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Susan Reeves Whalen


Old Songs
Dignity and Death

                “Do you take risks?” he asked, studying the woman. “If you do, then I will tell you what I see.”
                She looked away and then at her hands. Turning them, she followed the blue veins. “Nothing I know of,” she said. “I mean, no risks I’ve remembered.” It was silent between them. Nothing matters now.
                She has traveled the east coast looking for him. Stayed in dirty rooms, slept in unthinkable places. Alone, and poor and very still in stature, she waited for a sign. Some reason to breathe.
                “Risks,” she said again. “Do you take them?” He was dressed in all black. Diamonds on his pinky ring, three of them, and two more in his ear, exotic or maybe just cheap. A long braid hung down his back. People on the shore told her he knew things. He had lived out among the derelict boats in the bay for nearly five years. In an abandoned sailboat he watched the sky day after day. Maybe, she reasoned, the “Things” he knew came from the depth of the dark and windy waters.
                “I want him back,” she cried in a voice larger than she planned. “I need to know if he can love me. I am old now. My heart is slow, my feelings are few. He was a baby; today he will be a man. I have to know if he still loves me.”
                The waters of her womb wept no more. Her breasts lay flaccid on her chest. “My knees,” she said, “cry when they bend.” There were times late at night when her eyes ran; like a tropical rain. How, she wondered, could she take a risk when nothing in her rose to ask? The ability around her was dead.
                “I carried him for seventeen weeks,” she whispered. “I circled him with my knees while we slept. My hands cupped the place where his promise grew. He was all I ever had,” she said, sinking to the floor. “He was ripe, soft and covered with my life, moist and mine. I have to know if he’ll be there when I go.”
                The man touched and drew her hand to his face. From her eyes, she sucked her story. From her eyes he demanded and saw nothing. “Get up,” he said. “Get up and gather your skirt. You are old and it does not matter,” he told her. “Be quiet, rest, and wait for your time. It is the chance you take,” he said. “Dying will be the last effort you make. If he is there to meet you, then it is well. If he is not, you deserve his fury and no more or less alone you will be.”
                “He was my child,” she moaned. “My child. I killed him. I tore him from that place within my belly; I bled him onto this world and I threw him in a trash tin. I dried the blood between my legs and lay upon the floor while my pain rose and fell. I killed him and I never forgot his mouth. It turned town. Sealed by lips unfinished. Was he sad?” she asked. “Was he sad that I clawed him with a farmer’s wire until he fell from me like one last petal? Yes,” she said. Softly, his mouth turned down.
                The man in the black opened the hatchway. “Go,” he demanded. “I do not know of your son.”
                She struggled in the wind as she climbed into his dinghy. Her hair was wild and grey against the sky. “Leave it tied in the mangroves,” he said abruptly. “Go now and do not come back. These ‘things’ of fire and terror and unspeakable acts, I do not see. I speak only of good fortune, love, things past and present.  I see the sun, the stars and I feel a coming change. You are old and your shame equally old. There is nothing for you less it is half a path to travel. Half a marker before you die.
                “He is gone!” she screamed against the wind. “He is not here and he will not be there. My baby is gone,” she whispered as she slipped beneath the oily sea.