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.

From Walking Back Up Depot Street, copyright © 1999 by Minnie Bruce Pratt. Reprinted by permission of the author. All rights reserved.