Photo by Autumn Goodman on Unsplash
by K.B. Carle
Phillis Wheatley was a former slave, kidnapped from West Africa, and was one of the first women to publish a book of poetry in 1773.
Hester sits by the door filling the pages of her journal with poems about love. Not falling into the emotion, but the scars it leaves, how they outline the skin. How they grow more infinite than the visible veins on the soft parts of the human body. She nearly rolls outside when her social worker opens the door.
Ready, this stopped being a question years ago.
Hester believes she is a nomad, an exile stolen from the arms of her mother and father, a figure made of pills and needles. Her mother’s mind riddled with demons asking unanswerable questions, the ones Hester tries to solve in her poems.
She looks between the crack in the door, the opening before the closing, but her foster mother does not come for her. Doesn’t even say goodbye.
Sojourner Truth was born Isabella Baumfree, only to change her name after she escaped slavery with her infant daughter.
In the beginning, she stretched her mother’s skin, tumbled in a heap into the doctor’s awaiting palms, and was named Laurel Bilks.
She hates this name immediately.
She cries nonstop with balled fists at the mother who passes her off to the next woman waiting to hold her. At the nurse who takes her away curled in the crook of her arm, staining her blue scrubs with drool, her gums chewing on the fabric.
Screams and squirms in the arms of the security guard who faces her mother and tells her how disappointed he is in five different ways. The child does not know what this word, “disappointed,” means, only that there are needles pricking her newborn skin and pills caught between her toes.
When she is old enough to hold these stories in her mind, to dream of the incident as if she remembers every moment, she decides to release that self from the pain. She murmurs her given name until it breaks, dissolves letter by letter, until the dust of it collects in the back of her throat. While the other foster kids sleep on thin stained mattresses with wire frames, she tilts her head back, releases her new name to the world.
She imagines the dust of her old name appear in the shape of butterflies carrying her new name imprinted on their wings.
Bessie Coleman became the first black woman to earn a pilot’s license and stage a public flight in the United States. She specialized in stunt flying and parachuting.
Hester, now a woman who prefers dresses to skirts and the shade of trees to air-conditioning, writes poems about Blue Jays hovering over branches, indecision holding them back. She has officially entered her blue period after months of only writing about lady bug shells, Cardinals, and how much blood a woman will shed in her lifetime. For the first time, without her noticing, a man will invade her space. He will press his back against her tree, ensuring their shoulders never touch. She will appreciate this once she takes in his presence. She notices the deep breathes he takes, selfish, sucking in one breath but already ready for the next. Before she realizes, Hester will align the commas and line breaks of her newly drafted poems to match the baritone breathes he releases.
An airplane flies overhead, dancing among the clouds. In this moment, the stranger tells Hester his name, but she does not hear him over the cacophony of engines and Blue Jay songs.
Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize for her book, Annie Allen, published in 1949.
Hester’s poems are paper Doves, perched on black electrical wires outlining city streets. They flutter into the hands of millions to the songs her husband, Marcel Langston, coaxes from his saxophone. She watches their flight patterns, hoping one will find its way to her mother, in this life or the next.
Marcel wraps his arms around her as best he can, for she carries their first child nestled in her womb, who slaps the layer of skin covering her stretched stomach. A child who already desires more than she can provide.
Marcel asks if Hester remembers how they met. She kisses him, whistles for three doves carrying the poems of him imprinted on their wings. His attempts to share his name with her under the shade of her tree, her refusal to take his last name when married because she can only ever be Hester, and that would have to be good enough.
How, for the first time, someone let her know that it was.
K.B. Carle lives outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and earned her MFA from Spalding University’s Low-Residency program in Kentucky. Her stories have appeared in Black Warrior Review, Homology Lit., CHEAP POP, genre2, Jellyfish Review, Milk Candy Review, and elsewhere. She can be found online at http://kbcarle.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter @kbcarle.