Natasha Trethewey

Southern Gothic

I have lain down into 1970, into the bed
my parents will share for only a few more years.
Early evening, they have not yet turned from each other
in sleep, their bodies carved — parentheses
framing the separate lives they’ll wake to. Dreaming,
I am again the child with too many questions—
the endless why and why and why
my mother cannot answer, her mouth closed, a gesture
toward her future: cold lips stitched shut.
The lines in my young father’s face deepen
toward an expression of grief. I have come home
from the schoolyard with the words that shadow us
in this small Southern town — peckerwood and nigger
lover, half-breed, and zebra —words that take shape
outside us. We’re huddled on the tiny island of bed, quiet
in the language of blood: the house, unsteady
on its cinderblock haunches, sinking deeper
into the muck of ancestry. Oil lamps flicker
around us—our shadows, dark glyphs on the wall,
bigger and stranger than we are.