Burning up inside, Ethel Rosenberg gets dressed
as if she’s going to a gala. For one bright moment
everything forgotten: her brother’s lies, evidence –
typewriter, console table, notes burning in a frying pan –
as flimsy as her nylons. She remembers only Julie’s touch,
his pencilled love letters, the arias she sung him
from an adjoining cell. And then he’s there, her husband,
and the room has no screen and they charge and grasp,
mouths, hands, flesh. Prised apart by guards. Julie’s face
so smeared with lipstick he looks as if he’s bleeding.
That last hot evening, their fourteenth anniversary,
they finger kiss through wire mesh, blood trickling
down the screen. At 8.06, just before the setting sun
heralds the Jewish Sabbath over Sing-Sing, Julius is dead.
Minutes later, Ethel, in a green print dress, settles
tight lips into a Mona Lisa smile. Says nothing,
winces as the electrode cap makes contact with her skull.
It takes five shocks to kill her, the oak chair made
for a man, Ethel so petite the helmet doesn’t fit, so fried
witnesses see coils of smoke rising from her head.
She dreamed of being an opera singer but who was she
to have such dreams, product of the Jewish Bronx,
a mother who belittled her, said she brought it on herself?
Anyway, her mouth would never open wide enough,
except to kiss him, her beloved Julius. His crime?
Handing over minor secrets. Hers was finding love
one New Year’s Eve, just before she went onstage to sing.
He cooled her flaming nerves. Never having known such caring
she hurled herself into her role – loyal wife, so insignificant
to the KGB, she didn’t even have a code name.
by Lorna Thorpe
‘Crime of the Century’ is copyright © Lorna Thorpe, 2011. It is reprinted by permission of Arc Publications from Sweet Torture of Breathing by Lorna Thorpe (Arc Publications, 2011).
Lorna Thorpe was born in Brighton where she lived for most of her life until relocating to Cornwall in 2011. Before turning her hand to poetry she worked as a tour operator, social worker and barmaid. Her debut publication Dancing to Motown (Pighog Press, 2005) was a Poetry Book Society pamphlet choice, and her first full collection A Ghost in My House was published by Arc in 2008. As a fiction writer, her short stories have been short-listed for awards, and appeared in magazines and anthologies. She works as a freelance writer and has published features in the Guardian. You can read more selections from Lorna Thorpe’s work at Arc’s page here, and follow her work via her website here, which includes more examples of her poetry and video of Lorna reading.
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