Apples almost gone, mostly kinda withered
hanging quiet, hanging still
hanging like moons on the branches by the wide
Branches hanging down, with their shadows
falling green on the cold, gray river by the trees.
Can’t hardly even feel the little bumps beneath her feet,
feet cold and bare on the
mud by the river where the edge is hard and ridged,
ridged from the ripples
slapping soft, slapping easy on the mud.
Don’t make a sound, Mattie,
someone might hear
in the quiet green air,
rub the panties soft in the still green shadows on the river.
Edith shoulda told her, shoulda said something, dammit,
but Edith never said it and Mama wouldn’t neither,
Forever only looking at her, looking kinda hard,
but still, don’tcha know, blood is thicker
than the river.
Girls oughtta stick together,
specially when they’re sisters
and the shadows run deep on the rolling gray water,
deep washing water for the shame.
How was it now that the schoolmarm taught the colors?
Indigo she called it,
but you can’t fool blue,
and blue and yellow’s green, green like the shadows,
but the water runs gray, and the gray plus the
red is a dark color honey, on the Yazoo running Mississippi down.
Just the dark ring now at the edge of the stain that won’t never wash away,
funny how the red can wash into the river,
but the stain still won’t never wash away.
Kinda like them books on the shelf in the schoolhouse;
girls forget a lot,
but them books, they leave a stain,
and the edges, Mama, won’t wash away.
Looking right deep down through the rolling gray water,
looking at the fishes swimming deep,
Mama never said, nor the schoolmarm neither,
if the fishes eat the red or if it kills ‘em.
Never going home, going back to be a girl,
never gonna wash away the stain and the shame.
Only going on, only going on.
Papa almost said it,
when he talked about the Indians,
said the women had huts where they went when they...
“Hush,” Mama said, “Quiet old man, hush your mouth and go away.”
Queer, don’t you know,
in the quiet of the morning,
with the tree shadows green on the cold gray river
where the red fades gray and the
fishes swim deep.
Rinse the panties good,
rinse them wet,
rinse them cold.
Surely they won’t show beneath the dress if she stands,
stands in the doorway looking back from years away.
They’ll think she’s still a girl,
never knowing that she knows about the river.
Underneath the branches of the trees and the apples,
Mattie walking home
to the home
no longer hers.
Velvet dust, honey, ‘tween her toes
on the road, ‘side the river running deep,
running dark beneath the trees.
Words in her head as she walks along the river,
words from the books going past the shriveled apples,
moons over Mattie walking home.
“Xeric,” said the schoolmarm, “means dry, really dry,”
but Mattie knows the river flowing deep.
Yazoo runs the river,
with the deep green shadows,
and the fish that sleep in red,
Yazoo running Mississippi home.
Zephyr of the river, take the girl
past the shadows,
let her cross the river flowing home.
*Acrostic: A poem, word puzzle, or other composition in which certain letters in each line form a word or words. This is an alphabet acrostic, where the first letter of each line forms the alphabet.
This poem is based on family history. My ancestor, Martha (Mattie) Clementine Rector, began menstruating one cold spring day in the South. She didn't know what was happening, so she washed her long panties (bloomers?) in a creek. She caught cold, and had a cough for the rest of her life. She used to smoke a white clay pipe to ease the cough.
I wrote this poem in 1993. It was the result of a writing class assignment that I thought was so dumb. The teacher asked us to write a story of 26 sentences. Each sentence was supposed to begin with the next letter of the alphabet. Instead of writing a dumb story, I wrote "Mattie's Song," and I immediately stopped complaining about highly structured writing assignments. Sometimes the structure frees the brain to think of ideas in new ways.