The Emily Interview, fiction by Stephanie Dickinson

 *

Remem­ber for me the day your moth­er made you quit school.

Feb­ru­ary 1902. I help her pluck two chick­ens and yet I want to clean away her crime. Wipe the red rain from the snow where the hens strug­gled to keep run­ning, their heads axed behind them. They are still fright­ened in death. I breathe the cut odor of quill and feath­er, the sev­ered wings. I shiv­er. Too cold for work dress and apron. “The pin­feath­ers,” moth­er says, “you’re miss­ing some.” Today is a school day and I won’t be going. I’ll nev­er be a schol­ar who eats whole para­graphs from the primer. I’ll not ride the cover’s black horse bear­ing Deme­ter and Perse­phone to the win­ter under­world, hooves pound­ing frozen ground, cleav­ing it. Hard­est-work­ing stu­dent, I prac­ticed my pen­man­ship. Two long tables, a board before me where I wrote with a stick sharp­ened, then charred. I’ll miss the roll call Emi­ly. Like a girl lying on her back in pas­ture grass, lazi­ly stir­ring the clouds. In the one-room where eight grades are taught by one nine­teen-year-old girl, her lessons were my rib­bon can­dy, satin curls with sil­ver stripes. “Pin­feath­ers, Emi­ly,” moth­er reminds. Tiny soft fleece to warm the eggs I pinch from the bro­ken body.

*

What was it like to cov­et a brother’s col­lege stud­ies?

It is to be mes­mer­ized, to climb stairs in sum­mer when no one both­ers the books, to enter his room and kneel by the desk and reach for them. Heat breath­ing from the trees, heat in the fields where work­hors­es stand five feet high, each weigh­ing a ton. Gen­tle gray giants plod­ding through the south acre dumb to sen­tences. Igno­rant to turns of phrase. Dust from the dirt road ris­es as a wag­on pass­es by, dust falls on the ditch lilies. In my hands the heft of a book, the heav­i­ness of the cov­er, how for­bid­den, how dif­fer­ent from the wood­en spoon, the knife, the scrub board, the rag, the hoe, the har­ness, the blue grist stone. The scent of its pages. Latin, Cat­ul­lus, Pass­er, deli­ci­ae meae puel­lae, to touch the words, to taste them in my mouth. Anoth­er vol­ume. Geog­ra­phy. Maps. Bur­ma. Siam. Coun­tries in pale tan­ger­ine col­ors. French West Africa. The Vol­ta Riv­er. Gold Coast. My eyes leave the coast on the fine line like the del­i­cate leg of a dad­dy-long-legs. I am on an in-land voy­age of saf­fron ink. “Go fetch the clothes from the line.” Mother’s voice comes for me.

*

Tell me what a rumor of small­pox was?

We drink from the same dip­per. The Moses chil­dren sit around the school’s pot­bel­ly stove. Wilma. Francesca. Mag­dale­na. Fern. And the boys Math­ias, Arnold. Wilbur. They smell like wet feath­ers; gut musk­i­ness. Like clothes gone with­out wash­ing. I give them my bread, bacon crack­lings smeared over the large cuts of rye. They cough, blow their noses on rags, then knot them under their sleeves. Fern is my favorite. Del­i­cate as a grasshopper’s leap. When Fern falls sick, the red spots appear. My moth­er has already tak­en Anna out of school. How glad my sis­ter is soon to be mar­ried to the hand­some tin­ner Frank. But I who love books am made to tie on the apron. I stand over the papri­ka-scent­ed chick­en soup, star­ing into bot­tom­less­ness. “Stir, Emi­ly, just so the yel­low skin won’t form. Where’s your head?” My hand push­es the spoon through the kettle’s huge round. I pre­tend I turn to tal­low, melt away. A rumor of small­pox. Moth­er fears a daugh­ter with pocked face no man will mar­ry. A daugh­ter blind­ed. My turn to make the farm­house bread. Lips pressed, I obey, white knuck­led, I make fists of beat­en dough.

*

Do you remem­ber your wed­ding day?


My lips full, pouty. Look at me stand in sepia in 1906. I hold four long-stemmed white ros­es. Smol­der­ing beau­ty, I had to tame. Gold Coast, Africa—my heart’s desire—yet I chose the farm boy who made me wife. Rings giv­en and tak­en, then a bug­gy ride to Kadg­i­hn Stu­dio. My boy-hus­band eyes the pic­ture tak­er, I gaze into the far­away. My black hair’s kink refus­es its pins. The after­noon cook­stove-hot, I fol­low the binder that four work­hors­es drag through ripened oats. My hus­band thrusts his pitch­fork. I learn the truth of twine, cut and tie, chaff and straw, the bun­dles shat and sep­a­rat­ed. In the yel­low air the visions min­gle. Gold-paint­ed faces. Men sev­en feet tall in loin­cloths. The jaguar’s maw. Who remem­bers vows? Work is how we lived. Mar­ried in the morn­ing and in the after­noon our hon­ey­moon, we tramped the fields. Then in the dark­ness of our wed­ding bed more dirty sweat.

Stephanie Dick­in­son was raised on an Iowa farm and now lives in New York City where she strug­gles for the legal ten­der . Her nov­el Half Girl (win­ner of the Hack­ney Award giv­en by Birm­ing­ham-South­ern) is pub­lished by Spuyten Duyvil.  Corn God­dess (poems), Road of Five Church­es (sto­ries) and Straight Up and No Sky There (sto­ries) are avail­able from Rain Moun­tain Press. Her sto­ry “A Lynch­ing in Stere­o­scope” was reprint­ed in Best Amer­i­can Non­re­quired Read­ing and “Dal­loway and Lucky Sev­en” and “Love City” in New Sto­ries from the South, Best of 2008 and 2009. She is the win­ner of New Delta Review’s 2011 Matt Clark Fic­tion prize judged by Susan Straight. Her web­site is www​.stephaniedick​in​son​.net.  A new novel­la, Lust Series, is out from Spuyten Duyvil. It is vio­lent, goth­ic, rur­al, and both fem­i­nine and fem­i­nist.

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1 Response to The Emily Interview, fiction by Stephanie Dickinson

  1. ginabobina says:

    Wow! Instant fan of your work! Thank you.

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