Learning To See

When she was old, I met her, this woman
no longer able to ply her trade, like
a grave-digger or a knife-grinder - and bought
her a drink, and listened to her tell how

my father sent word, and a dollar in dimes
tied in the corner of a red bandanna - word
that my mother's time was near. They lived
up so high, no doctor would come that far.

From down in the valley as she climbed,
she could see the fire in the yard, where neighbors
were boiling sheets. The dogs had worn out
their voices from barking, and were still.

The stars looked close. She didn't need
the lantern, and put it out, to save oil.
When the others left the room, she helped my mother
through an easy birth. Somehow she had known

there would be a caul. She left it on
the kitchen table while she tied off my cord
and slapped me into breath. It would be
an hour's walk back down the mountainside

and another hour to the river, and on down
to the docks, but there would be a deckhand
on one of the barges tethered there, who knew,
who would pay her five dollars, and take it

farther down river, all the way to salt water,
where men still believed, and bought protection
from drowning, and said the child it came from
could see backward and forward in time.

One more drink, and it was time for her to go.
Before you come into the world, she said,
swimming is easy. After you're born, it's hard.
But anybody can see underwater. Open your eyes.

First published in Yarrow.

Monday, May 8, 2017
Topic(s) of this poem: birth,swimming,vision