casseroles for the dead are crusted over with them.
Better to save those crumbs for starving days
than try to unravel a swoop of crows.
Surely the conspiracy of parents was right there
in front of that raggedy pair,
striding on such skinny legs
that no distance would ever bridge their hunger.
Still, I rooted for them, all the while knowing
they were truly lost.
The witch was the only helpful guide,
I could breathe again once she entered.
You need something real to fight against and finally
she brought it.
Like little birds captured in their own ribcages,
they sang together then.
Fear is opera and she was a cackling diva in black
delivering on a big scale.
She led them to strike back
and for that she must always die.
By the end I could unclench.
It turns out ok.
The things you know will fail, will fail.
There is always a brother or sister to share that trip.
In eating the bread of suffering, you are never alone.
Then too there are the eyes
of those who should have loved you,
looking away, turning the heart inside out, a wrung wren,
a stone skipped on an open wound, the splay of want,
the ache of the kiss fist you just have to face.
But in the end
Trust the Witch,
Trust the Witch.
Previously published by Silk Road spring 2007
She Waves Goodbye from the Window
Beneath the suggestion of skin,
an intricate genealogy of bone,
blue bloodlines map
the back of your hand.
For years you were shielded, sheathed
in perpetual and proper white gloves,
until, unveiled, the skin became
a gentle drape of gauze, soft crepe.
Mama, even as you began to fade
into spidery scrawl of your
earlier signature self,
there was a delicate force.
Your last wave lifted and lighted,
brought back a cool touch on summer evenings
when fireflies winked beyond the screens.
Soft, soft as a lullaby, your hands.
First published by Smartish Pace reprinted by Sunspinner online journal
***** In Avon
for my mother Mary Gray Sylvester (1928-1984)
My mother was part of the landscape
her eyes bluer than sound or ocean
her sandy hands catching us up
one day in 1969 she sat
on a bleached out piece of driftwood
long enough for a photograph
to catch her between sky and sea
In the village the oval ESSO sign creaked
above the abandoned service station
the village idiot walked the streets
muttering under his breath
in some strange tongue
we would follow giggling, at a distance
all the way to Gray’s general store
dimly lit and full of poor-boy-cakes
fireballs, sweet tarts
on the way back
past the harbor, rank with the smell of fish
past the church, with its ominous bell
past the brambly blackberry bushes
we’d come to her home
the big house with the banisters
the iron beds, cement cistern
and fig trees
a curious Eden
the primary ground of her existence
In Avon my mother walked
barefoot through her girlhood
years later we followed her paths
dug in the clam beds
caught the lightening bugs
sneaked out after dark to count stars
or spy on adults
sitting around the kitchen table
with their mugs of coffee and conversation
Each summer we returned
as if by instinct, to Avon
where the frogs filled the air at night
with a terrible noise
shiny green they’d climb the screens
and cling there
my mother floated moon-like
in our doorway
she’d remind us to say our prayers
before she said good night
Previously published in Tar River Poetry
Sundays in Summertime
Sundays were always a gamble. Church in summertime was pretty miserable no matter what. The windows open, the sills yellow with pollen, and the crinoline embedded into your legs no matter how you sat. The women waved the air wanly with cardboard fans that had pictures of angelic, rosy-cheeked children in prayer, or pale skinned Jesuses in white robes addressing the multitudes. Related scriptures were printed below the pictures. The pianist plunked mercilessly at Onward Christian Soldiers and On the Wings of a Dove. Often the entire congregation fell into a heat drowsed stupor. Some pink pated farmer would snore softly and be gouged in the ribs by his wife.
But on a good Sunday, a Sunday where someone, or nearly everyone, got the spirit, all this changed; the air electrified. Sometimes Mr. Ray Smithfield got the spirit and sprinted up and down the aisles, waving his arms and crying out "Hallelujah! Hallelujah!" or Miss Maybelle Barker talked in tongues loud enough for the Methodists a mile down the road to hear. Then I quit playing tic-tac-toe on my knee and started paying attention. When the Holy Ghost descended everything and everyone became charged, awake, alive.
My favorite times, though, were when the healers came through town. The same people tended to get healed each time, often of the same complaint, but the show and sweat of it enthralled me. Some healers pressed the ladies on the forehead until they fainted (always into the supporting arms of fellow believers). I pictured this as the result of some sort of intense bolt that flashed through their bodies, cleaving the sickness which unbalanced them.
Once my mother got healed. She had constant backaches. The healer said that one of her legs was shorter than the other and this caused the backaches, so he pulled her short leg out. Apparently this cure was the result of divine revelation, since there was no visible evidence. That whole week I begged her to let me measure her legs. She eventually grew so angry that I had to stay inside and memorize extra scripture verses that week about mustard seeds.
I don't recall most of those verses anymore but I do remember one specific Sunday service. After several rousing choruses of When the Roll is Called up Yonder the spirit fell, seemingly at once, over the whole congregation. There were corners of prayers, hand waving, tongues, everything. I watched Mr. Smithfield, making bets with myself about the number of minutes it would take before he made a break for the aisle. He rolled up onto the balls of his feet, up and back, up and back, faster and faster. Then he did it. He tore down the aisle with his eyes closed, never grazing a person, a pew, or anything solid, tangible. It was a peculiarly amazing feat, the likes of which, to this day, I've never seen.
Miss Maybelle was likewise transformed. Gone was the timid, self-effacing lady. In her place a sputtering, red-faced woman filled the hot room with an unintelligible language. My eyes traveled from her to him (rounding the front row of pews with fractions of an inch to spare) and back to her. Then Miss Maybelle, as if hurled from a huge, invisible slingshot, flew after Mr. Smithfield on the improvised track. She was just rounding the corner on lap one when she skidded across the hardwood floor, her high heel carving a pale gash. She hit the first pew with a dull thud and her head cracked on the second one. It sounded like a good line drive. Suddenly, like a host of angels, the air around her filled with bodies, lifting, lulling, praying over her. I was all the way at the edge of my pew, straining to see her inside the circle of bodies. She was crying and shaking. All I could think of was how Jesus made the lame to walk and blind to see. I couldn't wait to see what would happen next. But what happened proved horribly disappointing. She couldn't stand, much less walk. Held up and carried to the church
doorway, she was briefly suspended then sacrificed into the back seat of the pastor's station wagon. The pastor's wife punched it out of the parking lot, spraying gravel.
In the car, on the way home, I questioned my mother non-stop about this apparent breach of faith. All she would say was, "Nowhere in the Bible does it say you shouldn't go to the doctor when you need to." Later that afternoon, though, I heard her murmuring in shocked tones into the telephone. Her voice seemed to keep rising in question. I came in, pretending to get a glass of water, but she put her hand over the receiver and told me to get outside and play.
Miss Maybelle had a broken hip and a minor concussion. It was a long, long time after her injuries had mended before she was heard praying aloud in church again. To my knowledge, she never again attempted the Smithfield dash. Throughout the rest of that summer and other summers that piled up year after year, when the drone of the preacher's voice wavered across the stuffy room, my eyes instinctively sought out the white scratch from Miss Maybelle's shoe. It grew so thin and covered over that eventually I was just looking at a place, like any other, on the floor. But I knew the mark was there, the testament to a trajectory into blind faith. It was there, and it was a record of our need for healers, etched in wood, filling in grain by grain, until it is impossible to see.
Previously published in The Village Rambler Magazine summer 2004