The Missouri Review 27.2 (2004) 117-121
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From The Unwritten Letters Of Joseph Freeman
Melinda, I've been preparing to write.
That peculiar girl named Molly,
who has a bit of liberty in the house,
has said she'll steal some paper.
I have managed to shave a twig
so one end nearly resembles a nib
and practiced mixing ash and sap
with water, but tonight Lila got caught up
under the good Doctor's whip
for such a little offense I am frightened.
Doctor Jackson brought in a new troop
of slaves today. A boy of just thirteen
among them had the welted cheek
that speaks of a driver's dissatisfaction.
Lila put a poultice on to ease the swelling,
but Jackson wants the boy to understand his place
and thinks a scar will help. Lila's back
and neck and arms have thirty new welts
to replace the one she thought to heal.
Melinda, how is Jacob?
Do you ever start at night believing
I might be dead? I leave my body
sometimes, Melinda. Is that what dying is?
Remember how I'd scold you
when the stew was thin, believing
I needed a thick stock to forge muscle
for all the work I had ahead? Melinda,
your stew would make a slave fat.
Sometimes we have to trap, skin and roast
possum, rabbit, snake and squirrel. [End Page 117]
Except for that, I have swallowed naught
but salt pork and coarse meal in all my days
away from you. But I work just fine.
Ever your beloved husband,
What a herd of slaves Jackson brought in
last month. No sooner had their strength returned
after the long march to the farm from Richmond
but they began to plot another run.
We didn't know they'd planned to leave
until they were already gone a day.
All manner of neighborhood men
came around to tip back Jackson's whiskey
and help him on the hunt, though
all they brought back for their trouble
were two bodies. One dead,
one fighting off living. That boy
I told you about, Ben, with the scar?
At the stony fork of the river
Doc Jackson found his body cut up,
twisted as if it had fought long
under water, a dead hand pointing
in the direction his sister and the "damned
lost lot of niggers" had run. I guess
he was too obstinate even for the water
to hold down. Jackson used Ben
as something like a scarecrow,
his shirt hooked on a pole, his body
meant to warn us from the road.
Lila's still not certain that the girl will live.
Until tomorrow, I am ever your Joe.
I do not answer to Joseph any longer.
William is the name Smythe matched
to my description when he shipped me [End Page 118]
from his Baltimore slave pen
to the Richmond consigner Jackson
bought me from. So I am William,
though it took more than one whipping
for me to remember it. There is a woman
keeps the kitchen here prefers we call her Auntie.
She's been called so many names
she "most forgets" which one means her.
I trust Jacob is getting on in school
just fine. Jacob Finnegan Freeman.
My black-skinned, green-eyed boy.
Does he remember the faces that shadow
his name, Melinda? Please hug him
for his father. Ever your husband,
How many lived on our alley, Melinda?
At home, this room might accommodate
a bed and two chairs, but we are three men,
two women, some potions, and a girl.
We sleep in turns. Marlo, his eye out
on the traps for all of us, often walks
the woods at night. 'Dolphus steals sleep
at the end of each row and steals everything else
before dawn. Just last week, we bore the tread
of a muzzled goat and two hens he brought in
from a neighbor's farm. Our field sweat
adds stench to the store of bones, feathers,
brews and herbs Lila claims can cure the women