The Blue Cup

Minnie Bruce Pratt - 1946-
Through binoculars the spiral nebula was
a smudged white thumbprint on the night sky.
Stories said it was a mark left by the hand
of Night, that old she, easily weaving
the universe out of milky strings of chaos.

Beatrice found creation more difficult.
Tonight what she had was greasy water
whirling in the bottom of her sink, revolution,
and one clean cup.

                    She set the blue cup
down on the table, spooned instant coffee, poured
boiling water, a thread of sweetened milk. Before
she went back to work, she drank the galaxy that spun
small and cautious between her chapped cupped hands.

More by Minnie Bruce Pratt

Walking Back Up Depot Street

In Hollywood, California (she'd been told) women travel
on roller skates, pull a string of children, grinning, gaudy-
eyed as merry-go-round horses, brass wheeled
under a blue canopy of sky.

                                 Beatrice had never
lived in such a place. This morning, for instance, beside
Roxboro Road, she'd seen a woman with no feet wheel
her chair into fragile clumps of new grass. Her legs ended
at the ankle, old brown cypress knees. She furrowed herself
by hand through the ground. Cars passed. The sky stared down.
At the center of the world's blue eye, the woman stared back.   

Years revolved, began to circle Beatrice, a ring of burning eyes.
They flared and smoked like the sawmill fires she walked past


as a child, in the afternoon at 4 o'clock, she and a dark woman,
past the cotton gin, onto the bridge above the railroad tracks.
There they waited for wheels to rush like the wings of an iron angel,
for the white man at the engine to blow the whistle. Beatrice had waited
to stand in the tremble of power.

                                   Thirty years later she saw
the scar, the woman who had walked beside her then, split
but determined to live, raising mustard greens to get through
the winter. Whether she had, this spring, Beatrice did not know.
If she was sitting, knotted feet to the stove, if the coal had lasted,
if she cared for her company, pictures under table glass,
the eyes of children she had raised for others.

                                                If Beatrice went back
to visit at her house, sat unsteady in a chair in the smoky room,
they'd be divided by past belief, the town's parallel tracks, 
people never to meet even in distance. They would be joined
by the memory of walking back up Depot Street.

                                                She could sit
and say: I have changed, have tried to replace the iron heart
with a heart of flesh.

                                   But the woman whose hands had washed her,
had pulled a brush through her hair, whose hands had brought her maypops,
the green fruit and purple flowers, fierce eyes of living creatures--
What had she given her back, that woman, anything all these years?

Words would not remake the past. She could not make it
vanish like an old photograph thrown onto live coals.

If she meant to live in the present, she would have to work, do
without, send money, call home long distance about the heat.

Red String

          At first she thought the lump in the road
          was clay thrown up by a trucker's wheel.
          Then Beatrice saw the mess of feathers.


Six or seven geese stood in the right-of-way, staring
at the blood, their black heads rigid above white throats.
Unmoved by passing wind or familiar violence, they fixed
their gaze on dead flesh and something more, a bird on the wing.

It whirled in a thicket of fog that grew up from fields plowed
and turned to winter. It joined other spirits exhaled before dawn,
creatures that once had crept or flapped or crawled over the land.


          Beatrice had heard her mother tell of men who passed
          as spirits. They hid in limestone caves by the river, hooded
          themselves inside the curved wall, the glistening rock.
          Then just at dark they appeared, as if they had the power
          to split     the earth open to release them. White-robed, faceless
          horned heads, they advanced with torches over the water,
          saying, We are the ghosts of Shiloh and Bull Run fight!


                    Neighbors who watched at the bridge knew each man by his voice
                    or limp or mended boots but said nothing, let the marchers
                    pass on. Then they ran their skinny hounds to hunt other
                    lives down ravines, to save their skins another night
                    from the carrion beetles, spotted with red darker than blood,
                    who wait by the grave for the body's return to the earth.

                    Some years the men killed scores, treed them in the sweetgums,
                    watched a beast face flicker in the starry green leaves.
                    Then they burned the tree.


                                                  Smoke from their fires
still lay over the land where Beatrice travelled.


Out of this cloud the dead of the field spoke to her,
voices from a place where women's voices never stop:


                    They took my boy down by Sucarnochee creek.
                    He said, "Gentlemen, what have I done?" 
                    They says, "Never mind what you have done. 
                    We just want your damned heart." After they
                    killed him, I built up a little fire and laid out
                    by him all night until the neighbors came
                    in the morning. I was standing there when
                    they killed him, down by Sucarnochee creek. 

                    I am a mighty brave woman, but I was getting
                    scared the way they were treating me, throwing rocks
                    on my house, coming in disguise. They come to my bed
                    where I was laying, and whipped me. They dragged me
                    out into the field so that the blood strung across
                    the house, and the fence, and the cotton patch,
                    in the road, and they ravished me. Then they went
                    back into my house and ate the food on the stove.
                    They have drove me from my home. It is over
                    by DeSotoville, on the other side in Choctaw.

