The Three Hour Siege on the Caddo Parish Jail
Shreveport, Louisiana, May 12, 1914
A thousand men had battered
steel doors with railroad irons,
and then hacksawed their way
through the bars, to drag Hamilton
from his cell, and tighten a fresh, hemp rope
around his dark, thin neck, his screams lost
to the mob’s cheers and seething purpose,
his tears erased by May’s mid-morning rain.
The Guard never came,
though Sheriff Flournoy telegraphed
the Governor for troops—or so the Times
would report the following day,
beside the photograph of the man
the crowds strung up on a telephone pole
across from the Courthouse, caught mid-swing,
Hamilton’s head lolling but not snapped,
a trace of foam at his mouth.
The hilt of a knife protruded from his chest
like a key to the door of Hell.
The sisters, not yet ten—
the age of the girl supposedly despoiled—
would not have walked downtown to Dixon’s Dry
by themselves, but that Mama’s cold
was getting worse, and she needed liniment
and a sack of horehound drops.
They barely made it past
the press of bodies—and the brawls
that spun like eddies in the rush
of angry men on Milam Street—to arrive
at the store, where Mr. Dixon hurried
them inside, locked the door behind them,
let them shelter with the other ladies there.
He led the group in a prayer,
that they wouldn’t be burned out,
that the streets would clear, be safe again.
Maybe some of them prayed for the soul
of that colored man—and maybe not.
Years later, of this day, the sisters would not speak.
But more than once, it might be said,
that prayer can’t loose the knot
that binds a chiliad of hearts in evil deeds—
and magick has other things to do than try.
Grannie B Tells the Origin of the Mounds
You children been out on the Mounds again,
ain’t you? Mercy, all that dirt over your pretty dresses,
and Cole dang near black as your daddy’s heart.
Be glad your Mama is out calling on friends,
because I’ve seen her switch for naughty boys
and girls. Now, don’t give me that look, Vidalia!
Heavens, I’m only teasing… Come to think on it,
your Mama used to climb out here herself
when she wasn’t much taller than a cotton bush.
Always said she wanted to find herself some Injun bones,
and don’t you think there wasn’t some Caddos
to be found. Yes, Cole, real Caddo Injuns!
Did you know, there’s all kinds of tales how those Mounds
came to be? Some say it was ants. Ants! As if
little bitty ants could make fifty foot circles six feet high!
Some say wind. Others, water volcanoes. Now,
I might not have gone to that fancy St. Vincent’s school
for girls like your Mama or your sister Maggie,
(it wasn’t built yet, you see, and I suspect
I’d have deviled the nuns), but I’m fairly sure
there’s no such thing as a water volcano. (Honestly!)
Once, I even heard some folks say the Mounds
were Injun garden-beds piled up to help dry out the soil,
so corn roots wouldn’t drown. I could maybe see that…
And there is bits of Injun pottery turned up all over.
Right here in Stormy Point, back in ’85 (your Mama
would’ve been about ten, then), Col. S. D. Pitts,
a family friend, dug a cellar and uncovered a treasure—
a large pot full of ants (which ain’t much of a treasure,
if you ask me). But there was a small pot too, cradling
precious baby bones, as well as keeping rifle barrels,
a knife some eight inches long, and a tomahawk—
which I doubt could scalp the dirt of you, Cole—
goodness’ sakes, do you have some on your eyelashes?…
What was I—oh. Even before then, in 1870
(right before I married Grandpappy, may he rest
Somewhere), high water washed out the southwest corner
of the Point and unearthed a skeleton wearing green copper
shoulder plates and a silver crown. And back then
everyone round here knew the legend of the Last Caddo Chief
buried in the Mounds. —Oh, listen to me! Rambling on
with those same stories I used to tell your Mama and your aunts
and uncles every summer when we’d come up here for a spell
to visit the beefy side of the Sibleys. But only your Mama
ever cared much about stories. She still does—kind of like you,
Lulah, in your little scribblings. Alright then, your verses!
Now run along, you three, and take off your clothes,
I’ll go heat that water for your bath.
A Stop at Old Wives’ Oak
Its leaves have turned coal-orange
and brown as cinnamon crisp,
and Maggie is late in planting
her one, her true, her daffodil—the wispy
bulb paper crinkling
in the yawn of afternoon breeze.
She’s sworn the twins, just-turned-teen,
to secrecy, as she scoops a hole
in the earth, then sets the bulb like a queenly
diadem in its cache—and polls
for their opinion. Lulah snorts
cicada-sharp, goes back to her whittling,
but Vidalia softens like a lemon cream,
a dream of romance (and her teeth) nibbling
at her lip. “It’s perfect!” She beams
at her elder sister, and Maggie smooths
the last of the dirt on top, says a spell
for winter to be kind, and spring
to be kinder yet. May what dwells
here now in warmer months bring
felicity, she thinks. As for sisters
sowing wishes, how far off some day seems—
Maggie envisions that yellow bloom, thick
with promise. The Oak gleams
bright fire, shakes off its leaves like magick.
