Before Me

Rose McLarney

1. Settled this Hollow

It is rumored that, in the past, high iron content in the region’s spring water caused psychosis in women.            

Iron is their answer. The men
lay iron track and drive iron spikes,
to hold the railroad to the mountainsides,
to hold a way out, open.
My husband breaks rock with metal.
Another man follows, replacing the rock with metal.
But the iron only fights back a mile of the forest a day.

An iron pan—you have to handle it carefully.
I remember this, though I don’t bother
with cornbread anymore. I eat jelly by the spoonful.
When he comes home, my husband serves himself
 the meat we had smoked for winter.

Use soap on your skillet or scrub too hard, and the metal
will flake away in soft pieces.  I’ve been taking note
of softening things: The slow splitting
of the lintel above the canning house door,
and how the roof  is folding, preparing to go with it.
The rocks that let go of the hill
and fall heavily, burying themselves in the fields.
The way the last apples
in the cellar keep some shape,
but brown and sag, rotting from the inside.
I see the same color that bloomed on my skillet
crusting the rocks where the spring water backs up.
That water’s brighter than the orange of Jewelweed.
Summer afternoons, I’ve started crouching in the cool
of the weeds.  When you press them,
the Jewelweed pods come undone,
drawing back and flinging the seeds away.  My husband
holds his hands stiffly at his side when he speaks to me now,
trying to keep calm, I think.

I can’t seem to care about the chores. I left
the white enamel basin, filled with wash water,
on the porch a week ago. Now the inside’s burnt orange,
like the spring. This morning, I thought I’d clean it, but
I stumbled again. The basin bouncing down
the stairs chimed  in time with the bells
ringing in my head.

When the winter comes,
and the leaves and all the living things
know it’s time to go,
and I’m snowed in alone—
I think I’ll be glad for color in the water then.
I can see sitting by the spring, only the water moving
enough not to freeze, against acres of white,
bright as blood. 

There’s no lack of water here.
There’s even water in the air, in clouds of mist
that start to circle me when I stare at the sky.
Springs ooze out from under every rock.
I used to think this was the rock’s apology
for hiding the soil where we could have grown something.
But I tried many springs, and each had the strange taste,
like licking a knife.

My husband, hunched from laying track, talks of progress. 
The train would transport rubies, or mica. 
They’d build mines. They’d build schools.
The missionaries have renamed Devil’s Fork, 
they’re calling it Sweet Water.
I can’t believe him, that they’ll make a road over
those peaks. I stay here in the hollow,
surrounded by slopes. Always, there’s the sound
of springs, water that can only come down.

2. Worked this Farm

I don’t understand why the cows bellow so
when we take the calves—don’t they want
to be left alone?  I can’t get enough time to myself.
Even if no one’s here, there’s the headstones
in the plot on the ridge, looking down. 
We pass on family names, so somebody
with any name you know is up there already. 
It’s true, I don’t have much company—
my sisters got married, each gone off
to live, and sleep, and always be with one man—
but that’s what lets father watch me so close.

Except when we make ice cream, and everyone
sits around in a rapture, slipping spoons
in and out of their mouths. 
It’s not the sweetness I like—
it’s all the neighbors, and nobody
paying me mind.  If there is fiddling after,
we are all sinning, so I dance. And sometimes
I pick a man and fix my eyes on him,
all those lessons about  steadiness of hand and heart
at work in my look.  Then, in that crowd,
I know I’m the only one
he sees.  To tell you the truth, I’m drawn to heat.

I’d like to stay outside until the summer soaks my dress.
But they send me to the milking parlor again.
I press myself against the copper pipes
that run through the creek to chill,
I try to appreciate the cool, I think on
how everyone hates milk when it turns bad.
When my sisters visit, I’m to join them
in the shade under the trees, breaking beans, 
making every one into two. 
The Blind Gentian, a pretty, blue flower
that never opens, blooms there.

3. Survived this Loneliness


Running through the forest
with his hatchet,
it’s sweetness he’s seeking.

He’ll follow a bee all day,
go straight through the brambles,
stop each time it settles
on a flower,  until it leads him
to the hive.  I remember
how persistent he could be,
how patient. 

Then he’ll cut into the tree
and honey will run out.
When he took me
with him, I  watched and thought
he could get to the gold
inside anything.

Once he chased me.
Now, he claims hives,
carving only his own initials
into the bark.


I wanted sweetness—
that’s what drew me to him.
But I’ve learned to earn it
in better ways.
When people harvest
their sorghum cane, I’ll come
stoke the fire and stir the juice.

While I work, they say nothing
about shame.
I’m happy to stand by
that boiling vat all day
for the chance
to skim off  the impurities’ foam.

The juice thickens. It gets harder
to move the paddle through.
But I do, pushing toward the time
when it’s finished, when the syrup 
will be clear.


My daughter has the same
weakness.  That’s why
I like cider best before it turns hard.

It’s not that I can talk
of resisting temptation.
But now I can only
feed the stomach’s hunger.

I add the fresh pressed apple
to batter for sweetness. 

I show her what little
shape shifting I can do:

Take the pan out of the fire
and turn it over.
The liquids and loose
powders become a cake,
and it stands, on its own.