Bellday Books
Bellday Books
“Memory believes before knowing remembers”


Your story, July, sticks in my throat:
violence splits the syllables down a back road,
the smell of horsesweat, leather
creaking in the gee and haw of tongue and trace,
lightning bugs dancing on Percy’s wagon,
his hat, the hole in the crown, pulled down,
bobbing, while the slow mules
go on up the hill
where he will “carry the truckrow,” his hindend facing the sun,
the mule, humbling and humoring toward the shade,
the end, the beginning, a piece, fabric
cut from the sweat−the rows topped,
middles swamped with rotten blooms,
greenblack juices, splattered tobacco worms−
and Percy barely moving the truckrow,
a frail man bloated with jagged currents,
little rivulets his pores spilling.


Percy moves across the yard
to get the knife
to sling the weeds.
You chase the bees
to the tops of blooms
now laid low
not one left
to kick about like a mule’s
flopped ears.
Would the missus looking from the window
say while the man rakes in piles
his day’s work−
there−slave’s work, after all?
I see you there,
your comfort uncomfortably
stationed at the master’s door;
your wound in the landlord’s side
coming through the blooming sounds
brought on by going from field to field for somebody else,
never for yourself
nor your children I know about, their shrill hunger
mornings when the doorknob was cold,
the hearth cold, floor cold.

Percy didn’t have a cow
Percy didn’t have a mule
Percy didn’t have a hog

he would split stovewood
tossing each stick aside with his bandaged thumb
rubbing his bloodshot eyes with the back of his chopping hand.

Worked his tail to the bone,
told skinny tales
and Minnie was his
fosterdaughter, July, motherdaughterchildwife!


Considering how Minnie Birch picked the plantbed, those dime-sized tobacco
leaves pushing the canvas in April, it’s so quick, don’t you think, squatting on her knees,
using a spoonhandle to pinch out themorning glory andmullein, the grass, of course,
the worst part of the job, since it is everywhere, allmonths, alive or dead. “Minnie, is your
Hard Rock growing?”
“Like a weed!” Snuff ages her lower lip like a promise the father
might dart around the corner and light up the path like a horn blowing−who could bear
such news?
Minnie stares at July, not even wondering (or caring).


A field full of Hands trudge up at dinnertime, desperate fromheat and lack of water, the
bench where the tobacco is being prepared for the barn a din of wonder. The Help hums
“AmazingGrace.” Themen and women fromthe field seemhotter than ever, their
gummy clothes clinging to their bodies, feet black with sweat. Nearby: dirtroad, shack,
some tarpaper: inside, a big woman, nearly blind, says how her time has come: though
she needs plenty, she does not needmoney now: “Where is July? If I only had her to
talk to, cook forme, helpme along, singme a song.”


You turn back the canvas
and squat with a brokenoff spoon
to dig the weeds,
tiny as fleas,
around the tobacco plants
the size of dimes.

Percy knots the canvas,
one long snake of plantbed covering,
places it top the tobacco racks.
Bench Help hums:
The tobacco’s being tied on sticks stuck in wooden horses.


You and Mae Dinah hoe the sheepburrweeds
out of the corn−“Makes it greener,” Mae Dinah says,
“but I don’t know if I can last−with my Elvis tired,
Lord, just plain tired down on his feets.”

Hallie Sanders looks down at the cotton on the sheet, wondering after this one
and that one, the one on the weighhorse, given up as offering: “Mister Paul, you
got some more work I can do?”

Hallie’s brother, Algie, wants to become a boxer like Joe Louis,
Daddy ordering some gloves from Sears-Roebuck,

               drawing a ring in the pasture
               and Bud, nicknamed Little One,
               comes down from Mr. Hector’s where he works and beats
               Algie who has prepared for his bout
               shadowboxing pines bobbing and weaving
               and Little One pounds his face so good and hard
               Algie pulls at the swells on his face for days
               Little One’s friend who comes with him to referee
               down on his hands and knees
               outside the scrawled circle, flapping the dirt with his palms
               saying Little One done whupped him Little One

Buddy Dublin streaks the countryside in a SoupedUp
Cadillac Coupe de Ville: My daddy’s a leatherskinned wampus cat
they call Pearl . . . my mama’s a miracle whelped in hell and I am Dublin

Buddy’s my name−I can whup any man−love a woman to shame! Mauling a wedge
sinking into trees he centers cordwood for woodcuring tobaccobarns in steady windshake
of falling pines and blackgums. Slinging nasties with Paul’s John Deere putting between

barn and field, wheels roll, spin−

a note in Obedience’s diary: July knows the withers of mules like the back of her hand
and the drinkbottlecaps Clay nails to the bagging of the drags to hold the tobacco leaves.


-Shelby Stephenson, North Carolina Poet Laureate

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