how maybelle survived new york
who needed the north / when there was the smell of gardenias at night as she slept between two big sisters in a hollow / of skin & smell so when girls at the schoolhouse / got their monthly / she knew what it was & how a fullgrown breast looked like mama’s cinnamon loaf on christmas eve & on sundays even halfgrown girls wore socks / homemade ribbons the color of dandelions there were barefoot mornings in the creek / weeping trees with leaves rustling the ground stolen peaches / lemonade from mason jars when maybelle was ripe / boys called / with homemade pies in wicker baskets there were dancehalls in the woods / lanterns bright like eyes of god papa’s banjo humming out favorites like / rock salt nails she woulda married abraham lincoln turner / had eight babies plucked chickens / cooked on a wood burning stove & one night the scrinch owl hooted / near tombstones at sweet galilee baptist church & next night a prayer vigil / children munching cold biscuits on the back pew cus everybody knew what the scrinch owl was. by new year’s papa was laid out behind sweet galilee / mama was addlebrained she married at 12 / papa most raised her the big sisters was married off quicker than amen / then mama & maybelle north in a wagon / a model t ford / a railroad they jumped down in the tracks to catch til a colored man in a suit hauled them up it was names broken / concrete in their mouths / brook / lyn bush / wick eastern park / way no more places of honeysuckle dreams / bluefield shenandoah richround hill it was rooms in buildings / no kitchens / no porches / stairways worse than the outhouse she learned to cook on hotplates / string washing cross the bed from windows she learned to go down in the dark / ride subways / not smile at strangers she learned the silence / not silence of mama talking to herself & the cussing from the goodtime men outside / so she folded her long braids under mama’s hat & walked fast when she went out alone. by & by she kept company with a fatface pullman porter he came bearing gifts / stockings for her & mama / fried porkchops / daisies for the windowsills on account of them daisies she married him / & time got fast.
she had three babies / took up smoking / dyed her hair a badwoman color / went to dances on fulton st / learned to read fortunes in tea leaves / & women with silk scarves round their heads crept up her steps with names/ birthdates on slips of paper / sometimes they cried / & maybelle gave them extra cigarettes / mama had passed on / she knew how sorrow felt.
sunday mornings she talked to mama through the veil / drank rock & rye brandy mixed up by the pullman porter / he drank too much / fell down the steps / forever had a limp / nights she rubbed him in white liniment / when he felt good they danced to up on the roof by the drifters / while glass broke & cars screeched down below / her daughters got bellies / no husbands / & they lived at home with their three wild boychildren / kevon / deshawn / & toolong / maybelle called them all sugar.
even though it was lowclass / warm nights she sat out on a kitchen chair & watched the streets / some called out hey mama maybelle / & showed off babies just walking good / some said nothing.
she missed lantern eyes / morning creek / down home places that sounded like love / goshen / bellpepper / cherryville / but there were sunday mornings / mama’s voice / daughters that carried her bags upstairs / neighborwomen that shared cigarettes / granbabies named sugar / a oleman with a limp that danced with her / & drank rock & rye brandy that burned / sweet down to the bone / there were days the fortunes were good / & all that / was love too.
Radhiyah Ayobami is Brooklyn-born with Southern roots. She holds a B.A in Africana Studies from Brooklyn College and a M.F.A in Prose from Mills College in Oakland, California. She has received awards from the New York Foundation of the Arts and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and has been published in several journals including Agni, Apogee and Kweli. Currently, she is working on a collection of essays, and an Afrofuturism novel. Her joys include sitting under trees, making herbal teas, watching her son’s basketball games & listening to the stories of elders.