White lather on black soap—
Maria’s gift. It reminds me
Of when a woman died
And they handed me her ring.
Then they left to divide the roots for her.
Daylight went down there shining.
By accident, cleaning the hearth
Of a house to leave it for good,
I learned how to see
A star come out: work
My hand into the ashes.
“You’ve thrown a chestnut hull into the fireplace again,”
Said Colette’s mother, “My clean ashes!”
Naughty Colette had soiled the washing ashes
Of applewood, poplar, and elm.
Stretched over the big cauldron
In the washhouse, hemp cloth held the ashes
The washwoman poured a jug of boiling water on.
They smelled almost sweet as the lye
Filtered into the mass of linen.
The air darkened with blue clouds.
In the smoking lava layer of ashes,
A few cinders of chestnut hulls,
The tannin’s yellow stain.
Look for something
You’ve been every day of your life.
You said it was “lonely.”
I’m certain it is also “clean.”
My body’s big years diminish soap.
My grandmother, whose diamond it was,
Had a stone in her tub.
I rubbed it on my feet
As later I walked,
Building little hoofs,
All summer shoeless on creek gravel.
That black bar of stone
In the widow’s clean house,
That volcanic pumice skips
Over most hard places
But softens at least one.
Once there was a downpour of rain
They took as a judgment.
It confused her billowing, steaming skirts.
Another time—those times were hard—
The executioner let go the twisted hemp
From her neck sooner than he should
Because the flames reached his hands.
Nor would I, if I’d had to live then,
Put my hands into the fire
Those three hours it took to reduce her.
But after, I’d scrub all over
With the ashes of the still warm
Black heart of the witch.