From the Unwritten Letters of Joseph Freeman

                                                                              (February, 1841)

Melinda, I've been preparing to write.
That peculiar girl named Molly, 
who has a bit of liberty in the house,
has said she'll find some paper.
I have practiced mixing charred wood with water
and have managed to shave a twig
so one end nearly resembles a nib,
but tonight Lila got caught up
under the good Doctor's whip
for such a little offense. I am frightened.
Doctor Jackson brought in a new troop of slaves today.
A boy of thirteen among them had the welted cheek
that speaks of a driver's dissatisfaction.
Lila put a poultice on to ease the swelling,
but Jackson wants the boy to understand his place
and thinks a scar will help. Lila's back
and neck and arms have thirty new wounds
to replace the one she thought to heal.
Melinda, how is Jacob? Ever yours,

                                                                    (February, 1841)

Do you ever start at night believing
I might be dead? I leave my body
sometimes, Melinda. Is that all dying is?
Remember how I'd scold you
when the stew was thin, believing
I needed a thick stock to forge muscle
for all the work I had ahead?
Your stew would make me big again, Melinda.
Sometimes we have to trap, skin and roast
possum, rabbit, snake and squirrel.
Except for that, I have swallowed naught
but salt pork and coarse meal in all my days
away from you. But I work just fine.
Ever your beloved husband,

                                                                    (March, 1841)

What a herd of slaves Jackson brought in last month.
No sooner had their strength returned
after the long march to the farm from Lynchburg
but they began to plot another run.
We didn't know they'd planned to leave
until they were already gone a day.
All manner of neighborhood men
came around to tip Jackson's whiskey
and help him on the hunt, though
all they brought back for their trouble
were two bodies. One dead,
one fighting off living. That boy
I told you about, Ben with the slashed cheek?
At the stony fork of the river
Doc Jackson found his body, cut up,
twisted as if it had fought long
under water, a dead hand pointing
in the direction his netted sister and the "damned
lost lot of niggers" had run. I guess
he was too obstinate even for the water
to hold down easily. Jackson used Ben
like a scarecrow, his shirt hooked on a pole,
his body meant to warn us from the road.
Lila's still not certain that the girl will live.
Until tomorrow, I am ever your Joe.

                                                                    (December, 1843)

William is the name Smythe matched
to my description when he shipped me
from his Wilmington slave pen
to the Richmond consigner Jackson
bought me from. So I am William,
though it took more than one whipping
for me to remember it. There is a woman
keeps the kitchen here prefers we call her Auntie.
She's been called so many names
she "most forgets" which one means her.
I trust Jacob is getting on in school
just fine. I was, at his age, learning
to carry myself with the pride of a Freeman.
It's been many years since I've been able
to answer to any person calling me
that name. And Jacob? Can he remember
his father? Please hug him for me,
Melinda. I am ever your husband,

                                                                    (November, 1845)

How many live on our alley in Philadelphia?
There, this room might accommodate
a bed and two chairs, but here we are three men,
two women, some potions, and a girl. We sleep
in turns. Marlo often walks the woods at night,
his eye out on the traps for all of us.   'Dolphus steals sleep
in the smithing shop and steals everything else
before dawn. Just last week, we bore the tread
of a muzzled goat and two hens he brought in
from a neighbor's farm. Our field sweat adds stench
to the store of bones, feathers, brews, and herbs
Lila claims can cure the women on this place.
Sadie, who Lila never tried to stop herself from bearing,
sleeps with her body wedged behind the door.
Molly swings it in her side each night when she turns up
to sleep after Miss Amy's laudanum takes and again
when she races the conch call to the house in the morning.
Even Lena, who had a well-built cabin of her own
when she lived on the place, pushed four babies off her tit
to make room for the Doctor and for Miss Amy's boy.
I wonder, Melinda, are your wages enough,
since I went away, to satisfy the rent? Yours in tribulation,

                                                                    (December, 1847)

The Doctor's had his eye on Molly
since he caught her listening
while the tutor drilled his son on Greek.
She says the boy translates slowly.
On a war now, his spoiled tongue
has spent two days flogging
some warrior's impenetrable shield.
Molly showed me yesterday
what a heart looks like. Traced it
in the dirt that is my bed, my stool,
my desk, my cabin floor. I miss you, Melinda.
I miss feeling the little skip your heart took sometimes,
though I know the pinch that came along with the stutter
pained you.   Molly is a smart girl,
though brutal in her zeal. She's quicker
than a butcher to find cause to wield a knife.
I am certain the Doctor will lapse in his vigilance 
soon enough. Then I will chance to capture
on the page one of these letters. May God be good
and grant so large a prayer. Yours,

                                                                    (January, 1848)

We are like to lose another hand
unless 'Dolphus can recover
from the flogging he took
over a missing pair of cufflinks.
The girl who was brought home
with Ben's body was quickly well enough
to work, and she had less skin on her bones
than Doctor Jackson left on 'Dolphus.
Perhaps there is some little hope
for Lila's husband. Molly is afraid
to sneak me any of the Doctor's paper.
Molly, who can be as bad as 'Dolphus
about purloining pretty, useful things.
I doubted she was earnest in her fear,
but now I see what she, born here,
must have always known. A man
whose livelihood depends on stealing
the toil of other people's bodies
must keep a keen eye on his own
most dear and precious things.
Camille Dungy, "From the Unwritten Letters of Joseph Freeman" from Suck on the Marrow. Copyright © 2010 by Camille Dungy.  Reprinted by permission of Red Hen Press.
Source: Suck on the Marrow (Red Hen Press, 2010)
More Poems by Camille T. Dungy