Black Night Heron
    Stephanie Dickinson
The sun follows me down St. Claude to Magazine, but then goes missing in the twisting jasmine and wisteria. My feet ache, dizzy on heels that tap the sidewalk, as if my boots are not lost at all. I go where the trees lead. Spanish Oak, moss, roots breaking up the concrete, tumbling sheds into fences. Such a lull. Not one breath in the curtains. Are they all asleep? Here ghosts must come out in the afternoons. Hoop-skirted belles emptying their chamber pots on the heads of Yankee soldiers. Storyville whores swathed in silk kimonos prancing through gardenia-thickened parlors, jazz funerals blazing at high noon. She strolls behind the big houses where cotton kings once lived. Now broken up into rooms for students and Mardi Gras hangers on, their box air conditioners drip and gasp. The trolley seems far away, already down St. Charles Avenue. I am here alone. There is never a moment for myself in the law dorm where I live. Where has Everyone gone? Heat collects in the cunts of camellias, in the eaves and gutters. Everything is in suspension. The dead eyes of the slave quarters hold my gaze.

*
Vividly, the streets call out their strange beautiful names. Ursuline, Dauphine. They want to have lips and tongues again. I hear them more clearly than Father Moore intoning the mysteries of civil procedures, of summons and answer. Here are the high curbs where auctions were held. Planters buying flesh, Choice Cargo Just Arrived, erotic poisonous blooms like rock spiders swarming under the leaves of banana trees. But I am no longer alone

*
A white van turns down the street, almost passes me. Where am I going in these high heeled boots, these tight white jeans that show the headland of my sex, the cleave between? The sidewalk ends. Ahead, mud and grey drizzle. A park. More like a marsh for the Black Night Herons, the grass almost underwater. My face hides in long ash blond hair to the middle of my back. I take a step into the mud, then another. Is she looking for those rare tung oil trees? The mud smells raw. Frog legs garnished with lemon slices before being fried.

*
I see the white van. A flush starts in the center of my forehead.

*
The driver wears metallic sunglasses. Crude oil and turkey excrement from the Mississippi River docks mix with azaleas. Does he want to put his hands on me? Is that what he's saying, as he backs the van up? I keep walking. This mire is where my black boots with the nail heels have been taking me, hurting my feet so, wobbling me through this city where even the green corpses can't lie flat. The driver adjusts his mirrors just as I enter the mud park.

*
The disappearing places where alligators might hibernate.

*
I crouch. Waiting for the van to move on. The park has a tiny zoo. In the middle of this sweet putridity are a few animals in cages, a pygmy goat running his snout through the bars, his nostrils sniff me, a golden oblong iris floats on a black eyeball, and then his mate totters up, bedraggled she-goat with swollen belly, so heavy it sways between her legs. The woman stands against the bars. The lumbering brown bear watches me with his runny eyes. Pet him, tempt his old stone teeth. Where is everyone? His visitors? I remember the Milky Way in my bag, divvy it into threes, and toss them into the cages like breadcrumbs. Sitting, I rub my feet, the narrow toes of my boots. Torture chambers. What have these animals done to be shut up? The bear thrashes, pants, paces back and forth, bashes his head against the wall. The he-goat endlessly tries to mount the she-goat. His yellow eye half shut, dripping honey.

*
Dizzily, the sinking ground around me sloshes when I stand. The sky lowers, and my head almost scrapes it. Rain close, I taste the overcast-Turtle Soup au Sherry.

*
The van is still there. I cut across the park, walk over grizzled grass like the iron-gray pubis of a century old nun. A tractor grunts, a Creole boy on its seat. His shoulders are the color of clay and seem to steer the long blades that shimmy, beheading the grass. He shouts a greeting. The tractor follows the grass smear on the back of my pants. At the far end of the park, a boy and a girl toss a Frisbee, children take turns at a drinking fountain, but stillness reigns, voices sink into the trees. Dark air quiet as the captive animals. My feet sink into the seep of clay. This is not the kind of grass I would choose to lie on if I was hurt. I think my way back to that day when my mother told me to lie on the grass. The day I was hurt.

