Sunday Poem

Olive Oatman

It was the charcoal they couldn’t stand.
Sister Maddy tried and tried
to get it out—bleach and scrub
till my skin peeled—
but the marks stayed,
black as the stripes
on a hawk’s wing.

Maddy took my mirror away —
each day I saw those marks
took me back,
away from the silk bustled dresses,
the shoes like vises,
the bobs and nods and mouthy words.

Back to his camp by the river.
Smoke blue as morning,
children so quiet
I was afraid at first.
He brought me tied on the back of a horse.
They took my dress,
burned it and laughed,
put me in deerskin—so soft—
laid me on a bed of pine
with the skins circled ‘round,
a smell of earth and sweat and hide.

I choked on the smell,
couldn’t get used to the work.
Water from the river in bark buckets,
firewood in a clump on my back,
scraping the dead things he brought me —
blood, skin, and sinew
torn from the hide
like all I’d left behind.

The women hated me at first;
no one talked, just pointed,
even when my belly grew round.
Nothing changed until the night
my son was born. I’d seen
and heard how it was done.
I grabbed the sinew the old woman gave;
I stuffed my mouth with rags
and pressed my back. No sound,
no sound at all,
until the head burst out so black
the women smiled; I shouted, then.

He loved me the way a hawk loves.
I’d seen them once,
talons locked in air,
falling over and under each other,
screaming,
my God, I tried to tell Maddy
she stopped her ears,
I’d forgotten the right words.
You never can go back — once you know.

Three sons in four years.
Learned how to bead moccasins,
dig cattail roots,
weave mats, and split a hare open
in one slit. I was rich as a moon
in the sky, the stars around.
That day by the river
I heard them too late,
tried to bury myself in sand;
they caught my hand
and threw me on a horse. “Home,”
they said.

Took my deerskins away,
stuffed me in black silk —
what had I done wrong?
Scrubbed all day at the tattoos.
Kept watch on me day and night,
for years and years.
I could not go back
to the circle of hides,
my three sons like stars,
and Him — no words for that.
I never forgot,
and when I see hawks sailing high,
talons outstretched
in a wild, tumbling fall,
I cry.

by Ann Turner
from Grass Songs- Poems of Women’s Journey West

Harvest Books, 1993

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