Papa wanted to die
Gracefully, in his sleep-of old age.
I no have the heart
To say Old Man, these the dreams of babes.
Have you not heard the rumblings in the Quarters,
Seen the foxfire in the swamp? Why you think
The snatching of your breath
Will be different?


He learned to write
His name. We all did
For different reasons. He struggled with each sound,
Using cold ash and sharp sticks to shape
Who he was on a sheet of parchment.

I worked up at the house. For Papa I risked
Ripping neat sheets from the ledger, the one
That man kept specially for his figuring.
For true, I saw my name and mama's and papa's.
That book kept a running-balance
Of our worth. I would go deaf anytime
The wagging tongues started clucking
How I favored him
More than my own pa.


Beside the hearth,
Papa's trembling hands betrayed his fears. He wrote
Letters to Mama, the Senegalese woman
Dead more years than my life. He folded
Each one, kissed and pressed it to his heart
Before casting the yellow leaf spinning into the fire.


I wonder if his letters were like his stories
Over and again, the same words.