Ten miles out from town

Granpa’s papa and mama were babies
when slavery ended
and Granpa six before his sisters
slid him down their hips
and introduced his feet
to earth.

Mama wore no more
than four braids as a girl
and though not favored herself
spared sympathy for Slavic classmates
whipped for garlic on their breath.

I wore two braids,
breastfed my own
until they learned to sing,
and listen but don’t stay
too long from home
when a white lady cries.

We rose up quick
from where we landed,
but some of the great-grands
are balancing heads
the size of basketballs
and limping from the press of shrapnel.

At funerals the old ones bawl
for old as well as new,
and ladies in white,
fanning through the worst of grief,
are frontline for the preacher’s promise
to “Let the cemetery wait,
until we finish here.”
They fan as though their hands
were made for only this
and rest by simply shifting tired feet
inside their worn down flats.

Ten miles out from town,
alone, I grip the steering wheel
and think of uncles driving
three days straight from Florida in ’35,
the piss and shit backed up
inside them out of fear,
and Granpa waiting far up north
to set his reassuring hands upon their skin;
him telling me long after
that on moonless nights
the woods, no matter how they twist
and moan with ghosts,
are not our enemies;
him asking,
so I don’t forget,
“Why else the moss grow
on the north side of trees?”

-Mary McLaughlin Slechta
(from Buried Bones,
a chapbook, 2004)