/ Bitterness

Frederick Law Olmsted, 1853 South Carolina


“Come, brethren,” he sings, “come now,
eoho, eoho, roll away!” And they come to him,
singing, called by this negro–tall,
well-made– who’s leapt upon the depot barrel.
I watch from my window as one
by one, each man pushes his shoulder to a bale
of cotton, struggling, straining, singing
his burden up our train’s embankment. A song
I’ve never heard before, though it seems familiar,
the tune picked up as the music swells
in the company’s confusion that chants back phrases
in the manner of sailors heaving at the windlass.
And as they sing, a lady strolls down my car, a stout
negro woman trailing, with them
the lady’s daughter and a pretty mulatto
who’s linked her arm in hers. Heads bowed,
the two sneak confectionary from the same
cone of newspaper. I watch as the blond girl
lays her head upon the colored one’s shoulder,
slips a candy into her mouth, their soft,
intimate laughs not wholly
unsurprising to me, as I’ve seen
such parties like theirs on other trains before
in the South, their voices now drowned out
by the tune that thrums around us. Barbarous
and yet, though the words are rough, not without
some plaintive charm. One by one, the women
rock, the two girls swaying in their seats as if
some delight has taken hold of them.
A jumble of petticoats swirls over my feet.
I glance down out the window into a negro’s face
who stares up as if to chide me
with the vigor of his song that swells and swells
until I draw back, hastening to shut
the shade. The heavy thud of bales thunders
into our freight. A slow, scraping groan that seems
to gutter up from the very belly of our train.
The world slides backwards. I feel its jerk, the slap
of irons, then the train’s greased gait smooth
into a mindless chug. Across from me, the mulatto smiles,
traces her reflection in the filmy window–

But that is not a young girl’s face in the window.
It is my face, shadowed: my grayscale
eyes and cheeks, lips almost pretty
in this half-dawn light. Startled, I try
to concentrate upon the world I will return to:
New York, its rush of crowds; Julia;
George; the neat white lines
of the children’s laundry drying in our garden–
The South slips past, its swathes of green
that overspill every public wall, and walk.
The colored girl’s eyes meet mine,
and I see that peculiar smile again
cross her face. I’ve seen it before, that contraction
of the brows and tightening lips– a spying,
secretive, counsel-keeping expression.
Shyly, she offers me a piece of toffee.
But when I slip it on my tongue,
I taste ink, sour milk and paper, the sugar
long ago scorched in the stirring.