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  • Six poems from The Leopard Lady Speaks:A Novel in Verse
  • Valerie Nieman (bio)

How I Was a Jig

I never danced afore I step on that stagein naught but a grass skirt and some beads—the Gastons not holding withcard playing nor music’cept the shape notes.Not for themselves and nota’course for me, even was I proper clad.

Straightaway as I hook onwith the traveling show,there in Oil City,this man (I come to call him The Patch)askt me if I was wantingkindlier work than gen’ral labor—like the sign says, no free rides.“We got a kootch show, mixed nowbut we’re headed South and I got twocolored, plus you, as you’re willing,to make a jig show for the crackers.”

What is a jig, I askt.“Why, honey, you’re a jig! Colored,negro, jig. Jigaboo. You must comefrom back of beyondif you ain’t heard that by now.Tell me you’re eighteen, right? [End Page 95] Yeah, well, you ain’t gottado nothing but shimmy what you got.”

What I got, the other girlssay, warn’t much.You ought ta eat a little fatback,they tell me, put flesh on yourbones. Long’s they seeyour titties, though,it don’t matter if they big.

So I jigged.Made that grass skirt singlike ripe wheat reapedinto the cradle, easy work longas I did not look into the eyesof the rubes, round and wetas river stones.

The Patch says for me not to worrywhen the inside talkerpulls the menfolk aside and speaks low,special drawing for one night—holding up a brass hotel key—you don’t much get a chanceat a strong young girl like this,firm as a new apple.

It was what they call a con,a key con, them red ticketstook up so careful,one hope by one,then throw’d away to tumblewith the free windas we pulled stakesand blew town. [End Page 96]

Blue Baby: The Professor Tells His Scar

All of us wear scars, it’s true; some weshow and some we keep beneath our clothes.It’s only when the generator stopschugging power through python cordsand the lot goes dark at the edge of some townthat I, button by button, open myselfto the night, as surgeons once cut and spreadmy delicate ribs to find arteriestangled around my heart.

Blue babies, they called us, but not for nurseryblankets and the boast of a boy. We were pipedwrong: our blood reversed its flow, got thick,and skin and lips turned blue for lack of air.I was three when my parents, despairing,carried my limp self into the hospitalat Baltimore. Famous doctors undidwhat God had done, made the blood whoosh backinto my lungs, and right away, they said,I flushed pink, and lived.

The scar’s so merged into my body nowthat it’s no shame anymore, but as a child,it was a constant reminder—bornwithout a heart, the other kids would say,born without a heart, and they had to putone inside of me like Frankenstein.My parents labored to explain: doctorssewed up a hole, put a patch on my frayed heart,stitched it all around like the samplerthat hung above my grandmother’s bed—How sweet are thy words unto my taste! Yea,sweeter than honey to my mouth!

I asked her, “What’s a stitch?” and she showed meon that sampler—here is a feather stitch, satin [End Page 97] and cross-stitch. Ladder, overcast, and star.I chose the cross-stitch, deciding that must bethe one, small silken crosses holding myunfortunate heart together. [End Page 98]

The Professor Lists Her Begats

She is, as she tells me, a piece of work.She is, as she tells me, a real catbird.The Leopard Lady has lived a life these rubescould not imagine.    She tells me her begats,as the first words of the Gospel count...


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pp. 95-105
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