Walk Back Through the Ashes

February 2015, Columbia, SC in response to the Commemoration of the 150th Anniversary of the Burning of Columbia

The robins flying north are unable to settle,
a flutter of discomfort in the trees
on the small square downtown, darting
frantic from tree to tree while the music—
some said the wind-driven blaze
sounded like a waterfall—rises and falls,
and the shadow of a woman twists
against the dark green trees.

In the story, there are gifts of whiskey.
This is consistent, whether it is the story
of a day that begins with a mayor’s
surrender amidst songs and celebration,
or the story of the night after,
a night of confusion and looting and flames.

A woman twists in a skirt of flame.
Her face hidden, she can’t see beyond
the cage of her dark and lovely bonnet.
Her skirt is a soldier’s tent pitched
on the town green, her skirt is
the marble statue of John C. Calhoun
in a Roman toga dissolving in a puddle
of quicklime and shame. Her skirt is a canvas
stretched across nine blocks. Her skirt
is a stiff and difficult flag.

In one story, an old black man
is the only one who died that night.
In another, soldiers trying to restore
discipline shot and killed two of their own.
In another, the one told and retold
to children, there was a monster who would
get you if you didn’t straighten up,
a monster who burned down the city.

A woman ascends the steps of the city.
She carries the stories of the city
in her arms, tenderly, like a child,
like a dead boy, like a bolt of bright
cloth rescued from the flames.

The city is a canvas, the streets canvas.
Four figures scatter ashes down the street,
four or five dark figures and a child,
white sacks slung across their shoulders,
filled with the past, the remains of old homes
burned down, what they need—a story
about loss, or a story about the burnt
offering, or a story about the bitterness
Moses stirs into our sweet tea.

The robins in the trees are unable to settle,
on their way somewhere else, north.

We scatter the ashes. We stretch
the canvas of the city, tell our stories.
The new mayor will write a new letter.
History is sound, is cloth, is water and ash.
Sometimes we sing, sometimes pray.
A woman will lead us up the steps, sometimes
carrying the story of the city, sometimes
carrying a stone. Today her hands are empty.
Carry the sack, scuff your shoes in the grit
on the street, hold a stone in your hand.
Walk back through the ashes. Walk
back through the ashes. Walk back.