- Scared Money Can’t Gamble, a Jealous Man Can’t Work, and: Birthright, and: Witch Hazel Still Like Water
Scared Money Can’t Gamble, a Jealous Man Can’t Work
The following three poems are excerpted from Witch Hazel, a novel in verse.
Witness: The Father
Verbena, lavender, and lemon scentedthe pillowslips and sheets on her antique bed,mattresses piled high as a seven-layer cake,comforter ruffled and trussed. She dressedher white gold tresses before a beveled mirror,French porcelain her vanity, studded pearl,perfection imaged for a black man with blond eyes.Through the window that nigra whistled, short of breath,his gaze nuzzling two alabaster moons roundedabove the lace piping, her bodice of shirred chiffon.Forsooth! The rape of her locks. Her so tender—by almighty Zeus, such a goddess must be protected.
Look not upon her beauty bright;For in her glance there is a snare,And in her smile there is a blight.The great white witch rides out tonight.
Witness: The Defendant
We was croppin split shares ’n I passes byher place mor’n a time or two mos evraday.She always come out for a word, right friendly,somtimes offerin a cup a water quench a manbone dry. Often had a chore or two whut needsa man to do, her fatha no good buckra, drunk.Sometime it be kindlin she wont,lik ta chop up a old chifferobe. I be’s feelin [End Page 91] sorry fo her, whut wid so many chirren on de place.But I swears fo Gawd Almightyonliest time I crossed dat fence wuz when she say.
Southern pine railroad freightChattanooga to Memphis.Posse in Paint Rock rushed in,train-tied nine black boystogether with a plow,loaded em on a flat-bed truckon the slippers of Ruby’s words.
If you saw those creatures—mouths slits in their faces,eyes popped out like frogs’,bewhiskered and filthy,chin-dripped tobacco juice—you would not ask how they could.“Thirty cents of rope would do the work,”they say, “and it wouldn’t costthe county much,”the crowd so whipped up.
Whistled at a white woman hard like a train?Found dumped in the Hatchie,head half-smashed in,one bullet hole, one eye gouged.
O brothers mine, take care! Take care!The great white witch rides out tonight.Trust not your prowess nor your strength,Your only safety lies in flight.
Verdict: The Jury
All white. All male. All right.
Choruses above excerpted from “The White Witch,” by James Weldon Johnson, 1922. [End Page 92]
Someone else might tell it different.She hunched her dress and squat.The boy fell out face downon a crest of pine needlestucked away from the cabin,spot not quite on the road,—but left of the railroad trackshis brothers box-rode out of town—and lay in a caul of blood.
Steal away, steal away to Jesus.
How could he know talk had alwaysbeen colored over the thin wraithof his mama, her sloe-eyes sunk,mouth pouted each time the trainslowed to cast down ’visions, newsprint, snuff,the passenger men and engineer’maginin her hay hair, ’basterarms and legs coiled tightly’bout the body of her coal-car lover,him shovelin out her bed. Becky—name on their lips like beads of a prayer.But no one ever saw her as they passed.
Steal away, steal away home.
Sinned not once, not twice, but thrice—at least that they knew.First two they forgived, her butseven- and nineteen.Menfolk white and black had builther cabin sturdy on throttled groundand kept watch each cold for the silentsignal of the lonesome chimney’s puff.By thirty-nine she should of learnedher lesson, though unschooled: [End Page 93] treat as specious laws of God and man,face the spaciousness of the grave.
She might could call them neighbors,though they lived in town, when deepthey laid her body neath the eavesof a tree they called Epiphany, six-footcord...