The Subway Entrance

- 1946-
He was her guide. He lived in hell. Every day he thought
he was dead. Years after he's died, she thinks it's him stumbling
drunk through the subway turnstile. Just the two of them
on the platform. He asks her for money, pennies for passage:

          In the nursing home, a palsied woman guards the door.
          She asks: Are you coming back? Everyone in or out
          must answer her. Don't leave me here. Come back.
          Beatrice lies to get past her outstretched shaking hand.

          Her father knows she's leaving him today. He waits.
          His dying head turns and roams the air. One tear
          slides from his right eye, rheumy clear regret.
          What has he meant? His shouts at the TV asked for death,
          the dogs set ravening. His way in the woods was delicate
          wherever he stepped.

                                Before he takes her there,
                    he shows the snake's rattle in his desk drawer, stretched
                    out like a watch fob, a pocket charm to protect,
                    a souvenir of the biggest one he's killed yet. He calls
                    to her in the woods, Look where you put your feet.

                    Her favorite place is low, the watery creek branch,
                    sand rippled like snake tracks. His place is high, a stand
                    of longleaf pine. In that long hallway, light flashes
                    as his axe bites at a tree's distortions, rotted cankers,
                    excrescences. His gloved hands run rough up and down
                    the bark flanks. Her mouth fills with tincture of turpentine.
                    On the tree's face, teardrops of rosin harden and shine.

                              She remembers which way the bed faced. Climbing
                              up beside him. No touching, but excitement. Like getting on
                              a train and stories flash by. Him throwing tires like horseshoes
                              in Michigan, him wrestling alligators in a Florida swamp.
                              His words clack like wheels over rails, then he's snoring.

          She thought they were going together. Left behind.
          The one who waits, the one who's going nowhere
          in the stuffy room, with his sweat, cigarettes, spittoon.
          No way to tell her story. 

                                                        He carries her on his back
                              across the river. Sun sparkles under her feet,
                              and the terror of what lies under. She climbs down
                              to stand with him at the edge, where sandy ground
                              gives way to water. His ruined land behind her,
                              the failed sealed mouths of coal mines, the silver dollars
                              like tarnished moons in men's hands on election night.

          She knows she is leaving him today. She asks,
          Will you die before I come back? He says he guesses so.
          He sees her tears, he says, Don't take it so hard.

He promised his mother he'd come back. He never
promised her.

                    In the past they step to the edge of the river
                    and the water forgives.

                                             He never promised to meet her
in the city, any one of the cities he stumbled through:

                              On foot in L.A. in 1931, looking for a job.
                              Left the trailer at dawn, walking. Sold cut flowers
                              on a corner, picked up golf balls at a driving range,
                              nickel a bucket. At the locked gates of the aircraft plant
                              daydreamed a flight above the city like a silver angel.
                              Asked for yard work at a house. The owner promises tomorrow.

He holds his hands out, and says, as if to a brother, a sister,
Don't you forget me.

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. 

The Blue Cup

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.