Conversations with my great-grandmother
What was it like when you were young?
War had left its talismans . . .
From forests and fields we brought in
bombs and metal wrecks —
a strange sort of harvest —
to melt and shape and sharpen
into picks, sickles, axes, ploughs.
We trusted neither land nor sky
and prayed and crossed ourselves
whenever in the open.
We grew cherries, sold cheese
wove hemp into rope and cloth;
we thanked the lord for the corn bread loaf
coarse as it was it glowed like a jewel
in our mud and straw hut.
What was it like to be a woman back then?
My lot could not afford a daughter,
though I washed and scrubbed and loved
them all I could. On my wedding day
when I clung and cried, my mother consoled,
‘You’ll wear a cotton skirt there
you’ll eat bread made of wheat, white as snow’.
As I rode off on the cart drawn by our cow
the accordion began to play, I turned to wave . . .
but the sky had collapsed behind you.
And on our wedding night . . .
First night and he found the frayed seam of you.
He pulled loose a thread to undo all you’d stitched up,
when in a tangled mess I fell at his feet,
‘Don’t waste your tears. The land is dry.
We’re out of salt. Cry me a barrel by morning!’
I faced the next day split as a fallen fruit, plum-blue.
You became an ice-crusted country
Your voice a fish that nudged in the deep.
Year after year it was so . . . with him devastating
and you picking up. He felled saplings, spoiled crops,
with a deluge of fists he pounded down.
In secret I collected seeds, sowed and tilled the land
I knew so well in darkness.
I carried the sting of nettle, the strength of oak.
When it got too much, my eyes would follow a fly
spiral up. As it’d settle in a corner
something in me would still with it.
Was there God?
It was useless with God. When first I turned to him
he spat it was my lot! Even the saints betrayed me.
Sweet martyr Paraskeva, giver of sight, whose icon
I adorned with flax and birch, turned a blind eye.
So I called on the Great Mother, ‘Strike
with your lightning! Turn him to stone! Cut
the thread, his life you weave’, I called into a hole
that with bare hands I’d dug.
Silence but for the echo of your plea
the crude snigger of crickets.
I sought a gipsy for a curse — ‘Scoop the dust
from his footprints wherewith he leaves his soul
cut a lock of hair, his powers it holds, and coat
with clay or mud. As the flames crumble mud to dust
so will wither he.’
The axe was the last resort?
That night I breathed relief — an empty space beside me.
He kept the spare axe under the mattress —
I felt its head at the small of my back
the handle braced my spine.
Skipping the ritual of plaiting and looping
covering my hair with scarf, bareheaded
I tip-toed past my little ones to look for him in the yard.
It was another drunken night with mates and booze and cards.
He’d passed out beneath the cherry tree
where I found him sleeping soundly
and blossoms falling, falling . . .
I crossed myself for forgiveness
more out of habit that faith,
I gripped the axe handle
lifting it above my head —
Twelve at the time, standing at the window above
her daughter counted
while she fingered a wart on her thumb,
‘How like a toadstool’, she mused
as she set about to uproot it, ‘ . . . five six seven’,
by the time she drew blood she’d counted the last thud.
Twelve resounded in her head like a spell of sleep
till the buzzing of a fly brought her back
and she heard the familiar drip from the white belly
of cheese hung in a gauze sack,
‘Now like a cherry bitten in half’.