/ 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, 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 a confusion of phrases these men
chant back in the manner of sailors
heaving at the windlass. And as they sing,
a lady strolls down my car: her 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 one lays her head
upon the colored girl’s shoulder, slips
a candy into her mouth, their soft, intimate laughs
not wholly unsurprising to me, as I’ve seen
such parties as theirs on other trains before
down South, their voices 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
the song has taken hold of them.
A jumble of petticoats swirls over my feet.
I glance out the window into a negro’s face
who stares up as if to chide me
until I draw back, hastening to shut
my 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. The mulatto smiles,
tracing her reflection in the filmy window–

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