The Invisible Empire on Parade
No horns, but pipes and drums resound
unimpeded by ghostly drapery
as the Knights of the Bayou parade
downtown. Six men abreast
carry the Stars and Bars, and another six,
a pennant with bright red lettering,
Shreveport Klan #2 Wants You.
The pageant in white extends as far down
McNeill Street as the sisters can see.
At the edges, a few men break formation
to give sweets to small children,
or to salute amputees back from war,
or to pass out pamphlets and “Do You Know” cards.
One is slipped into Tallulah’s hand.
She whispers, “This here says Pope Benedict XV
is hell-bent on taking over America.
I don’t think he can be bothered, myself.”
Vi whispers back, “We shouldn’t be here.”
Next to her, Bonham claps and cheers
along with the crowd. He turns to Vi,
slaps her slight shoulders in a hug.
“I’m signing up at the picnic afterwards.”
“Idiot boy, you’re a Catholic,” says Lulah.
Several looks are shot their way,
the only things dark about the faces nearby.
Bonham appears as though he might reply,
then crushes Vi a little closer to him.
Her whimper is almost lost in a martial surge
of voices singing “The Old Rugged Cross.”
The Knights turn east along Texas Street,
towards the river and the picnic promised
at parade’s end. Disgust—at Bonham,
at white robes hiding craven hearts,
at sweet, spineless Vi—wells up in Lulah then,
hot and sudden as a burning cross.
ERA at the WDC
Today’s meeting of the Women’s Department Club
buzzes with ladies, and a few husbands
more or less tied to their wives by sashes
or buttons proclaiming Equal Rights for All
sit quietly bored. Guests drink tea or nibble
petite water chestnut sandwiches on marble bread,
though Lulah spits hers into a handkerchief,
“These taste like sheep sh—a sheep’s pen.”
The remark earns her a shove from Vi
and cherry-sour looks from Maggie and Mama.
With a Baptist preacher’s fervor,
the Club president orates an article
reprinted from Monday’s New York Times.
She punctuates the text with asides and angry smacks
to the podium, seething over Samuel Gompers’
backhanded concern for women’s safety:
“The difference of opinion is over the question
of whether the proposed blanket amendment would result
in the destruction of standards and safeguards
now established in the law of the States
for the protection of women in industry…
I assure the women of the country that those laws
would be not only endangered but would be destroyed.”
She stamps her foot at that pronouncement, and adds,
“Ladies, that… that Jew Communist wants to protect us
right out of our rights, the same way our great State of Louisiana
refuses to ratify the 19th Amendment—over a year
after the men in Washington have ratified it
for the entire country! We must not stand for it.”
Lulah whispers, “He’s not even a Socialist, you know.”
“Be quiet,” Vi hisses.
The president finishes reading, then introduces
a Shreveport attorney, John D. Williams, one of four Southern men
the Times mentions to endorse the National Women’s Party
campaign. His speech whips up a crowd already frothy,
and when he concludes, even the husbands stand to clap.
Mama, who never says much, looks positively lovesick,
as she glides from her seat to the front of the room
to shake his hand and thank him for his words.
Maggie and Vi swoon a bit as well, but Lulah says,
“Don’t see why we have to depend on men
to give us women’s rights…Couldn’t magick fix this?”
Maggie’s sigh rolls out like mist. “You know it can’t.”
No, of course not—magick only bends the will of one.
There are still too many men to be undone.
My sister, her breathing
as regular as rows of cotton
on Highway 1, does not hear me
unlatch the window, shimmy
down the magnolia to our back yard.
Like the Widow Solley said to do,
I’m bare beneath my shift,
lift my arms to this new December moon,
call on Gréine, St. Monica, and Demeter.
Then I hold a smudge of sage
and juniper and light it, the scent
of Christmas, burning. The shadows cling;
no sticks crack beneath my feet
as I touch the smoldering roll
to the corners of our house,
scorch small ash-crosses on four shingles
to repel the shade of duplicitous love
that snares us Sibley women every time.
Beneath the gardenia hedge, leaves
black but glinting, I take out
a rosewood box, old treasures replaced
with seven strips of linen once red
now brown, which I’ve shredded
with fingers bare of rings
and stiff as sorrow. No shears
forged by man to defile this offering;
no spade but my hands to turn the earth,
which takes the cloth to heart,
transforms its purpose.
I drink the Widow’s draft of wild yam,
black cohosh, faerie-wand, and pray.
Work my will, preparations;
what the Widow Solley said, be true:
all that was meant to hasten marriage
bring instead moon’s flood;
what’s false, cast out.
As the barred owl hoots its octave,
the pines tremble.
Letter from Tallulah
Downtown Shreveport, February 1923
Today at Church, old Father Windbag
began with the proverb
“A merry heart does good like a medicine,
but a broken spirit dries the bones.”
