Pandemic, 1918
       (for MR, who lived and died in another century)

1.
Wind-waft and a brown leaf
lofted from a dry forest floor.
Bone-scrabble of dry dirt—
a forewarning,
                           and the story
two generations told again and again
about the microbes’ fatal power, and the grief
of the young mother whose sibylline brain
showed her what lay ahead—

                           Old Scratch
wrapped in black serge
, (they said)
stalking the forest (of her fear).
And the field at the forest’s edge
where she went walking
(on a bright fall day)
with her perfect infant daughter.
He swooped out of the dark trees,
nor’easter-like, snatching the baby from her arms
.
(she had no way to stop him).
Then he and the child disappeared
into the forest
.

What could she do
on that hot tenement night,
but bolt upright in bed,
nudge her snoring husband awake.

2.
He said sweet jeezuz
He said what are you caterwauling about
He said you know how I need to get up early
He said you had a bad dream for crissake that’s all
He said you probably ate somethin’ that disagreed with you
He said you know how you get when you’re pregnant
He said you always make such a goddam big deal outta nothin’
He said you gotta to go back to sleep and leave me in peace
He said you better stop crying or I’m gonna give you somethin’ real to cry about

3.
So I did / for my daughter’s sake / My second, pure light / I conceived her when I was only five months past birthing her sister / I woke up in a friendless hour of night / to tell her father the fright I had / But I tamped it all down / The panic and the panting / Swallowed it / for her and for me / She churned and churned a long time / as though she heard thunder crack / Waves of her father’s voice pounding into her embryo ears / through all the layers of my skin and muscle meant to keep her safe / I felt her foot push against my ribs / like she wanted to run away / So I rubbed it and I whispered / It’s alright It’s alright / Sure, it was a stormy summer night when the dream came / Before the Fever stole her / Stole so many babies in that year.

 

 

 

 

Maria Rouphail, PhD, is Senior Lecturer Emerita from NC State University, where she taught courses in World Literature and served as an academic advisor to the English major. Poetry editor at Main Street Rag, she has published two collections: Apertures and Second Skin. All the Way to China, forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in 2022, was a finalist in several contests, including the University of Wisconsin Brittingham Poetry competition. A member of the NC Poetry Society and the NC Writers Network, she serves on the advisory board of Backbone Press in Durham, NC. She lives in Raleigh.