A black and white photo of a headless girl sitting on a department store Santa’s lap --
her neck ripped with a quick swipe of a wrist;
her head lost for reasons forever concealed.
The image’s imprint still sears with the reality of a mother’s hateful moment,
rejecting love, severing ties, leaving behind
the portrait of a decapitated child --
object of incomprehensible, incalculable rage.
“Stay away from the Old Indian,” with his strange feathered fedora, his dark rattlesnake skin. On Lawyersville Road he walks to town or somewhere every day in farmland Schoharie County.
Crunching gravel beneath his boots with a steady, purposeful stride, he announces his approach and stirs my up my curiosity.
“Stay away from the Old Indian,” my grandmother whispers fearing his ultra keen redskin ears might pick up my desire and turn me into a mouse to carry in his pocket.
Plantings and harvests pass and so does the Old Indian. His presence somewhere between Hyndesville and Cobleskill unchronicled.
“Stay away from the Old Indian. He’s getting too close. Don’t make eye contact. Go back to your reading.”
But what if I hadn’t. And instead:
met him on Lawyersville Road, walked with that Old Indian, heard legends of woodland spirits terrifying old white women who sit on farmhouse porches.
No Love Lost
Scattered across the kitchen floor, translucent shards absorb red rays of sunset. Jagged veined rivers emanate from the point of impact, threatening to burst from the window frame. Dustpan and broom suddenly disturb the uneasy silence, scratchy glass gravel scars the surface with each sweep. A winter blast rattles the window’s ragged remnants. Reminders of conflict crash onto the floor. The brittle window, too fragile against the clenched fist.
The Man in the Black Coat
I catch glimpses of him lurking, unnoticed by others. He injects himself into my thoughts like an annoying, prying party guest I want to avoid. My mind moves with scattered deliberation, ignoring threats of death and life without my love. My will crowds out the shroud of looming certainty. My body aches from worry and lack of sleep.
In the hospital room, he advances toward the bed; I glare menacingly at his reflection in doctors’ eyes; My love’s life now reduced to slow, muted monitor beeps. He holds my husband’s limp hand. Hope collapses. The man in the black coat turns to me, his mournful eyes pierce my waning spirit. With a wistful wave of his arm, all becomes silent.
Baudelaire's Venus Noire
I see him cradled in his mother's arms; she will not let me kiss his fevered face; she curses my loving him, my dark skin against his pale his moans of pain so like his moans of pleasure mon poete maudit
I return to 6 rue de la Femme-sans-tete shutting the creaky door behind me no more to see him at his writing table. My black arms reach for the window's shutters clasp them to keep out sounds of clapping shoes and wagons on cobblestone
My love's breath on my cheek death’s fragrance clutches what spirit I still possess My red brocade armchair embraces a defeated, weakened body once devoted to love.
Schillingmann’s used to be right here, between the bakery and the butcher shop. Now nothing remains of the ice cream parlor except leaning charred timbers and bent blackened steel - debris of childhood scattered over the black and white hexagonal tiled floor.
Sun streaks creep through the confectionery’s corpse intensifying the destruction of my memories: after-school treats of milk shakes, double scooped ice cream cones, New York City egg creams.
Standing like a child lost on a strange street, I look up and down the city block, wondering if anyone remembers, as I do, the chocolate scents of childhood.
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
On March 25, 1911, one hundred and forty-six garment workers - most of them immigrants - died in the worst industrial fire in New York City.
"Remember Us" "Misery Lane - Moira" "Misery Lane - Sadie" "Misery Lane - Dorottya"
Immigrant thieves - the factory owners called us. Locked doors kept us from stealing or sneaking out early, or escaping the flames devouring flesh and fabric
Some of us huddled in elevator cages, waiting in vain. Some of us escaped the fiery fury by leaping from windows, our faith tested and crushed on the sidewalk nine floors below.
A ring with initials “A.K.R” remnant of a white ribbed petticoat singed long brown hair black leather shoes embroidered lace blouse
Small tokens identifying us as our families threaded their way among what the factory spewed out: mangled, charred corpses lined up on Misery Lane.**
We were daughters and mothers planning our Sunday dinners. We were sisters and friends hoping for sunny park strolls. Instead, we became burnt offerings to greed.
**26th Street Pier where bodies were brought after the March 25, 1911 Triangle Waist Company factory fire in lower Manhattan.
Misery Lane - Moira
“May you leave without returning.” My Irish mother’s curse as I gathered my bags to leave our fishing village and meet James in New York.
We made our first holy communion together we played on the rocky shore prayed we would one day follow breeze-blown seabirds to large American cities crammed with buildings, people, and hope.
A few letters from New York begging me to join him - stay with his sister, work as a seamstress marry at the Church of St. Patrick’s on Mulberry Street
My mother pleads grasping my hand “I’ll miss you terribly! He’ll cause you pain!” I pull away staring at her glaring, fearful eyes two defiant women neither giving ground
How I wish her strong arms embraced me now dragging my blazing body to safety lifting the curse letting me return to the cobble beaches of Kinsale.
Misery Lane - Sadie
I met my mother two weeks before the fire. I met my mother on Ellis Island for the first time since I was a child when she left me for the streets paved in gold. Humiliated in the Great Hall I had to show her the red birthmark on my right lower back before she would take me to her Hester Street tenement and to work with her cleaning up fabric scraps off the crowded 8th floor.
She escaped the fire and looked for me but could not find that birthmark on any burned body. I do not want to be left alone again Please find me
Misery Lane - Dorottya
A rusted metal bed with flakes of white paint made only for one always in use where I relieved my hard swollen painful breasts after ten hours of work and nursed my baby where my husband with a cough convulsing his whole body slept where my baby’s three cousins played until my brother wanted to sit reading letters from home where my brother’s wife lay with a child she wished she could keep inside her shielding its body from frigid cold scorching heat
My family’s bodies continue to sink into its crushed cushion of rags and straw while I rest in my wooden bed
If I Were Religious
If I were religious, I would murmur a prayer of thanksgiving. The Cotswolds fairy tale setting enchants me, so I meander along a steady incline, away from blond stone, thatch-roofed houses. Drifting mindlessly toward a centuries-old church, I see its front double doors of aged wood and rusted iron, unlatched, inviting the wayward agnostic.
I approach the doors, hesitating, fearing the church’s steeple might sense a faithless creature to be crushed. My mind riddled with secular humanism, wiped clean of Latinate phrases, a soul devoid of grace. Easy prey for the righteous human or stone.
A buzzing bombards my right ear; a bee, round and slow, its yellow and black striped uniform, its rapier pointed in my direction. I don’t want to befriend the Church’s symbol of wisdom and honey sweet spiritualism. I swat at it, not to injure, but to ward it off.
Angrily buzzing, the sentinel returns, swarming around me now, sensing the enemy. Wildly waving my arms, I look possessed of Hieronymus Bosch demons. I retreat down the church steps, my graceless fall broken only by the middle-aged pastor. “You can thank God you didn’t fracture anything, my dear.” “I’ll remember that, Father, that is, if I see Him.”
Muted cotton-soft beats announce undulating waves of pounding sound
crisp, sharp pangs of wood on taut animal skins
devil-red costumed performers parade jumping and swaying --