FROM THE BOOK
Copyright © 2020 by Ann Marie Gearen
I have supped with ghosts
sat down with them
risen with them
walked the beach with them
slept beside them
caught a glimpse of them
behind me in the mirror
as I brushed my hair.
Some are as familiar
as the soup on my kitchen stove.
Some are querulous.
What were you thinking? one asks.
I cannot answer.
I don’t know myself.
Some are chattering, scolding ghosts.
Sometimes there are several ghosts at once,
part of a group that once gathered
but gathers no more in this world,
although their conversation cheers me,
floats around my head like butterflies or bees.
Some, like the ghost of my mother,
come just when needed
without my calling.
She stays for a few minutes
and then is gone.
between the living and the dead,
on well-oiled hinges,
swings open as well as shut.
Man on a Wire
Seven of his family have died
walking the high wire.
He denies fear:
I am alive on the wire.
All else is only waiting.
If he slipped
he would drop like a missile
to the street below.
Six hundred feet up
above the Chicago River,
wires stretch taut
between two skyscrapers.
He steps off into the night,
into a howling wind,
without a harness,
without a net.
We crane our necks,
hold our collective breath.
He reaches the other side,
then raises his arms in triumph.
From the street
he looks small as a bird.
What relief to see his upraised arms.
He walks the second walk,
back to his starting place,
prehensile toes in special shoes
made by his mother,
sealed with a prayer.
Before he walks
she blesses him, signs the cross
over him. He believes
angels hold him aloft.
We all walk a wire
we do not see,
death beside us, death below us.
We do not feel the wire beneath our feet
in this precious, precarious world.
Hope Town Burial Society
Entering the soft half-darkness
of the small clapboard building
of the Hope Town Burial Society,
I’m struck by the tang of fresh cut pine.
Wood shavings litter the floor.
Winer Malone’s plane
shaped and smoothed
the two coffins there:
one ready now,
one in reserve.
They used to keep a
but with good doctors and better medicine,
there is no longer a need. Years ago,
the last small one
was used for Aunt Vernie,
a tiny woman who just fit.
At the Society’s annual meeting,
we have come to join, along with our neighbors.
We sit in the well-worn pews of St. James
bowing our heads
as Miss Suzanne opens the meeting with a prayer:
“God of love, may we be of use to others
as they face sad times in their lives.”
On this small island,
cemeteries are almost full. The agenda:
find new burial land.
One member asks if neighbors will object to
having a graveyard next door.
Miss Shelley points out
the dead make good neighbors.
We pay our yearly dues,
a bargain at twenty dollars apiece
covering funeral, coffin and burial.
When we must leave this world,
how good it would be to leave
in a ship of death made by Winer Malone,
master boat builder whose hand
built graceful wooden Abaco dinghies
still sailing these blue green waters.
There will be no frills,
just the familiar smell of pine
as a body is committed
to this soil of sand and coral.
we all walk out into warm night air
under a sky hung close with stars.
Someone laughs, saying
“And the best thing is
you never pay for your own funeral!”
Eric the Barber
Eric Auguste, called Eric the Barber
for the fine haircuts he gave,
rode out Hurricane Dorian
in Treasure Cay, Bahamas,
with his family in their small frame house.
His mother, visiting from Haiti,
chose to stay with them,
despite his pleas for her to fly out.
She said, “If you fight, I fight with you guys.”
When flood waters reached their necks,
they had to swim for it
out into the storm.
Holding his mother’s hand,
he swam out into the monstrous flood.
The 200 mph wind
sucked out all their breath.
They could not hear each other speak.
drove a piece of plywood
through Eric’s arm,
severing it above the elbow.
He was rescued, and he survived.
Later, from his hospital bed,
he told reporters that
as he saw his mother taken by the flood,
washed out to sea,
he could see that she was smiling.
I believe him.
I think she was saying
You tried your best. Don’t worry.
I will be all right.
With a beaming, tearful face
he thanked God for that comfort,
for his life, and for the fact
that it was his left arm, not his right.
He will cut hair again.
I lie, not sleeping, in my bed
listening to the rumbling of the sea,
sometimes placid, a blue mirror
for gliding boats. But
do not be deceived.
The sea is no more forgiving
than gravity is forgiving of
a man who falls from a tower
onto the rocks below.
We have heard news of people
from Haiti, thirty or so souls
(the true number we’ll never know)
vanished under the waves,
boat smashed against the reef
short miles from this island,
near Fowl Cay last night.
broken by earthquakes,
murderous misrule of
Papa Doc, Baby Doc and others,
so hopeless that
people risk life,
as others have before them,
leaving at night in a rickety boat.
Last night many died. Some
were plucked from the waves by rescuers
or saved their own lives by
swimming all the way to Scotland Cay –
only to be deported today.
Cold spring. Wind howls up the chimney.
We sit in rockers before our stone fireplace
reading and dozing.
Around eleven we climb the stairs to bed.
As I hold you, I find your hair smells like smoke,
just as it did in the thirty plus seasons
when we sat by a glowing campfire we had made
after a long day of whitewater canoeing,
following the v in the white water, avoiding
rocks the size of houses,
paddling until our muscles were spent
and we were wet and cold.
After an easy dinner cooked outside
we doused the fire
and climbed into our one-person orange pup tent,
our two sleeping bags
zipped together to make one.
A farmer’s wife,
Grandmother wore black lace-up shoes
with a wide one-inch heel.
She rushed from chore to chore
sunup to sundown
day after livelong day.
Out at sunrise for milking,
she sat on a low stool
pulling in rhythm at the cow’s udder.
Fresh, sweet smelling milk,
pinged into the bucket.
Grandmother would turn deftly,
squirt milk into the mouth
of a waiting barn cat
without missing a pull.
Off to the cellar,
she poured her buckets of milk
into the separator,
skimming the cream
to sell it separately
or putting it aside
to turn it into butter
in her wooden churn
while she sat on the porch
at day’s end.
She walked the path
to the hen house,
threw out grain for the chicks,
gathered the warm eggs
from under the feathered breasts
of the clucking, pecking broody hens.
All day, my feet in flip flops,
I followed in her footsteps.
The pain in her feet
caused her clumping side-to-side gait
as she hurried from house to barn
to hen house and back to kitchen
to make bacon and flapjacks for the men.
Bewitched by a picture catalog,
she spent her egg money on
When they failed
to ease her painful feet,
she reverted to her old shoes
clomped down the cellar stairs,
offending shoes in hand,
opened the furnace door
and threw them into the fire.
Let me drift on a slow felucca
down the wide and moveless Nile,
where palm trees line the shore,
distant hills show green, then brown,
where papyrus on small islands
Let me float on a slow felucca
with a man at the stern
whose language is as strange to me
as mine to him,
a man in a gray galabaya
and a white head wrap
to shelter him
from a sun gone mad.
Let me sail in a felucca
where nothing seems to move,
not the sun,
not the river, not the man,
only my gaze
and the boat under sail.