109. An End

Kerosene lamp
Sputtered. Wrinkled
Hand reached down. It
Circled the glass
Chimney, trimmed
The wick.
Miss Neal glanced up,
Nodded Riah in.

Jeanine there, with
Soap. Nora, Opal,
Marybeth, Bettine, folding
Wash. Assigning
Chores, Miss Neal,
Mrs. Rogers, Mrs. Green,
Seated back
A little from the bed,
Speaking low or
Stooping to their tasks:
Fill enamel basins. Wring
The cloths. Bring
Coffee from
The stove: Riah
Took this in.
After the years’
Dwindling of all linens,
The piles in Stubbs’
Sickroom were a shock.
Here, their common stock:
Stacks of yellowed
Sheets and mounds of washrags,
Pillowcases by some soiled
Towels. Riah
Offered up her dishrags,
Soon spread gently
Under the short
Body on the sheets. Stubbs
Rolled his head. He
Panted. Riah
Held her breath and
Did not meet his
Eyes. He sighed,
Weary, long child’s sigh.

He cried out. They
Jumped up. Here it was:
What they’d told
Earline might never come.
Rush of bloody
Stool–his legs contorted,
Knees up to his
Neck drawn infant-like,
Rash in purple
Face, his mouth an O.
Then slack. White.
They bent.
Three of them
Expertly wrapped the mess.
Others slipped new
Towels. Without
Lifting him, miraculous,
Stripped the bed,
Tucked fresh sheets around.

Earline
At his head,
Her hand frozen,
Pulling at her cheek.
She turned to them
Wildly, questioning. Their
Faces were all
Saying, say
Goodbye. Earline
Grasped his arms,
And she shook
The boy as if to wake.
They tensed:
If she shook more
Hard, they’d have to….
No.

Stubbs. Dribbled from
The corner of his mouth:
“Mama.
Mama. Mama. Mama….
Mama?”
Eagerly awaiting her to
Notice,
And to take
The pain.
His eyes opened.
Saw her.
“Mama?”
Gone.

They stood silent.
From a mantel
Endless minutes ticked,
A lopsided
Ticking: busted spring.
Then a dozen
Hands were on Earline.
Guided her by
Touch up from
The bed, over
To a further chair. Hands
Smoothed her hair,
Fastened it with
Someone else’s clip.
Pressed a cup of
Coffee to her fist.
Arms around her,
They rolled down her sleeves.
Brought a kerchief.
Someone wiped her face.
She began to
Say: “I always
Knew. I always knew.
I told Ernest.
When I held my
Baby that first time,
I told Ernest,
‘No! This is too
Small.'” Earline
Spoke entranced:
“Tiny face–
So soft, skin like
Petals. See
The veins.
Could see if you
Cut him, he would
Bleed–” her eyes,
Blind. “My
Baby.
Such a tiny
Thing could never
Live. I knew.
See, I knew it
Then.”

Outside,
Mrs. Rogers’, Mrs. Green’s and
Jeanine’s husbands
Leaned against
The porch with their
Cigars. They had
Heard the cry.
Sitting inside
At the kitchen table,
Ernest cast
About the empty
Room. Long time
He’d been there,
Then begun to
Drink the night away.

He lay his bald
Head down by
The bottle. He
Wept,
His face wet with
Whiskey and with
Tears.

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