Brilliant stems of sumac in a jam jar, black-eyed Susans—scarlet tangled with gold—and blue ageratum, dusty Queen-Anne’s-lace—the flowers my husband brought when our son was born, and I loved them, copious and wild, from the fields and hedgerows of the farm we lived on, though by evening the acid sumac had killed everything, turned the water rank and tannic. Driving to the airport today, passing sumac like tongues of flame among the trees, I remember how pain gave way to joy, back then, as I lay in my stitched cocoon of milk and blood, the baby nestled on my chest listening as he had listened all those summer months to the groundswell of my heart.
Mayumi and I fell into the rhythms of working quietly together, she my sous-chef for that first Saturday dinner at the artist residency in California. We grated carrots by hand—a laborious process—making the carrot cake, not talking much as fog crept up the hills from the Pacific Ocean, and then I worked on shrimp and grits, wanting to bring them a bit of my Mississippi.
As we worked we spoke of the photographs Mayumi had just shown me in her studio, random families’ snapshots largely destroyed by water after the Fukushima tsunami. Somehow she had found, scanned, and printed them so that they now are huge, about three feet by four, most of the colors gone. What colors remain are even more vivid, oranges and lime greens, ochers, with faces sometimes barely discernible. A shadowy child gazes out through time, in fractals of color and obliteration. Mayumi is making art of these photographs, cutting tiny petal-shaped holes or pinpricking from the reverse side so that you get a stippled texture, or cutting ever-decreasing V-shapes and gluing them one on top of another in infinitesimal mountains. What patience, doing that work—creating something haunted, beautiful, out of horrific damage.
She tested the cake for doneness as I stirred cheddar and salt into the bubbling grits. Outside wide windows, the redwoods darkened with evening. And beyond them, the hills, the silence— faraway through fog, the ocean.
Deadeye Duke they called her when she was a WAC in Alabama. Today, driving by a shooting range here in the Ozarks, I thought of her. Not to brag or anything, she told us way back in the 1960’s, but your big sister is the best shot in her platoon. We were in awe of her. She had to make her bed so tight she could bounce a dime on the mattress. She had to wear white gloves and run her hands along the bureau. And once she had to swim fast, to escape a water moccasin that came gliding from the pipe in the Fort McClelland pool.
Then tonight, at the restaurant, an old woman entered pushing a walker, and a younger woman followed, hanging on to the back of her pants to steady her. They sat down close to us. I watched them and remembered our sister less than a year ago, like a shrunken little elf, grinning up at us from her plate piled high with Thanksgiving dinner in the restaurant in Bend where snow blew in flurries outside. The next morning was the last time I saw her, and I knew it would be. I turned back from the front door of the house where they cared for her, and went again to her room to give her one more kiss. She was lowering herself from her walker into her chair.
We found her journal in that freezing cold garage after her death. I took it and glanced at the first page, shocked at the savage, cutting words, thinking, Who could say that about you? until I realized she had written it about herself.
She was mostly gone as I was growing up. Yet I knew her secret since I was very small, when she came home from college with her friend, and I opened her bedroom door one afternoon and saw her sit up suddenly. I knew thirty years before she finally told Mother, and I knew why “it just never took” when she wore her teal blue dress and went on dates with “nice men from church.” Yet because she was so private I never could tell her, I love you just the way you are, so when I read in her journal about that woman who did not love her back, how she hated herself, despised herself, for wanting that love, I was furious for her misery.
Gentle sister, sweet sister, I say this now to her memory—just, Gentle sister, sweet sister—
Ann Fisher-Wirth’s fifth book of poems, Mississippi, from Wings Press (2018) is a poetry/photography collaboration with the acclaimed Delta photographer Maude Schuyler Clay. She has published widely and has work forthcoming from At Length, Mantis, and the anthologies Ghost Fishing and Thinking Continental. Fisher-Wirth teaches at the University of Mississippi, where she also directs the minor in Environmental Studies.