Spirits at the Edge of Bayonet Woods
Crabgrass thickens, and catalpas bloom
gigantic, hoping to hide our homestead, the poverty
and grime that kept us mired here
for generations, as if we were sleeping off a bender for one hundred years.
Sooty hankies against our mouths, in the kitchen
chicken spitting in the fryer,
thick smoke rising, and we’re in the mineshafts,
the ones that swallowed our men
and cooked them and spat them into our beds.
Forgive us, Lord, we did not know them,
humpbacked and ruined, crawling toward us
wanting clean shirts, kisses, more children.
Tell me, what was a woman’s purpose in those woods?
Trading quails’ eggs for the babies’ medicine,
boiling lye and animal grease to shampoo coal dust
from our men’s curling hair?
They clung to us in sleep, that watery place,
and I swear, as I lay beside my own husband
I did not know him, even as he struck me,
muttering his terrors, whimpering the struggle
of slowly drowning in a shaft flood, or burning
alive in a coke fire. And though we pitied Grace,
the valley’s only suicide, we understood
when she wrote, I cannot go on here, in this place…
In fact, we watched her strip beside Stone Path
where she had gone to pray, faithful to the current’s
constant swirling, watched her weep beside
the river’s illiterate banks, lay her dress upon
its slick grasses, wade into the inch of loam,
then lie facedown in its merciful pull.
Forgive her, Lord, for leaving this earth so early.
She was terribly lonely.
“Spirits at the Edge of Bayonet Woods” first appeared in Shenandoah, Vol. 56, Number 1.