- 1946-
We slept, woke, breakfasted, and met the man
we’d hired as a tour guide, with a van
and driver, for the day. We were to drive
to Cachoeira, where the sisters live:
the famous Sisterhood of the Good Death,
founded by former slaves in the nineteenth
century. "Negroes of the Higher Ground," 
they called themselves, the governesses who found-
ed the Sisterhood as a way to serve the poor.
Their motto, "Aiye Orun," names the door
between this world and the other, kept ajar.
They teach that death is relative: We rise
to dance again. Locally canonized,
they lead quiet, celibate, nunnish lives,
joining after they’ve been mothers and wives,
at between fifty and seventy years of age:
a sisterhood of sages in matronage.

We drove on Salvador’s four-lane boulevards,
past unpainted cement houses, and billboards,
and pedestrians wearing plastic shoes,
and little shops, and streets, and avenues,
a park, a mall . . . Our guide was excellent:
fluent in English, and intelligent,
willing to answer questions patiently
and to wait out our jokes. The history
of Salvador flew past. At Tororo
we slowed as much as the traffic would allow,
to see the Orixas dancing on the lake
in their bright skirts. The road we took
sped past high-rise apartment neighborhoods,
then scattered shacks, then nothing but deep woods
of trees I didn’t recognize and lands
that seemed to be untouched by human hands.
We stopped in a village, where it was market day.
We walked among the crowds, taller than they
and kilos heavier, tasting jackfruit
and boiled peanuts, embraced by absolute,
respectful welcome, like visiting gods
whose very presence is good news. Our guide
suggested a rest stop. We were sipping Coke
when a man came into the shop and quietly spoke
to our guide, who translated his request:
Would we come to his nightclub, be his guests?
We didn’t understand, but shrugged and went
a few doors down the street. "What does he want?"
we asked. The club hadn’t been opened yet;
by inviting us in, the owner hoped to get
our blessings for it. Which we humbly gave:
visiting rich American descendants of slaves.

For hours we drove through a deep wilderness,
laughing like children on a field-trip bus.
We made a side trip to the family home
of Bahia’s favorite daughter and son,
the Velosos, Bethania and Caetano,
in the small town of Santo Amaro.
The greenery flew by until the descent
into a river valley. There we went
to a nice little restaurant to dine
on octopus stew, rice, manioc, and wine.
Then we crossed a rickety bridge behind a dray
drawn by a donkey, and wended our way,
at last, to Cachoeira, an old town
of colonial buildings, universally tan
and shuttered, darkly lining narrow streets.
A tethered rooster pecked around our feet
in the souvenir shop. At the convent
I wondered what the statues really meant:
Was it Mary, or was it Yemanja
in the chapel, blue-robed, over the altar?
Was it Mary on the glass-enclosed bier,
her blue robe gold-embroidered, pearls in her hair,
or was it the Orixa of the sea?
There were no Sisters around for us to see;
they were in solitude, preparing for the Feast
of the Assumption, when the Virgin passed
painlessly from this world into the next,
Aiye to Orun. Posters showed them decked
out for their big Assumption Day parade,
big, handsome mamas wearing Orixa beads,
white turbans and blouses, red shawls, black skirts.
The man in their gift shop was an expert
on the Sisters’ long struggle to find a way
to serve the Christian Church and Candombl .
The eldest Sister is called "the Perpetual Judge";
every seventh year, she becomes the bridge
on which the Virgin Mary crosses back,
sorrowing love incarnate in a black
ninety-odd-year-old woman facing death
and saying Magnificat with every breath.

We drove out of the valley looking back
on lightbulbs which intensified the thick,
incomprehensible, mysterious
darkness of the unknown. Grown serious
and silent in our air-conditioned van,
we rode back into the quotidian. 

More by Marilyn Nelson


Thank you for these tiny
particles of ocean salt,
pearl-necklace viruses,
winged protozoans:
for the infinite,
intricate shapes
of submicroscopic
living things.

