Everything happened longer ago
than we think, back when births
were harder than deaths, and louder,
when nightlong labors squeezed
the cries of two still bound together
from the well of one body
while a midwife, exhausted
as by dreams of a nameless future,
clumped the wet bedclothes
like a basket of warm wash
and called for help.
And has anyone seen the doctor, the priest?
Someone has called them. There they stand
in beneficence, the last ones a woman can stomach,
the men who pronounce the release
blessed, who grip the railing
as they would a shoulder or flailing arm,
slow-marching down the stairs
as they toy with the key to a lost lock,
sinning so we are spared.
Mamie had twelve, then buried five
in a single week.
Diphtheria needs no
secret room, or curtains, or candles -
it dances without making the floorboards
creak, it's too, too kind a visitor.
But we can be every bit as polite:
Thank you, dear stranger, we say,
but don't stay past sundown;
we remember the times you crept
out at dawn, the many times
you woke this woman
to make her blind feeling way
down the hall and crack the door,
rest her head against the cool oak,
and stand listening till all memory
of the diseased work was done,
till the breathing
was choked off,
and the bill again presented.