©2020 by Canvas Literary Journal

Published by Cosmographia Books

Background art “Submerged” by Amelia Ao

Canvas logo by Ali Wrona

Self-Portrait as Cherub

Julia Sperling

Winter 2020

“He drove out the man; and at the east of the Garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.”

—Genesis, 4:24

I am standing at the edge of all things holy.


In front of me, whispers of playground lov

eand childhood pets that I thought would never die.


The cherub guards the oak in the center of the garden.

Her hair is not yet darkened,

hovering around that sandy color, still curly.

She has sprouted wings.


Tell me,

with her pink berry stained lips and swallowing eyes,

Does she think she can fly?


She doesn’t know.

She just knows what she was told

on Monday nights and Sunday mornings at Hebrew School:

That Jews eat bagels with cream cheese and lox

as if God told them to.

Everyone seems to abide,

Though she thinks she’ll stick to butter.


She knows she only cared

to learn enough Hebrew to spell her name:


Yafa, she’s called Beautiful


at birth already

twisted into the branches of the Tree

and blessed into hours of chag sameachs.


I still like the idea of being Yafa.

Of being intrinsically beautiful and holy.

But my eyes see farther than this name.

Now, how the hand that fills the oceans also drains

the cups of the thirsty.


At Yad Vashem in Israel a plaque read

“In memorial of Rosa Sperling”

Whose name carried my family’s blood

through the death march.


Rosa smuggled rouge between her fingers

into camps that almost killed us.

Red between red,

the blush blending in

with skin tinted from blood that surfaced.


Red means life.

Both cheeks flushed

With youth and powerful love that seems to have no end.

Watch the cherub’s lips pucker at the ripest fruit,

the one that’s just a little too sweet.


Her eyes were lighter then,

Bearing clear open skies.

The ocean in mine is far more polluted.

She is draped in fabric made from clouds,

And holds a sword in her chubby fingers.


At some point she will drop this sword: surrender.


Maybe at her grandma’s funeral,

Or her first school lesson on the Holocaust.

She will shed her wings the way a snake sheds its skin

and grows into itself.

She will grow into herself: into me.


She watches the oak tree with an intense care

that I’ve lost over the years.

I wish I could tell her

that tree she is guarding will die someday,

as all living things do,

And that she will have to find something new to protect:


Perhaps herself.


The day after,

We had three more guards than usual in front of our building

As I settled in to teach the V’ahavta.


Our very own cherubim

To guard our tree of life.

Julia Sperling is a junior at the Bronx High School of Science in New York City. Her dance training takes up most of her time, but she enjoys reading and writing poetry and philosophy when she has the opportunity. She spends her summers in workshops with other young writers.