In Memory of Katherine Foster, Free Negress, Late, of These Parts
©2011 by Brenda Marie Osbey
the grave is silent.
so much for the vanity of the living
we all are here
have been here
just beneath the redder earth
surrounding all this land with all our bones
and the rest
in canada, they say, the negroes all are free
so goes the song
or think we are, i tell myself
or think we are
the very idea that some negress – one such as yourself is how they say it –
should work for her own keep
without the favor of some white man is what they mean
or pity of his pious wife and daughters
nor only work but
prosper well enough to take on workers
not for their lives’ blood as they do, no
but for right pay
and land to work
and burying-ground besides.
over out near gospel hill
the gentlemen, they say, are nervous again.
and we here in lesser canada have no doubt what they do mean.
southeast to southampton no one asks slave or free
hacking negroes right and left comes very nigh a special calling,
what in the wake of that saviour whose name no one dare speak:
puts me in mind, says hester, of that other time
all other times when ones
such as myself still could
some prophet wailing from out the wailing rushes
a free negro?
my annie went down with the boys
looking i suppose to catch wild
things as children do
some while ago, says hester
land just back from there
all but fire-red with the blood of wild things
i sew and sew.
my bones often think of hester's just nearby.
wild things she'd said.
she was the first to go.
rheumatism lit a fever in her that never did die out
two of the men found her when they come out from the smokehouse
and carried her here to my bed where i
could see to her proper
she'd tended to my mother when her time came and i was born
tended me when mother went
and again when my three came.
first true thing i ever did buy was hester's ease and comfort.
how dear it is, she she said that morning, to be my own woman now and free
and so she stayed
her small house but a few good strides from here
fire burning every day she lived:
keep off that devil cold from these poor bones,
then she was gone.
and we are none of us freer living than any one dead colored woman.
that much i know i learnt from hester.
how long ago was that?
they have dug all around now beneath the main house
unearthing pots, buttons, fireplaces, timbers
old women's keepsakes, children's treasures
shards of lives
unearthing and replanting hester, me and all the rest
such care they take
every little thing
such tenderness now that we are gone –
or so they tell themselves –
i feel these bones lean out to hester's from the cold red clay
bones of wild things
not so very far they are planting native gardens
fountains rising from our old half-buried stream
that sometimes flooded over
cutting through the blood red earth
cutting through this one small plot
home and work
laughter and sweet communion
smallest respite against so many martyrs on the way
and sweetest freedom
hear tell there will be feasting and much singing comes the spring
prayers tossed up around near gospel hill
and all those other blood red holy hills
and now that we are neighbors to that great institution
who ever will tell what only we could tell?
who knows the cost of what we bought and paid for?
who dares to tell the cost of mr jefferson's
own sweet dream and higher calling
for this upper country:
a plan so broad so liberal and so modern
so much to raise the envy
of even these learnèd few who serve its noble and enviable aim:
of the human mind
of our own once thriving enterprise
bones of free women
this bit of land
Commissioned by The Carter G. Woodson Institute, University of Virginia
©2011 by Brenda Marie Osbey
All Rights Reserved