Stephanie Dickinson

From the Emily Diaries

Emily and the Hobo

1907. The sky’s a commotion of snow clouds. Everywhere clumps of stiffened brown grasses. No thrushes, no robins, no doves. No monarchs. No fireflies. Only men on the tramp pass the farmhouse kitchen. Do not feed them, Emily, I am warned. They’ll not leave. A flock will form from one. The men’s beards don’t reach their chests, it’s just dirty whiskers on cheeks and chins and hair sticking out from under cloth caps, the color of rolling gravel. A deep voice asks for something to eat, then once fed the voices walk into the darkening woods. My man has gone in the sleigh to cut wood and tomorrow returns. Our first child makes the sound of a cricket in my womb. The straggler hobo comes in the afternoon. Yellow leaves from the ground pillow still asleep in his tangled locks. His suit jacket and overalls reek of burning wood, the campfire two nights shining through the slough trees. They’re like vermin, Emily. Like the parable of the loaves. Hair black as the dirt under his nails and yet his fingers through the cut gloves show themselves slender and long as if they’d stretched themselves on a piano’s keys, as if yearning for grandeur. He wears a cross, the chain too short around his neck. I slice him thick rye bread warm from the cookstove with butter and jam. He turns like a wolf to the plate, wiping it clean in one sweep of pink tongue. Then he, too, vanishes into the end of the short day before night. The lantern’s kerosene signals early dusk; it is the time that separates the seen and unseen. I wrap myself in chorecoat and ferry out to fork hay into the shed for the two old sheep. Summers they rub their sides against the gnarling apple trees; in winter they grow more fleece and their weepy eyes dream. I cradle hay and inhale green spring. I hear the roosting hens. I duck into the chicken coop to pick the brown eggs; the hen’s beak and yellow eye always watching. How do they see me? The house of a human shadow, reaching, stealing your young? I hear footsteps crunching through snow. The footsteps know about running from bludgeon and sheriff, hiding in fields and barns. I’m here, Emily, I want flesh. A bakedchicken. His eyes shine, the gold of a goat’s. He tells me he knows I want to travel to Africa, to the hot countries. He offers me the wood burning boat docks in Guinea. We’ll go by river. On the road they call him The Missionary. I’ll wear white, mutton-leg-sleeves and high Victorian collars. He’ll tender me flies twitching over my face, cascading waterfalls. He’s been there. The people are long-limbed. Seven-feet-tall. The women, bare breasted.  Towns cling to the coastlines. All that for a drumstick lathered in gravy and mashed potatoes.  They scar themselves with leopard spots. They wear jaguar skins. Three-foot pygmies sing like a thousand bird choirs.




Emily and the Seven-Day Baby

1917. Walnuts fall unpicked on the lawn; they smell bitter as the shells split and the nut meat rots. Doctor Swab comes with his leather bag and frees his horse to sicken on apples in the orchard. I hear the mallet teeth tear the long hanks of grass. Seven days crying, my newborn, it’s hours you’ve been silent. Your diaper ever dry. There’s the windmill’s creak and the oak rattling its leaves. I rock you, new baby Marjorie. Your marigold face now a boiled blue potato. Emily,  John whispers. It’s time. Let me take her. I don’t look up at my husband. I tell him to leave, go eat. My eldest girl is fixing breakfast in the farmhouse kitchen. Listen, there’s pork chops sizzling in their golden grease and buckwheat pancakes bubbling on the griddle. Cold baby so far in my arms, your mother won’t give you up. I kiss your forehead; press my thumb to each eyelid, each lash, a spring twig. Once again they try to steal you from me; they send in Reverend Pokorney, his beard damp from his wash under the pump, to do their talking. I see his mouth move. He pulls the drawn window shades up letting in the tattered sun and its aging lace. Back and forth I rock on the bed of your birth and still the room is screaming, still you whimper and cry, the tallow hue of your cheeks turning blue as the doctor lards his finger to unstick you, your intestines twisted and coiled like bowed hair ribbon. Such a full head of curly black like mine only finer, and soon they’ll be building your coffin white like river ice cream churned with rock salt, cutting the lilies to be held over your face, and gathering the corn pearls to sew your shroud with. I will never make another baby, never again create the eight-limbed beast between my husband’s sheets, never birth another coffin. White dress of seed lace, seven-day-infant, Marjorie, your head a block of ice floating in the black water of my mind. Soon the photographer clicks the box camera shutter—the thing actually burns your visage into the tin. The horses know nothing, best to be dumb and munch switch grass and apples.




Emily and the Mule Man

1917. The shagbark hickory is our tallest tree and that makes it our lightning rod. Lightning usually wallops the tallest but this time it struck the smallest, my seven-day-old infant and her soft white head of potato flesh.The lightning—some ailment known only to God—twisted her intestines. How blue her pale cheeks grew until her face took on the hue of the half moon’s cratered bruises. Their silver instruments have forked out my womb like veal at a rich man’s supper and I lie prone on a bed. In Mercy Hospital where nuns make rounds in enchantments of black and white; their giddy beads click. Hail Mary Blessed Art Thou and the Fruit of thy Womb Jesus. If I close my eyes there’s my baby crying between the Art and Thou. If I will my eyes open it’s the mule man and his long-tongued wagon that bears a tiny white coffin I see passing the window. The room is seven stories in the air. He’s dressed in his soiled magenta vest and black frock coat. I smell the mule, the sweating hide of him, his hooves. Again, the heavy wheels turn, grinding past; and the mule man reaches for a round tin and its lid that perfectly fits. Pinching wet brown tobacco worms into his mouth, he mumbles to his pulling mule, eats more wet worms, then spits. “Lightning always strikes the tallest thing. This time the wee one’s hit.”  The coffin made pretty for the dirt, the cloud-colored velvet flowers, cherubs floating in white smoke, gold ribbon and angel hair. My seven-day child’s inside. I ask the nun who comes to wash my face: Do you see the mule man’s boots and the wagon’s iron wheels?  No, my dear, there’s nothing there. Fill your mind withcommon things. 2 cents a bushel for corn. 3 cents a bushel for oats. The mulberry bush naked after a rain bath, all her purple-red fruits eaten and safe inside the orioles and bluejays that fly south. The farmhouse and barn and corncrib built so sturdy no storm can knock them down. Everything on a foundation of field stone. Cows brought in from bluegrass pasture milked by five p.m. The mule man still circles, muttering, chews more tobacco worms. Nothing there. Think common things. 3 cents a bushel for oats. A mongrel dog is best for his cocklebur tail readies to wag at the sound of your voice. To pet its fur pull your fingers through quick as a thrush wing flitting. His nose is snow but his odor’s warm green like church supper ditches in summer all sweet with weeds and full of daddy-long-legs, toads, and mud. Folks get foreclosed on and dump their hungry animals seven stories in the air. All night the mule’s shuffling hooves pull the squeaking wagon. Hail Mary Blessed Art Thou and the Fruit of thy Womb Jesus. Rosary beads 2 cents a bushel.