ballad of bertie county
it was our hope to get there long before
dark, but this part of carolina had been
dark for two hundred years or more:
dim-lit by white flames of cotton on thin
brown stalks. we were answering a call,
braving klan country to bring black folks
city words with rural roots. we were all
smiles with rough edges, telling bitter jokes.
sistah’s house must be pretty big, we
joked, half-expecting to be bedded down
on cots and couches after eating all the
collard greens we could. the last town,
as sleepy as we were, some twenty, thirty
miles behind us now. we were gunning
our mouths, didn’t hear the whispers we
should have heard. time’s savage cunning.
around us, the trees silhouetted, blackened,
and disappeared into vast carolina night.
we chased our headlights. our pace slackened
when we spotted red-brick columns and white
picket fence. a gravel driveway led through
the columns towards a noose of yellow light
above a shuttered door. ancient pines grew
on either side, rising thickly, quickly out of sight.
not knowing what we’d gotten into, we
got out of the car. the land seemed to sigh,
a cricketless silence. we still didn’t foresee
the plump white woman who greeted us. hi,
you must be . . . come in. welcome. farewell,
welfare, we thought, and crossed the thresh-
hold. inside, one glance told us the deal. hell,
it really was a big house. memories in the flesh.
no sign of mammy anywhere. no “wooly heads,”
no “pickaninnies,” no grinning boy-men, in any
pictures, on any knick-knack shelves. our beds
in innocent, menacing rooms. how many, how many
slaved here? echoes of injuries rushing down
the spiral staircase at us, seeping from the wood
floor like sweat. none of us ever meant to drown
first-hand in such a flood. fate got us good.
burgundy candles burned, bleeding onto
the mahogany table. portraits of the mistress
and master, in silk and suit, hung like two
crimes on the opposite wall. our distress
crawled our skin like lice, as our hostess’s aunt
and mother fished out story after story
from their wine glasses, dripping their debutante
drawls all over us, draping us in old glory.
we were never alone together, till she left
us for the night in our three unholy
rooms. gathering in one, we mourned the theft
of our choice, our right to claim, solely
for the sake of our historied hearts, i NEVER.
one of us drew a vial of oil from a pocket,
anointed our heads, hands, feet. evil’s clever.
touch your windows and your door. and lock it.
there were forty-seven blacks enslaved here,
she’d told us. i sat up with all the lights
on till my eyelids dropped like tears. fear
dragged me through sleep, despite our rites.
i dreamed of forty-seven fiddles shrieking
dixie, forty-seven bales of cotton, forty-seven
hounds a-howling, forty-seven planters leaking
pus between brown thighs, and not one heaven.
morning. november’s anemic sunlight swooned
across the yard and, beyond, the desolate field.
i sought sights to prove we weren’t marooned
in 1850, 1940. watched an elder wearily wield
a rake, inherited work he’d spent a lifetime
doing, his payment a pittance little more than
slave wages. historical preservation: pastime
for mother and aunt, livelihood for this man.
downstairs, in the kitchen, we sipped coffee,
waited on scrambled eggs. through a second
door, a room we hadn’t seen last night. off we
went, drawing near the portrait that beckoned
us. who’s that? we asked. sis harriet, they
called her. harriet gatling. she was cook here, after
slavery. so. stand here, said miss lady one day.
i want to paint you, when you’re not busy. (laughter.)
we breakfasted, packed, followed them
to the center to read our poems. exercise
equipment had been pushed to the gym
walls. the only other place nearby of enough size
for such a program is hope plantation, our hostess told
us. counting our blessings and our meager
but warm black audience, we let our words unfold
a map of farms and cities, migrations of the eager.
it was our hope to recover a newer world
before dark, but we had to drive across
centuries to get home. our directions wrong,
but our wills strong, we bore our mutual loss
in anything but silence, till we saw rocky mount
twinkling along the highway, a tight necklace
of lights. we swore to log this passage, to account
for this double-crossing, to etch an inerasable trace.
—for lenard and teresa
“the ballad of bertie county” was first published in African American Review, Vol. 38, No. 2, Summer 2004.