For algae spores
and fungus spores,
bonded by vital
mutual genetic cooperation,
spreading their
inseparable lives
from equator to pole.

My hand, my arm,
make sweeping circles.
Dust climbs the ladder of light.
For this infernal, endless chore,
for these eternal seeds of rain:
Thank you. For dust.

The House on Moscow Street

It's the ragged source of memory,
a tarpaper-shingled bungalow
whose floors tilt toward the porch,
whose back yard ends abruptly
in a weedy ravine. Nothing special:
a chain of three bedrooms
and a long side porch turned parlor
where my great-grandfather, Pomp, smoked
every evening over the news,
a long sunny kitchen
where Annie, his wife,
measured cornmeal,
dreaming through the window
across the ravine and up to Shelby Hill
where she had borne their spirited,
high-yellow brood.

In the middle bedroom's hard,
high antique double bed,
the ghost of Aunt Jane,
the laundress
who bought the house in 1872,
though I call with all my voices,
does not appear.
Nor does Pomp's ghost,
with whom one of my cousins believes
she once had a long and intimate
unspoken midnight talk.
He told her, though they'd never met,
that he loved her; promised
her raw widowhood would heal
without leaving a scar.

The conveniences in an enclosed corner
of the slant-floored back side porch
were the first indoor plumbing in town.
Aunt Jane put them in,
incurring the wrath of the woman
who lived in the big house next door.
Aunt Jane left the house
to Annie, whose mother she had known
as a slave on the plantation,
so Annie and Pomp could move their children
into town, down off Shelby Hill.
My grandmother, her brother, and five sisters
watched their faces change slowly
in the oval mirror on the wall outside the door
into teachers' faces, golden with respect.
Here Geneva, the randy sister,
damned their colleges,
daubing her quicksilver breasts
with gifts of perfume.

As much as love,
as much as a visit
to the grave of a known ancestor,
the homeplace moves me not to silence
but the righteous, praise Jesus song:

Oh, catfish and turnip greens,
hot-water cornbread and grits.
Oh, musty, much-underlined Bibles;
generations lost to be found,
to be found.

Mama's Promise

I have no answer to the blank inequity
of a four-year-old dying of cancer.
I saw her on TV and wept
with my mouth full of meatloaf.

I constantly flash on disasters now;
red lights shout Warning. Danger.
everywhere I look.
I buckle him in, but what if a car
with a grille like a sharkbite
roared up out of the road?
I feed him square meals,
but what if the fist of his heart 
should simply fall open?
I carried him safely
as long as I could,
but now he's a runaway
on the dangerous highway.
Warning. Danger.
I've started to pray.

But the dangerous highway
curves through blue evenings
when I hold his yielding hand
and snip his minuscule nails
with my vicious-looking scissors.
I carry him around
like an egg in a spoon,
and I remember a porcelain fawn,
a best friend's trust,
my broken faith in myself.
It's not my grace that keeps me erect
as the sidewalk clatters downhill
under my rollerskate wheels.

Sometimes I lie awake
troubled by this thought:
It's not so simple to give a child birth;
you also have to give it death,
the jealous fairy's christening gift.

I've always pictured my own death
as a closed door,
a black room,
a breathless leap from the mountaintop
with time to throw out my arms, lift my head,
and see, in the instant my heart stops,
a whole galaxy of blue.
I imagined I'd forget,
in the cessation of feeling,
while the guilt of my lifetime floated away
like a nylon nightgown,
and that I'd fall into clean, fresh forgiveness.

Ah, but the death I've given away
is more mine than the one I've kept:
from my hands the poisoned apple,
from my bow the mistletoe dart.

Then I think of Mama,
her bountiful breasts.
When I was a child, I really swear,
Mama's kisses could heal.
I remember her promise,
and whisper it over my sweet son's sleep:

         When you float to the bottom, child,
         like a mote down a sunbeam,
         you'll see me from a trillion miles away:
         my eyes looking up to you,
         my arms outstretched for you like night.