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Featured Poem • January 2014

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Backbone of the Home

 

Lisa M. Bradley

 
 

This was just after the Blackwells and the bank settled and we’d bought our piece of the old sorghum field. Your mama and I, we’d cleared the ground for this house’s foundation, and it was one of them long summer days, so while there was light yet she ran down with your big brother to the creek to see if he’d really found a cottonmouth (no) and I was dealing with the tractor when I looked up and saw a bent shape, an old person, creepin’ over Half-Moon Ridge. And for no good reason I could think of I got a shiver from the top of my head to my long ’go broken toe. I went back to work, half-hoping when I looked again they’d be gone—though that’da been mighty creepy too— but next time I checked, I could tell it was a woman, basket over her arm, and though rightly I should’ve gone over to meet her (or head her off), I waited til she come up to that old oak, the one y’all had the rope swing on, ’fore lightning split it to kindling. She was whiter than most whites but dirty, even her dandelion fluff hair matted with sorghum straw and mud— least I hoped it was mud— and the stink on her . . . it had to be something fierce for me to notice, considerin’ my own hard-won stench. An apron covered her basket, the fabric thin and stained, and I did not like to look on it. No formalities, she started ’fore I even got my hat off. “Young man, consider yourself lucky. You’re the first of my visits, so you’ll have first pick and thus secure your future.” I began to beg pardon, but she pulled the apron aside and inside the basket sat nothing but bones. Backbones. Of various shapes and sizes, too clean to make good soup, far cleaner than the peddler herself. When I said we didn’t hold with such beliefs (truth to tell, had never even heard ’em), she muttered about young’uns and said, sighin’ like, “You put one beneath your hearth. It’ll grow into the backbone of your home, even as your spine sits behind your heart.” Now, I did not appreciate her speaking so familiarly ’bout my organs, but when she pointed at a bone just smaller than my hand, like a stone bird with outstretched wings, I listened, for there was a teacherly quality in that imperious, if soiled, finger: “Ox bone if you want your home solid and strong,” she said, “the family, simple but honest. A pig bone—” she prodded at one large as my palm “—for a smaller house, still sturdy, but your legacy clever and ruthless. Goose for a cozy nest, easily repaired, and children who, though occasionally silly, take a bird’s-eye view. Snake . . . ” Patience straining, I listened to the rest of her inventory as manners dictate, but I noticed one bone went unspoken and though I wanted nothing more than to get this woman on her way (with apologies to our future neighbors) it’s true what your mama says, ’bout your spiteful streak coming from me, ’cuz I couldn’t help but gesture at the overlooked chunk, long as my middle finger. “If you’ll pardon, I think you missed one,” I said. “What poor animal’s that from?” And the vertical shine that rose in her watered-down brown eyes, put me in mind of that cottonmouth your mama went investigatin’. “It guarantees ease of body,” the witch said— for that, I’d decided, was what she was. “Your world built on the backs of others. Peace of mind from the undying loyalty of your lineage.” No part of that promise appealed, so I didn’t press, though she’d not quite answered my question and her head, tilted to appraise me, sent a second slither underneath my skin. “Ma’am,” I said, “I can’t say we have any use nor desire for your wares, but I can say you come ’round here again, you won’t find your reception half so polite.” I only just held back that it’d be my shotgun did the greeting, but she cottoned on quick enough and cussed her way into the distance to hassle the Vickers and the Cortez sisters and everybody else who was building on the old Blackwell property. I’m grateful to say, however, I never saw her again, nor from what I know, did your mama. Still, I can’t say I’m exactly surprised to hear that old woman visited you today, new property and all . . . grateful, though, that you had the good sense to turn her away— got that from your mama, I suspect— and fretful some, to hear that old witch has collected so many more of them mystery bones.

 

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Lisa BOriginally from South Texas, Lisa M. Bradley now lives in Iowa. Her poetry ranges from haiku to epic and has appeared in numerous publications, including Strange Horizons, Stone Telling, and Cicada. She loves gothic country, calaveras, broken taboos, and tofu. You can read more about her at http://cafenowhere.livejournal.com/.

She says that “‘Backbone of the Home’ evolved from my poem-a-day project in 2012. I requested prompts and fellow poet Michelle Bannister suggested ‘vertebrae.’ I’d been watching the first season of American Horror Story and that must’ve combined with my love of gothic country and my long-time interest in houses as characters. The backbone of my home is probably a book spine.”

 

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