*
I see my childhood self, the bangs, butterfly glasses, the scabs. That girl runs into the shed where her brother sits crosslegged behind the anvil pounding the rusted bolt of their grandfather's shotgun. The shed is dark and reeks of fermented tractor grease. Scythes dried with hides of timothy hang from nails. She rubs her toes in the lubricated dirt, kicks the cans, scoops up bolts, and tugs on tractor belts. Her brother doesn't see her. He raises the hammer and pounds, a spark jumps from the hammer, ignites the shot left inside the barrel. He still doesn't notice her even after the gun barks and out spurts pieces of hot grease. "Mama," she screams, clutching her face, running into the farmhouse. "I can't breathe." (My mother sits at the table. She's wearing a man's ribbed undershirt; her big breasts pebbled with red currants hang loose and obscene. Mother's hair is coarse, auburn hair that gives off the aroma of boiled eggs dipped in vinegar. By an overturned saltshaker, the stem of a spider plant drips its hairy flesh. Mother speaks without looking at me.) "You just got your wind knocked out." The girl tries to climb into her mother's lap for a hug, to show her the cheek that is blistered and filthy, bloody with cob slivers. Her mother pushes her away, "Go lie on the grass.

*
The sidewalk feels dropped to a pond's bottom. The white van must have made the block. It idles at the curb like a place the sun has dimmed, like the pens where Rice Coast women were kept.

*
The driver gets out, hurriedly swaggering toward me. His thumb crooks the pocket of his black jeans, the sleeves of his white shirt cuff over large forearms. His hair is a dry coarse black, like John the Baptist's scalp in Salome's hand, his face young, very judging. "You're the most beautiful woman I've seen this semester. I won't let you get away," he says, blocking me. "Tell me your name." His black eyes are anthracite but no light Shines from them. Handsome, much younger, a recipe for disaster. His generation frightens me. With their excruciatingly exacting beauty standards. "I have to meet you." He tells me he is a law student at Tulane, and a judge's son. His skin is pale as ambition. West Nile Virus, eternal summer. Tonight, he wants to see me. His place. The sneakers on his feet are pressing the sidewalk, already restless.

*
The rain rinses the window with long drops. This is where the driver of the white van lives--the high-pitched tin roof across from PJ's Coffee. A water moon in the sky, moisture rings of pink hover from streetlamps. On the doorbell a drop of rain clings like a crushed white grape. From the swamps, the heat seeps into New Orleans. I wish the alligator would creep along with it. Tourists cluster in the wrought-iron black chairs of PJ's, toasting foam fizzling from paper cups. Here's to swamp tours and ground 'gator po'ah boys. I smell the worms wiggling in the soft hot rain.

*
He offers me a Budweiser tallboy, lukewarm, and asks me how old I think he is. Monday night football is on. I guess twenty-four. "I'm twenty-one," he says between plays, petting my knee, my legs in black pantyhose crossed over the edge of his bed. The room is bright with TV and many lamps. Real heart-of-pine walls. Eyes, all of them watching. "You looked younger on the street. " He pulls my mini up to my waist. I look into his face that now appears plain, his hair, dry and coarse. "So how old are you, anyway?" He wipes sour beer from his mouth, hand pressing my thigh. On the nightstand, a newspaper lies open. He sets his beer can on it. New Orleans Police Find Beautiful Woman, the headline reads. In the trunk of a Fiat on Magazine Street where the blue storefronts are. Forearm in front of her eyes, last human gesture. Cigarette burns covering what was left of her skin. "I'm twenty-seven," I say, wondering why the police mentioned the woman was beautiful. He rubs a finger over my lip's delicate pink. "I don't believe you. Let me see your driver's license, some kind of ID." I laugh, kissing him. And then he belches. Cold fish on a toothpick. I don't like him.

