Fold the Shadows

Five years ago, I stopped using contractions in my speech. And in my writing, my diction shifted to more formal expressions. I attribute my communication-style change, which was once breezy and gregarious, to trauma. Five years ago, I resigned from a tenured position after encountering hostile colleagues who had read one of my online essays. In that piece, I shared a closely held secret that I had been raped by a stranger when I was 18. Some (mainly) female colleagues questioned my veracity, dredging up the awful aftermath of my assault, and I was devastated that I once again had to fight to be believed. It took me five years to write this poem and five years to feel the requisite outrage. Composing “Fold the Shadows” has pushed me closer to healing; I hope it might help someone else.

CW: Sexual Assault

Yes, at first, I tried brevity,
used contractions, looked
for substitutions of formal

constructions. Won’t replaced
maybe after the night a stranger
split me, when I curled small

in my Honda. Words like shouldn’t
squatted, & I refused to abandon
them. Years passed. On a mission,

I truncated my expressions—
I added can’t & didn’t to won’t.
My shortcomings added up;

they elongated my mother’s
drawling disapproval. No one
listened. A witchy chorus

of skeptics hovered on broomsticks.
Why should someone believe
me, anyway? Midnight tonight

in a desolate meadow. In the distance,
orange groves burn. I study moths
with fellow lepidopterists. A kid

asks, What gives us value? Is it breath?
Or goodwill? He watches me tend
to a grey insect struggling

in the confines of its thin net,
scrapping through the early
morning flashlight penumbras,

tugged toward death. Oh, the magnetism
of demise—it’s irresistible tonight.
Those long-leaf pines slash their own

shadows. Yet still, I battle elisions
that lurk in gravitas, & I employ
diction no one gets. Words

like victim transcend this page turn’s
tectonics. I still possess power,
but I’m diminished to bulges & bad

knees. I can summon a summer
night from memory, weave spells
that hearken back to the evil taste

of a .45 on my tongue. I conjure
ruin out of nothing when nothing pleats
spectral places, those ensorcelled

hours when slavering devils howl
toward morning. With my old-fangled
magic, I’m self-destructs to I am  

not. Chilling verbs act & wink
& flirt & force & command.
They slide over from the passenger

seat, & the phantom of my rapist
uncrimps. There’s no trick to forgetting
terror, to losing that midnight,

that time I lay prone on my vinyl
backseat, inhaling my attacker’s
four-day-old scent. The shortest

complete sentence in the English
language never chases away
the horror or my mother’s shame.


Cate McGowan is an essayist, poet, fiction writer, and author of two books—she won the Moon City Press Short Fiction Award for her debut short story collection, True Places Never Are; her debut novel, These Lowly Objects, released in 2020. McGowan’s work appears or is forthcoming in numerous literary outlets, including Norton’s anthology Flash Fiction International, Glimmer Train, The Citron Review, Shenandoah, and Tahoma Literary Review. Find out more about Cate McGowan at



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