Nancy Morris, widow, ca. 1838

When did my knees learn how to forecast rain,
and my hairbrush start yielding silver curls?
Of late, a short walk makes me short of breath,
and every day begins and ends with pain.
Just yesterday I was raising my girls;
now I’m alone, and making friends with death.

So let the railroad stop at my back door
for a hot meal. What do I have to lose?
The Lord has counted the hairs on my head
and made a little space under my floor.
All I ask of life is to be of use.
There’ll be time to be careful when I’m dead.

Birth is a one-way ticket to the grave:
I’ve learned that much slowly, over the years,
watching my body age. Time is a thief,
and what we give away is all we can save.
So bring on the runaways! I know no fear.
Let life have meaning, if it must be brief.


The Underground Railroad, a secret network of routes leading from the South to freedom in Canada, operated from ca. 1801 to 1865. People who risked their lives to help slaves escape on this route were called “conductors.”

Copyright © 2015 Marilyn Nelson. Published with permission of Namelos Editions.