*
There is rain in the TV, falling on a football game, rain cold and thick on my forehead, collecting on the small of my back, a salty clamminess in the cleft of my ass. He flicks on another lamp, accuses me of having crows' feet. My hair hangs lovely, long and blond. I wish I were only my hair. He knots it in his fist. "You're wearing too much makeup to be going to law school. Your skirt is too short." Rain ripples down the window like raw syrup from rinsed collards. The Gulf of Mexico is near. He pushes my shoulders back. A mistake letting him pick me up. I should be in the library among the law stacks, old as the Battle of Vicksburg. My head hurts as if I've drunk too many ice coffees and rums. I won't stay. "How long have you had that?" His eyes have come to the centerpiece of my face. He lets out a long breath. "Jesus." My scar like a crab caught on a bone and safety pin. I jerk my chin. Street slips in the open window. "Let me see your cheek." He grips me as I struggle to pull away. He eyes the dimpling in my jaw where the bone is gone, fingers the livid purple tissue that zigzags from my mouth like a wild trout stream to my collarbone. "Jesus Christ.

*
"It's nothing," I say, wanting to lie down in the rain with the silken stench of crawfish and shrimp in my nostrils. Will he tell me I'm pretty, anyway? An act of grace. Like the naked woman in the Fiat, I wait. "Shit," he hisses, "why didn't you tell me?" He raises his hand, strikes my face, the good half, he's made a fist so I feel his knuckles. I grab his hand, it's still possible to make him like me, kiss his fingers, try to hold them, white fish and grouper, the burning ice of his flanges, he wrenches them from me. This is what being found dead in a hotel room feels like, or a car trunk. Take fine thigh piece...take the choice piece and throw it into the fire. Bible verses rise in my mind, settling there. "Why didn't you tell me?" He sought me out, making this more unfair. "I'm sorry," I say. Somehow, he must kiss me. Kiss me or I won't be able to leave. My heart is a pyramid of severed tongues. "Kiss me," I beg, hating him so. "Will you just kiss me?" And then he hits me again like an amateur practicing a drum. My head, a swollen toe inside a tight shoe. An alligator grunting, the carnivorous lizard, who lays eggs in mud, makes a croaking sound when in danger. A soft croaking is coming out of my skin, chest, forehead, but not my mouth.

*
I have passed through The Shining moment when Jack Nicholson leans expectantly over the blond, her tresses tangling over her lovely nude back. Her face buried in pillows suddenly lifts. A wrinkled hag, lipstick smeared yellow teeth, cackles as she sticks out a tongue like the stump of bloody thumb.

*
Outside the rain is falling in jagged shards. The scar rain. The Quarter's boy-girls in stiletto jeans throw themselves like knives over the sidewalk. I light a cigarette, blow smoke into a palm of withering webs. Movement. A chameleon drapes a leaf. In the street light its saturnine eye blinks fiery red behind the lid. Wings rustle with a clumsiness that causes me to look up. Black Night Herons are here to carry me to a swamp grave. I hold my hand in front of my face and begin to run.

*
Trees gather like hair. The ground oozes, each step sucks my feet. Barefoot now, the going easier. The Mississippi feels close, and about to explode. My head throbs. Sugar Magnolia, ice. The cobblestone streets lead to more stillness. St. Louis Cemetery. Cities of the Dead. During plague season they were buried in such a hurry that the rains brought them up again. Rotting corpses piled by the fifies swollen in the sun bursting their coffin lids. A banquet of delights. Withered crones selling ice cream, brushing away the blue bottle flies that covered the bodies. I wish I were a Lafitte swamp girl here to sell my stinking beauties. Walkways narrow between bleached tombs and winged seraphim. The rich have miniature houses with ironwork fences. Paths tilt; sharp edges and broken names scrape my toes. Gris-gris bags, Voodoo offerings. The dead are whistling at me, shouting and clapping as I pass.




Stephanie Dickinson was raised in rural Iowa and now lives in the Bowery. Her poetry and fiction appear in Mudfish, Cream City Review, Chelsea, Fourteen Hills, Nimrod, Puerto del Sol, BigCityLit, among others. Along with Rob Cook she co-edits the new print literary journal Skidrow Penthouse. Her first novel Half Girl is making the publishing house round. She's working on her second, Lady-Boy.
 
 
 
 


 
 
 
 

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