Back Porch 1862

“You here, Missus? I cain’t see not a thing.”
The woman tugged her soft robe around herself
and watched Liza limp up to the porch in the darkness.
“I’m here, Liza,” she said, holding out her pale hand.

“You boil that water and get you a cup like I asked?”
The woman, who shook even in the summer evening,
nearly said “Yes ma’am,” but caught herself.

Old Liza, clacking her lantern down on the wood,
reminded the woman of a crumbling, ancient goddess,
a dusty sibyl with a spell for everything.

But she knew this was not magic, knew all the magic
had dried up from the earth like the streams
in drought. This was the dust left behind.

“Missus, you know now, you know your husband
cain’t know about this. You tell him — I’ll get strung up
like a windchime. Give me that hot water, now, and your word.”

The woman handed Liza the cup of scalding water,
said her promises, pressed her forearms
into her own stomach. Inside, her husband

lay sprawled in the bed, exhausted, no doubt,
from his nightly war on her body. Liza produced
purple flowers (“Pennyroyal, Missus”) from her pocket,

shredded the leaves, dropped them in the water to steep.
The woman lifted the cup to her mouth, but Liza,
brown skin shining in the lantern light, grabbed her arm.

“You drink that, ain’t no coming back from it. Thing’ll be gone
like it never was.” The woman’s stomach turned,
but she parted her lips and swallowed the tea all at once.

Liza pressed her own lips together and nodded her head.
“I think you a good woman, Missus,” she said.
The woman thought the tea might come back up.

“Go on back to your bed, Liza,” the woman whispered,
wiping her mouth with her sleeve like a savage.
“He’ll never know. You always tell me what you need,

and you’ll have it.” Liza patted her arm, scooped up
her lantern, and made her way off. The light grew smaller
through the minutes, like a soul with no body

steering the long dry road out of the world.

– Katie Bickham
Read more about Katie and the book Belle Mar
    where this poem is found here.