Natasha Trethewey

Letter to Inmate #271847
Convicted of Murder, 1985

When I heard you might get out, I was driving through the Delta,
rain pounding my windshield, the sun angled and bright beneath dark
clouds—familiar weather, what I’d learned long ago to call the devil
beating his wife. I was listening to two things at once: an old song on the
radio and, on the phone, a woman from Victim Services—her voice
solicitous, slow, as though she were speaking to a child. I was back in
the state I still call home, headed south on Highway 49, trying to resur-
rect my mother in the landscape of childhood as the Temptations were
singing her song—the one she’d played over and over our last year in
Mississippi, 1971, that summer before we moved to the city that would
lead us, soon, to you. It was Just My Imagination and I could see her
again: her back to me, swaying over the ironing board, the iron’s steel
plate catching the sun and holding it there. For a moment I was who I
had been before, the joyful daughter of my young mother—until the
woman on the phone said your name, telling me I must write the parole
board a letter. I was again stepdaughter, daughter of sorrow, daughter
of the murdered woman. This is how the past interrupts our lives, all
of it entering the same doorway—like the hole in the trunk of my
neighbor’s tree: at once a natural shelter, haven for small creatures, but
also evidence of injury, an entrance for decay. When I saw it, I thought
of how, as a child, I’d have chosen it for play—a place to crawl inside
and hide. And when I thought of hiding, I could not help but think of
you. What does it mean to be safe in the world? Everywhere I go she is
with me—my long-dead mother. Is there nowhere I might go and not
find you, there too?