Black Work

She stood at the window and watched me.

How long she had waited for me to wake up

I dared not ask, nor could she have answered, 

her jaws woven shut by the undertaker’s twine,

a trade she knew well, having taught herself 

black work by night in the attic,

bodies laid down like her quilts lifted

out of the chest come the first killing frost,

dry ice tucked under their torsos to keep their corruption

from drifting downstairs to the breakfast nook

where she’ d have set out a plate for my father,

her only child,  knowing he rose early.  

 

Last summer I found the quilts,

gnawed to batting by rats.

I sat awhile at her Singer that stitched

gowns and frocks during Hoover days,

the treadle still singing its rusty toil under

the soles of my feet as I pedaled it briefly. 

Side-stepping chamber pots, I turned

the key left behind in her bookcase

 

where I might have rummaged through Latin 

and palmistry volumes, ignored those

that detailed with stark illustration the inexorable

death of the tissues that swaddle

our bones, the  journey of blood

that keeps trying to push its way down to the toes

before giving up. To give up the ghost

 

as the Bible describes the last breath—

how those words used to frighten me,

sleepless for fear I could hear her still

stitching and snipping, the body upon

which she lavished her skill not protesting

one last knot to pull its smile tighter,

so the bereaved might exclaim, as in life

they had never, “So pretty! 

Look at her smiling for Jesus.”

 

Kathryn Stripling Byer received the 2013 North Carolina Book Award and the 2013 Southern Independent Booksellers Award for Poetry for her most recent collection, Descent (Louisiana State University Press, 2012). A native of south Georgia, she recently completed five years as North Carolina’s first woman poet laureate. Frequently anthologized, her poetry, essays, and fiction have appeared in publications ranging from the Atlantic to Appalachian Heritage.