              I had informed of persons whom I saw
              dressing in Ku-Klux disguise;
              had named the parties. At the time
              I was divorced from Dr. Randall
              and had a school near Fredonia. 
              About one month before the election
              some young men about the county
              came in the night-time; they said
              I was not a decent woman; also
              I was teaching radical politics.
              They whipped me with hickory withes.
              The gashes cut through my thin dress,
              through the abdominal wall.
              I was thrown into a ravine
              in a helpless condition. The school
              closed after my death.


From the fog above the bloody entrails of the bird, the dead flew
toward Beatrice like the night crow whose one wing rests on the evening
while the other dusts off the morning star. They gave her such a look:


              Child, what have you been up to while we
              were trying to keep body and soul together? 

              But never mind that now. Here's what you must do: 

              Tie a red flannel string around your waist. 
              Plant your roots when the moon is dark. Remember
              your past, and ours. Always remember who you are. 
              Don't let those men fool you about the ways of life
              even if blood must sign your name. 

At Deep Midnight

It's at dinnertime the stories come, abruptly,
as they sit down to food predictable as ritual.
Pink lady peas, tomatoes red as fat hearts
sliced thin on a plate, cornbread hot, yellow
clay made edible. The aunts hand the dishes
and tell of people who've shadowed them, pesky
terrors, ageing reflections that peer back
in the glass when they stand to wash up at the sink.


                  One sister shivers and fevers with malaria,
                  lowland by the river where Papa tries to farm
                  the old plantation.  Midnight, she calls to him
                  to save her, there's money on fire, money between
                  her thighs, money burning her up, she's dying.

                  He brings no water but goes on his knees,
                  jerks up the bedclothes, shouts something she
                  has not said, has she? Yelling at the invisible man
                  he sees under the bed: Come out from there, you
                  black rascal, you. Flapping the heavy sheets
                  like angel wings, and smiling at his baby daughter


who in her eighties shuffles her words briskly
like a deck of playing cards, and laughs and says,
We're all crazy here, lived around negroes too long.


                  The oldest sister walks barefoot home from school
                  trembling. At the curve by the Lightsey's house
                  a black woman stands, bloody-handed, holding up
                  a pale fetus from a slaughtered sow, laughing,
                  I've killed me a baby, lookit the baby I killed.


          Beatrice looks past them all, sees the ramshackle houses
          past her grandmother's yard, the porch tin cans of snakeplants.
          Inside, sooty walls, from a hundred years' of pineknot smoke.


                  Inside no bigger than a corncrib. The door shuts from outside.
                  They can hear the board drop into the slot, the angry man
                  shut in to stand stud, the woman on her back on cornshucks,
                  who later, bloody, smothers her new daughter in rough homespun.

                  Inside a white-washed, lamplit room, a man bends over
                  a ledger: Boy Jacob Seventy-Five Dollars, Five Sows
                  and Sixteen Piggs Twenty Dollars. His pen flickers:
                  how fast could the pair he bought cheap increase five-fold
                  because God had said replenish the earth and subdue it?


Now the aunts are asking about her children, the boy
babies who'd so pleased, with their white skin, silky
crisp as new-printed money, a good thing too, with the farm
lost long ago. Beatrice wonders if the youngest sister


          remembers the noon she snapped the bedroom door open
          on her, arched, aching, above the girl cousin, taking
          turns on the carefully made-up bed. Flushed like dove
          out of the room's dusty shade, they murmured denials.
          They ended the long kissing that gets no children.

          Her nipples had been brown-pink like a bitten-into fig,
          gritty sweet, never tasted, lost as her cousin dressed
          after a night they'd sunk together in the feather mattress
          hip to hip, hair tangled, kinky brown, springcoiled blonde,
          skin stuck to humid skin in the sandy damp sheets. Dressed,
          at breakfast, elbow to elbow, they ate biscuits and jelly.

          She never claimed her with a look, no wherewithal, no currency
          in love, no madness, no money, only a silent vacancy.


          Only the stupor of lying alone on the bed reading: The man
          takes the woman roughly in his arms, pushes her down. If
          she lay still enough, she might feel.  Pressing herself
          down. The bedspread's blunt crochet cuts into her face,
          her cheek rouged and gouged by the thread's harsh twist.


They have more ice tea, the heat almost too much. The heat
at deep midnight grinds into slight motion, whir of a fan.

All sleeping, the aunts, the mother, the grown daughter. While
from bed to bed, slow as the sodden air, move two young girls,
white not-yet-swollen breasts, white underpants, white ghosts.

They stand at each bed, watching, asking, their dark, light
hair drifting like fire out from their unforgiving faces.