, after a year or two, but I never forgot her and setting moose traps, and the smell of cellars.

jen stein poet pic

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jen Stein is a writer, an advocate, a mother, and a finder of lost things. She lives in Fairfax, Virginia, where she works in family homeless services to help find employment for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness. Her experience as an advocate, with healing and recovery, and expanding upon moments informs much of her writing. She studied Creative Writing at George Mason University, both as an undergraduate and in the MFA in Poetry program. Her work has recently appeared in Stirring, Luna Luna Magazine, and Nonbinary Review, and is featured in a micro-collection in Wood Becomes Bone, a series by ELJ Publications. Upcoming work will be featured in Menacing Hedge, Cider Press Review, and the Northern Virginia Review. Visit her at