Jayne Thompson

A Devil in tall black boots brushes past me at the grocery
self check-out. I key the code for apples as he lingers 
in the baking aisle, staring as if he knows I’ve been waiting 
for him all my life.  His ginger goatee curls towards the graveyard  

across the street.  His eyes say, follow me—I’ll take you
into the Pennsylvania woods just beyond the headstones, 
lay you on a pine needle bed, and slit you down the middle
with a ten-inch blade. The long arm of memory reaching

across the Mason-Dixon puts me back in our green 
clapboard house with my stepfather.  A knife.  Bowl of strawberries.  
My mother wipes the oilcloth as if last night a weapon had not 
been drawn.  At the grocery, I grab my brown paper sacks and head 
to the car, looking back over my shoulder.

Jayne Thompson

                    Here lieth the body of Elizabeth
                            who departed this life July 1, 1818 in
                            the 42nd year of her age and at her request
                    was inter’d in the same grave with her husband.

Shoeless, the grass and slugs cold beneath
our soles, we pause by the grave
of a woman who wished to lie again
and mingle with her lover. 
                    Seeing this breadth

of white stone, the starlit sky, I see them, dust
and bone in their bed, while your blood calls
to mine, your whispers wind through my flesh. 
Beneath your hands I open to you 
                    like clouds below the moon.

Jayne Thompson

I never missed the bus as long as Daryl,
our own Jimi Hendrix,
drove.  He’d beep for me, the diesel
idling outside my house while I
painted on my jeans and zipped my
boots—always, always late.

By the time I got on the bus, Daryl had
picked up David, who looked like John Lennon,
and who later blasted his father
away with a shotgun; Amy, my best friend, who took no
shit from anyone, but disappeared by age 19;
Paul, with one brown eye
and one green eye, who went to prison for four years
after nearly killing a man in a bar over a woman;
Cynthia, large-bellied with the first
of two children she had before age 17;
and Scott, part Cherokee,
with high cheekbones and black eyes,
who flew a two-seater plane into the ocean
while high on cocaine. He escaped,
a girl did not.

“Thank you, Daryl,” I’d say each morning
to this high school senior turned bus driver.
“No problem, Baby.”  And off we’d go—
through the neighborhood, by the cotton mill
smelling of vinegar, and up Summit
Avenue, to the junior high where friends
dispersed and walked,
invisible, through light green corridors
and rows of lockers,
past the black kids, some poorer
even than us, past the rich
kids, the Irvies, who ran the school
and whose parents owned us all.
In the back of the classrooms, I sat,
quiet and bookish behind black eyeliner,
longing for the bus ride home,
Daryl’s daily physics lesson:

at the top
of the hill on Summit, going 45 miles
per hour—
our hood heading
for the concrete base of an overpass,
Daryl timed it just right—
he’d turn the wheel to the left, leave his seat,
run to the back of the bus, slap
the emergency door, sprint
to the driver’s seat and grab the wheel—
all before the bus slammed head
first into concrete.  We’d cheer Daryl,
our daredevil Hendrix.  He’d smile
at me in the rearview
mirror, run his hand through his afro, say,
“Speed, angle, incline. Physics, Baby.”
We would have felt cheated if he didn’t
perform his feat.  How else would we
know we wanted our lives?

One afternoon the Irvies’ bus broke down. 
They piled into our bus and Daryl
did not disappoint.  He set the wheel—perfect. 
He rose from his seat, ran the center aisle,
pounded the emergency
door and sprinted back to the wheel,
which he turned gracefully,
another seamless performance.
“Speed, angle, incline. Physics, Baby.”

By 5 p.m. lawyers called the school board,
bankers screamed at the principal, doctors called
the superintendent. 

Next morning, 7:15, no beep, no Daryl.  I, busy
painting on jeans and zipping boots,
missed the bus.  A middle-aged woman
drove us home.  It was over.

I saw a raven in a wire cage once
at a bird sanctuary in Vermont.  Snow
lay beneath my feet and clung to branches
where the raven perched.  The black bird
pushed its wings against the wire
cage, wanting a touch, a stroke. 
“An unnatural desire for a bird
of prey,” the guide said.  Raised
by humans illegally and on an insufficient
diet, it couldn’t fly, would never lift its
hollow bird bones high
over mountain tops.
Humans, I thought in disgust.  The guide
pointed out, “The raven may want you to
touch it, but don’t.  He could, and just might,
rip your hand apart.”  I wanted to stroke
him, take the chance, especially after I read
that ravens have been
known to roll down snow-covered
hills, just for fun.

Bodies in motion stay in motion.
They are here with me still, at the top
of the hill.  David, whose regret is miles
longer than his 20-year sentence; Amy,
who kept me, but not herself, away
from boys and a stepfather;
Paul, who Cynthia told me
was “Mean as a snake now”; Scott,
whose sadness knows great ocean depths.

“Wait,” I say to them.  “Stay a little longer,”
when they visit my memory.  But they travel
fast, 45 miles an hour, and are gone, down
the hill, around the bend,
out of reach.

The next time it snows in Vermont,
I will go back
in the darkness, reach for that raven
in his cage, stroke his great dark wing,
drive him to the summit of a snow-
covered mountain and watch him
roll down the hill, finally flying
in the only way he can.

