Susan Settlemyre Williams




HOUSE STORY



I haven’t told you yet about the slugs
            and probably you won’t want to hear
but it was in that rented house I didn’t have the heart

to bring up sooner             with its unpopular
little rooms in their dowdy paint
and the bare plywood partition in the kitchen with the hole

I poked in it with my three-year-old curiosity that
            no one seemed to know how to mend
nor have I told you how the linoleum

                        curled up in disdain             and the yard
would grow only sandspurs             but how from the vacant lot
beside us and through our open windows

when the wind in the evening was right we’d catch
the aroma of Irving Funderburk’s pony’s
            turds

            how my parents seemed defeated
                        by it all and even I had no
joy in that house             and maybe you could stand to hear

this much             the mildew laying its gray carpet
in the dark corners of the kitchen
                        but the slugs—down in the crawl space

the four-inch-long humpbacks     with horns and leopard
spots     you won’t want to hear how they migrated
at night up the pipes and out through the drain

in our bathtub slicking the rusty porcelain             and glided
up its sides and down onto the tiles             how
getting up in the dark             I put my foot wrong             felt

                        the muscled jelly between my toes
and screamed and screamed
how I could feel my own mother’s fingers

wanting to draw back as she cleaned the mucus
            from my foot        how nothing in the world
would be clean again

and again             my parents were defeated
it seemed there was no cure    only
the revenge of salt poured on the slugs’

skins until they decomposed into pure
slime                            in fact into essence of slug
and of course for weeks afterwards

in bed half-gagging on moon-silvered pony pellets
I’d measure mollusk-creep                         out from the tub
across the hall             up onto my cot             then million-toothed

mouths beginning to sample my face
and slinking             their trails over my hair and my lips
until
            —and aren’t you doing this now?—

like a salted slug, I’d writhe
                                    inside my well-scrubbed skin.

 




KATHRYN:  HIDDEN



    1. The Cellar


Nobody remembers the cellar.  Nobody
after Mother wanted the work

of preserving.  Used to be jars
were gold and green inside, but gray

things live in them now.  Under the hatch
steps pitching down

in secret dark into dark and black smell of earth.
When I heard about the tomb

Lazarus was called out of, I thought
how you feel in the dark

for the light cord.  Mother up behind
with the flashlight, making jar-light, fingers

caught in sticky, Mother said cobwebs but
I thought old cloth.  I thought the corpse

reaching at me in its sheet.
The cellar was the only place.  Secret,

said the angel.  Be strong. Your Work is
not for other people’s eyes.



    2. Break-In


Two of them.  White.  Martha
wanted to know.  You sure? she asked.

They stood in the bedroom door.  Cut
on the light so I had to see them.
White.  The naked one.  I wanted

not to see.  Bag, they called me.  Other names
I will not remember.  Laughter
like a fire in the barn.  I couldn’t speak

not even to beg.  But it was
my pocketbook they ripped open,
a pantsuit in the wardrobe.

My spending money,
Mother’s big cameo pin.
Credit cards, and cut the phone line.

I couldn’t speak. Or it would have been
Cellar!  Angel!  What I couldn’t
utter. The drumming above their cackles.

Now I sleep at Martha’s in town.
Not quite the same as leaving.
My baby sister.  The only one stayed
close to take care of me.

And daytime in the house is not the same
as staying.  The splintered frame—
door used to could keep it all out.  Two.  White.
The stain on the floor.

 




 

KATHRYN:  WHO STAYED



How people can just decide to live
where the dirt is the wrong color.

Where nobody knows your grandmother
and there are no cousins.  My sisters
did it, up and moved to Virginia.

And I live in the house
where my father and grandfathers on back
were born, the gravel road
named for Mother’s people.

The man from Boston told me all
they ate was fish. Who would I be
with folks who eat fish?

                          Who don’t know
Mother’s white corn and country ham or
anything that finally matters.

                        But sometimes I think
about leaving.  My life folded up in a single
packing crate.  Strange flowers.  The sun
coming up through a different window.

Then the drumming starts in my head.
How people can live with the drumming.




MY GRANDMOTHER’S MIGRAINE

 

My grandmother straightens
and stands stock-still
among the dust motes, busy and golden—
making biscuits
before the afternoon’s cold window.

It is very long ago — her youngest child,
the one who will grow
up to be a beauty, gurgles milkily
from her crib in the corner away
from the black stove and the table.

The other four are in school or asleep.
My grandmother has never felt
the house so still.  She has stopped
rolling out dough, holds her breath,
and is becoming the winter light herself

because of the other light
starting inside her eyes,
fear-tasting light that spikes
and shimmers and amplifies
the baby’s cooing into shrieks

of the peacocks her uncle used to breed
until they died of bad temper.
The light is familiar and weird
as the first sickness of her
pregnancies.  Should this even matter,

this farmwife seeing light
that isn’t there on an ordinary
afternoon?  Or me, writing these words
around the dazzle and blur of my own sharpened
light?  Grandmother will flour her hands

and go back blind to her baking,
she will feed the stove and boil
the just-plucked chicken in
its glimmering pot. The children will
come home, wake up.  Her husband

will arrive as the light in her fades
into something keen and narrow.
She will serve up supper, hold hands for grace,
and set the oldest girls to washing up before,
carrying herself like antique glass,

she makes her way
alone to her dark room behind
the stairs.  On her cold quilt, she will lie
in the moonlight while the shining
needle of pain probes her eye,

the voices from the kitchen
rasping faintly against her socket.
She cannot quite sleep.  I want
her to reach out her hand.  It will be decades
before I glimpse the shimmer of pain

and think I’m going blind.  But I’m here, cold,
making a poem of her shiny darkness,
the same needle drawing the blood
she gave me. Grandmother, reach.
Now.  It will help if  you hold my hand.




Susan Settlemyre Williams is associate literary editor of Blackbird.  Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Shenandoah, Barrow Street, DIAGRAM, and The Cream City Review, among other journals.  Her manuscript Ashes in Midair was a finalist in the 2004 Tupelo Press first book competition.  She grew up in the Carolinas and has lived for 35 years in Richmond, Virginia.  She holds an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University and is retired from law practice.