Susan Settlemyre Williams
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
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 slugsdown 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
and aren’t you doing this now?
like a salted slug, I’d writhe
inside my well-scrubbed skin.
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.
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
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.