Jayne Thompson

Catharine watched the murky brown river from the window of her new home, a three-storey brick on New Castle’s historic register.  She had dreamed of owning one of these storybook houses along the Delaware River.  On the weekends, she’d come to read on a public bench, and when student papers accumulated or the weather was cold or wet, like this gray late September day, she’d go into one of the cafés and drink pots of hot tea. 

She eyed her well-worn copy of Wuthering Heights lying at the top of a box.  Later, I’ll shelve the books and alphabetize them, she thought, bringing the cup of steaming brown tea to her lips.  “Tea,” she said to the windowpane, “or as the Brit Thomas de Quincey called it, ‘bewitched water.’”  She’d never been to England, the home of many of her beloved authors.  “That will have to change, too.”  She set her cup onto its saucer on the kitchen counter as a slim blond woman in jeans and a fuchsia pullover walked into the muddy backyard.  Her backyard.  But it wasn’t much of a yard, really.  The small patch of muddy ground soon turned to tufts of drowned grass and tall weeds, and down the slight slope, the river.  What would someone want in the marsh? 

“Plenty of places to walk in the public areas,” Catherine murmured in disapproval.  She thought of tapping on the window and wagging her finger as she shook her head, a gesture she used when watching the children on the playground from the classroom window.  The woman stooped and stared at some point far out upon the dark river.  The autumn day overcast, no sun shone on the ripples that knit its surface.  Catharine shivered.

She recognized a fellow romantic soul.  She could share her good fortune.  Let her come into the yard.  So what?  What is it about water that draws us?  

She didn’t blame the woman for her trespass.  Before she had bought this house and was still a visitor, Catharine had peeked at the lives behind the antique windowpanes—the bookshelves, the draperies, the centuries’ old tables, the paired wingback chairs pulled close to the fire.  And then one day, as she walked down the street with its cobblestone gutters and crossed to the uneven brick sidewalk, there was her favorite flat-faced Federal-style brick house, with a bright yellow Weichert Realty sign wired to the wrought iron railing.  She took a leaflet from the box describing the house—“You don’t see houses overlooking the Delaware River on the market too often!  Built in 1830, the house boasts deep windows, original wood floors, built-ins, two fireplaces and a recently remodeled kitchen.  The master bedroom has access to a rooftop deck for spectacular river views!—$739,900.”  She had eyed the perfect symmetry of the house with its double-hung sash windows and dentilwork and made up her mind to buy it.

Surely she’ll stop before she gets to the marsh.  

$739,900.  Her father would say it was obscene to pay that much for a home when she could get a perfectly good row house like the one she grew up in for $200,000.  That was exactly what he said.  Her mother joined the protest.  I don’t like you being so close to the river.  Is it safe for a single girl?  Catharine had turned 40 this past February.  She had the money, or most of it, even on an English teacher’s salary.  She’d saved nearly all of the inheritance from her grandmother and set aside 18 years’ worth of hoping to move from her parents’ home to her husband’s.  Except he had yet to turn up, and she had grown tired of waiting.  Now she stood on the doorstep, literally and figuratively.  So what if my Heathcliff hasn’t come along?  It’s okay to want something for myself.  It is okay.  

The woman had descended the sloping back yard into the water.  It lapped about her calves, the brown grass brushing against her blue jeans as she took off her sweater and lay it upon the water beside her.  She removed her shoes and jeans and stood staring at the water.  The woman’s skin was pale against her black cotton underclothes.  She lowered her underwear and stepped out and unhooked her bra.  “Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Catharine said to the wavy glass, but then she considered that perhaps the woman had been bathing here since summer and had not yet realized that the house that observed her skinnydipping was now occupied.  

Catherine felt an obscure embarrassment, as though she were the intruder and not this woman.  She noticed that the woman’s breasts sagged, not low like an old woman’s, but lower than the hard breasts of her young students.  Catherine had the same tummy bulge.  The woman’s bleached blond hair and slim figure had made her seem like a woman in her 20s.  In her 40s, most likely, Catharine now realized, and her heart softened. 

How odd.  It’s too cold for swimming, and the current is swift.  Catharine tapped on the glass.  The woman did not turn around.  And to let her clothes float away.  Catharine was reminded of Edna Pontellier in The Awakening, a novel that always made her uncomfortable, angry even.  Edna should return to her husband and children.  What a silly thing to walk into the water to your death.  So what if Edna never became an artist?  So what if she couldn’t have Robert?  She didn’t like to think of Edna at the bottom of the river, her long brown hair swaying like marsh grass.  She knew the book lay at the bottom of one of the boxes.

She tapped on the glass.  The woman didn’t turn.  She knocked as hard as she dared without breaking the window.  Still, the woman did not turn.  “I should call to her.  I’ve had troubles of my own.”  Let’s share a pot of tea and trouble, Catharine’s mother would say.  How bad can troubles get to make a woman stand naked in the marshy area of the Delaware River?  

The woman waded into the river.  Catharine tried to open the kitchen window, but it was painted shut.  “Stop!” she yelled.  The woman waded deeper.  “I don’t want to see this.  Jesus!  Don’t do this!”  Catharine rushed to the window over the sink, knocking her teacup and saucer to the ceramic floor, porcelain splinters scattering.  The window opened easily, but the woman had disappeared.  Through her tears, Catharine saw nothing but tufts of grass steeping in the brown water.

Jayne Thompson