Believe me, there were a number of bones
drying in the pews by the time
he maundered through his homily. I myself
lost the will to live at least eight times,
and whispered as much to Stonewall
(when he wasn’t snoring),
and didn’t know anyone overheard me
till Good Christian Mrs. Crockett
said “Bless My Soul!” half a dozen times,
and Mama swatted me with her missal.
Meanwhile, Calvin’s and Magnolia’s
cow-eyes promised a little bit more
than peace be with you, and Mama didn’t hit them.
Anyway, when I say Father ended with Lamentations,
I don’t just mean the church goers’.
He wandered through six books of the Old Testament
like it was forty years in the desert.
And through it all, Grannie B behaved
as pious as a nun in black bombazine,
her head bowed over the Holy Book,
and looking for all the world
like she was following along, flipping pages,
moved often to say “Amen!”,
even though ours ain’t that kind of church.
And then I noticed it wasn’t the Family Bible
at all, just the loose book cover she’d wrapped
around her old spell-and-remedy book,
which made me laugh, which made Mama
promise I’d be sorry when I got home—
and she didn’t much like when I muttered
what’s the point of grounding a fifty-year-old?
(Because that’s how long it will be till we leave.)
When Father finally gave the benediction,
people ran for the doors like Noah’s flood
or maybe devil dogs were after them.
I bet the angels heard “Deo gratias!”
all the way in the clouds. So be glad
you weren’t here, Vi. After a service like that,
no amount of prayer can save you.
—Come home soon, Lulah
Letter from Vidalia
Highland Sanitarium, February 1923
Do you see the stars tonight,
like so many buttons on a great gray coat?
The Dove and Dog I see at once,
and then the Twins, Castor and Pollux,
on a long walk across the sky—
it makes me think of us, and I start
to cry, but I mustn’t cry again—it’s an art
the White Army stamps out, like the night’s
with their pills—sarcasm like whiskey
under their breaths. (Thanks—the coat
you sent, its flowers orange as Pollux,
is warm as Honey-slobber.) All at once
the gas lamps surge in their sconces
and dim—the way houselights start
to flicker at intermission’s end. All clocks
tell a lie it’s ten, but it’s eight at night
when they call bedtime, check petticoats
and pillows for anything sharp. (Buttinskis,
you would say.) A last glance at the sky
from my mouse-hole window, and I’m ensconced
between thin sheets and board—no sugarcoating
insomnia, I stay awake to startle
them, whisper to swan-fathers at night,
and then in day, speak of my sister Pollux—
but my mythology’s wrong—Pollux
was my brother, I’ll say—and they, in husky
tones tsk tsk like metronomes, or censure me outright:
call for another sedative, like starburst, once
my fancy plays itself out, starts
to wrinkle in the chest, like an old coat—
the Colonel’s moth-balled coat,
covered with dust and powder burns. Relax,
Lulah—I may be muddled, but my heart’s
flight extends as the Dove in the sky,
lightyears and degrees, and only once
or twice, reaches an unhappy azimuth. Tonight,
as I draw your coat closer around me, the sky
like castor oil could drown you, Pollux, once
the stars, undone, reveal me, naked as the night.
—In madness (or not), “Lyssa”
Unmaking at Old Wives’ Oak
Fresh dark earth has been upturned
where a dozen would-be brides
have planted daffodils for spring.
Lulah can’t help thinking of the bulbs
as little graves, and the women
as waiting for death in dupioni and lace.
But she’s here to dig and plant as well,
and spares them no more thought
as she sets down her pail and finds
the star-marked knot in the trunk.
She sinks fingers into the dirt,
upsetting earthworms, pillbugs, beetles,
till she finds the cherry cask.
The bread inside is mealy and green-
dusty with mold. Lulah wrinkles
her nose, but a deal’s a deal. She places
the loaf on a handkerchief, and empties
the pail into the cask.
It falls like an overripe alligator pear,
bruised and wrinkled and stinking
of burnt sugar and month-old possum.
After she reburies it, she prays
Oh, Dark Mother in ether’s blue wail
you’ve held my soul untormented.
Take in exchange what’s in this pail,
a tattered heart to weight the scale.
Restore my soul when I eat this bread—
She gags it down and mutters thanks—
woozy and feverish, she begins to shake:
a lifetime of little sins, and unkind turns
and worser spites, sharp as when first erred,
besiege her at once, turn her hands bloody—
no stigmata, this. She licks them clean,
lone disciple at a dark communion.
JC Reilly writes across genres and has received Pushcart and Wigleaf nominations for her work. She serves as the Managing Editor of the Atlanta Review and has pieces published in the Grub Street, South Carolina Review, PoetrySouth, POEM, and the anthology, Nasty Women Poets, among others. When she isn’t writing, she plays tennis or works on improving her Italian. Follow her @aishatonu.