Robert Hill Long
She lost sixteen out of twenty-six in wind-rattled shacks on one Delta sharecrop farm or another. A body can't fill a hundred pound sack of cotton all day and hope to bear every baby it carries. The first three seized her like snakebite: she'd lean against a mule, yell, the grandmothers and little girls would unstoop from the dirt and come running. The boss might allow a box of tea, two days off.
After the fourth one lived, the rest that she lost hurt less than a rooster pecking a palmful of corn. One miscarried while she stood beating biscuit dough on the windowsill: twitched inside, ran down the back of her knees. It was the sweat of mothering, that's all. She had too little time to believe much besides the redbird broadcasting from the deep shade of the chinaberry.
Here in the city she feels like a fern scrabbling to root between bricks of the Bible Baptist belltower. Her dead husband looks as trapped in the framed Polaroid grin on her dresser as he was under the tractor in a cotton-corroded gulley. Her dimes and dollar bills can't help the nine surviving boys whose lives are an atlas of goodbyes--Memphis, Savannah, Chicago, Berlin, she can't keep track. Her job in a laundry busies her hands with blouses, skirts, even gowns and long soft formal gloves.
If she can last, keep praying, one those boys might produce a girl who'd fill clothes as carefully washed and folded as these. But on the walk home to her room, she wants to drop into an alley patch of flowering vetch and wild chrysanthemum. Wants to lie down and let country grass heal over her swollen ankles and nosebleeds. Her arms are heavy as unleavened bread, in her belly there's a stale weight that buttermilk doesn't ease, that the Sunday tambourine doesn't lift.
She pines for the taste of Yazoo City clay, the wet brown sacks of it her husband scooped out of irrigation ditches when the thing in her belly was starving her. How young she was to let that pain take hold. Between cotton rows she lay: grandmothers wiped her bloody legs, nodded, clucked. Behind them, lintheaded girls peered down from the Mississippi clouds--the eyes of daughters, round as blackberries lit by blackberry flowers.