Aunt Bess wore no underwear
beneath her feedsack dress.
When she stood in the sun,
you could see right through.
I would walk down the dirt track
past three tobacco barns to the porch
where she sat awash with the bruised
smell of ripe gardenias. Huge bushes,
marooned in galvanized tubs, dotted
the bare yard. I would take down her hair,
brush and braid the waist-length mass,
while she told how she poured Red Devil Lye
on a wart, when she was small, and burned it off.
At twenty, Bess married the hired hand,
a coarse-faced man called Uncle Tom
who kept his razor strap by the door, and once
he pulled me onto his lap and pawed
at my leg. I stayed away from him after that,
except when he lowered the bucket into the well,
reeled it up and handed me the gourd,
sloshing sharp-tanged water on my feet.
They never had children.
At fifty, Aunt Bess chased her sister
around the room with a butcher knife.
They sent her to the asylum where she stayed
ten years. She never told me that story.
Or how she got cured and came home
to ripe gardenias, and Uncle Tom’s
pig-eyed squint, and the mad old rooster
who patrolled the broom-raked yard.