Long Black Veil

Ten years ago, on a cold dark night
Someone was killed, ‘neath the town hall light
There were few at the scene, but they all agreed
That the slayer who ran, looked a lot like me

 The judge said son, what is your alibi
If you were somewhere else, then you won’t have to die
I spoke not a word, thou it meant my life
For I’d been in the arms of my best friend’s wife

 Oh, the scaffold is high and eternity’s near
She stood in the crowd and shed not a tear
But late at night, when the north wind blows
In a long black veil, she cries ov’re my bones

She walks these hills in a long black veil
She visits my grave when the night winds wail
Nobody knows, nobody sees
Nobody knows but me

 

 Handmade lace, dotted with pearls,
embroidered with vines and flowers,
maybe with fawns peeking
from a curtain of willows,
noses lifted, ears cocked.
Or something older,
passed down from a mother
or grandmother. Or something
cheaper—perhaps they were poor.
It doesn’t matter—she found the veil,
and she made it black—

the girl from the song, I mean. Ashes,
dry, breathable, firescraps
pressing the soft places below
her kneecaps. Ink from an inkwell,
ebony, consistency of milk or blood,
vinegar-scented. A bowl
of blackberries, holding them
one at a time between her thumb
and forefinger, pressing, juice
staining the veil, also her fingers,
her wrist.

~

I imagine she lived in the woods,
the mountains. Although I want
the mountains, they’re not mine.
I didn’t grow up in them, just
under. My great-grandmother
tried to teach me to crochet, but
I wouldn’t learn. She knew a storm
before its thunder by the way
leaves turned in the wind.
I remember that. Once I asked her
about my great-grandfather,
who died before I was born.
Whatever she was doing, she stopped —
she was rarely still—I didn’t mean
to marry him
, she said. I laughed.
An accident, like missing
a step on the stairs. A bet
with her sister to see who could get a ring first.
Thinking she could break it later,
she accepted a proposal. But her beau arrived
in a borrowed car. She got in.
He didn’t tell her
where they were going.

~

I didn’t wear a veil, having read
that the lifting of one by the groom
signified the bride (as body)
passing from father to husband.
For others, veil as (mere) accessory,
something pretty to complement
the ballerina skirt and beaded bodice.
Or veil as modesty, preserving the bride’s
beauty for the groom alone. Norse brides
were kidnapped: a blanket thrown
over the head of a captured woman
secured and subdued her. Or veil as privacy.
A (welcome) place to watch.

~

Pearls, pearls,
in a haul
of three tons,
only three

or four pearls.
From the James
River, mussels?
Or the ocean,

oysters? Shapes:

round, button,
pear, circle,
drop;

sizes;

collar,
choker,
princess,
opera,
rope.

~

My mother’s first marriage
was much like her grandmother’s.
Seventeen, a high school senior,
her boyfriend dropped to one knee.
She laughed and said her father
wouldn’t let her. For the honeymoon,
they drove to Disney World.
She called collect to tell her parents
they were safe, but her father
wouldn’t accept the charges.
He didn’t need to speak to her
to know that she was there.

~

Did she run to him? See him there
where he stood on the scaffold?

Maybe her husband
found her, took her hand,

maybe her eyes met his.
Maybe she cried out

as the rope pulled tight. Maybe
she looked back at his body

swinging, ripe peach
on a summer branch.

And after, did she live in the forest?
How then to keep the veil black?
Mud wouldn’t be enough. The charcoal gills
of mushrooms, pulped roots of irises,
crushed hickory nut hulls.
Feathers the crows lost, tucked in
by their shafts to the lace.
Did she sleep on the ground?
Under elms? And once did
a shadowy moth land beside her
in the dusk? Its wings, if plucked
and smeared, a fine dark dust.

 

Note: Click here to hear the song Long Black Veil. This poem first appeared in Tar River Poetry.

 

 

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