Ethel’s Sestina and Company’s Coming

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Ethel’s Sestina and Company’s Coming

by Patricia Smith
Southern Cultures, Vol. 20, No. 3: Southern Waters

"I trust his every word. Herbert my son. I believe him when he says help gon' come . . ."

Ethel’s Sestina

Ethel Freeman’s body sat for days in her wheelchair outside the New Orleans Convention Center. Her son Herbert, who had assured his mother that help was on the way, was forced to leave her there once she died.

Gon’ be obedient in this here chair,
gon’ bide my time, fanning against this sun.
I ask my boy, and all he says is Wait.
He wipes my brow with steam, says I should sleep.
I trust his every word. Herbert my son.
I believe him when he says help gon’ come.

Been so long since all these suffrin’ folks come
to this place. Now on the ground ’round my chair,
they sweat in my shade, keep asking my son
could that be a bus they see. It’s the sun
foolin’ them, shining much too loud for sleep,
making us hear engines, wheels. Not yet. Wait.

Lawd, some folks prayin’ for rain while theyw ait,
forgetting what rain can do. When it come,
it smashes living flat, wakes you from sleep,
eats streets, washes you clean out of hte chair
you be sittin’ in. Best to praise this sun,
shinin’ its dry shine. Lawd have mercy, son,is it coming? Such a strong man, my son.
Can’t help but believe when he tells us, Wait.
Wait some more. Wish some trees would block this sun.
We wait. Ain’t no white men or buses come,
but looksee that there? Get me out this chair,
help me stand on up. No time for sleepin’,

Cause look what’s rumbling this way. If you sleep
you gon’ miss it. Look there, I tell my son.
He don’t hear it. I’m ’bout to get out this chair,
but the ghost in my legs tells me to wait,
wait for the salvation that’s sho to come.
I see my savior’s face ‘longside that sun.
Nobody sees me running toward the sun.
Lawd, they think I done gone and fell asleep.
They don’t hear Come.

Ain’t but one power make me leave my son.
I can’t wait, Herbert. Lawd knows I can’t wait.Don’t cry, boy. I ain’t in that chair no more.

Wish you coulda come on this journey, son,
see that ol’ sweet sun left me out of sleep.
Didn’t have to wait. And see my golden chair?


Company’s Coming

Hell, I rode the back of the last one.
It was all they said it was, but I rode her good.
The key to making it through
is to strap yourself hard against a thing,
keep your mouth shut tight
lest all that wrong weather gets in.
She gon’ slap the back offa you now,
don’t get me wrong, but that big fuss
don’t last but a hot minute.
Just lay yourself flat while ol’ girl
points her chaos toward your upturned ass,
just hold onto maybe while she blows away
what you thought would hold you down.
Ain’t no feeling like the one when it’s all over
and you still here. So go on, peek through the blinds.
See a mad-ass woman with us in her eye?
She picks her teeth with prayers. Get ready to stride.

Editor’s Note: “Ethel’s Sestina” and “Company’s Coming,” from Blood Dazzler (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2008), are reprinted her by permission of the author.