Ma and the Snake

By Desiree C. Bailey

It must’ve been the third trimester
when my mother put down seeds at the side of the house
still under construction. She had always heard a pregnant woman’s
hand could spring forth the richest crop, and though skeptical
she planted pigeon peas, bird peppers, broad-leaf thyme
and they came in thick and fragrant, nourished by my waxing
heart and sea-blast.

On an ordinary day, in the carnival season’s dry heat
while picking the sweet bellies of pigeon peas, a horsewhip
slid among the leaves, proclaimed its black mouth and split tongue.
Everyone warned that my speech would be marked, nicked
by the snake’s jealous hiss. My mother swept their forecasts
to the road, thought it nothing but old island talk,
kin to the cow-foot woman and douen.

My no-nonsense mother, mother of the rosary’s
swift reason, still believes my tongue was fluent
as tadpoles in the creek. How eager she is to forget
that in my earliest years, the horsewhip’s lisp rose from my lips
and my cousins begged me to spit out words like season and
souse, charmed by the pink head
peering out between my teeth. I was a child of thorn
and shadow, drawn to the soil’s mysteries, peculiar as
the driftwood’s rot. What dark-throated truths
piped into my mouth, what stinging languages
broken and blown, fed to my gorging breath.


From What Noise Against the Cane by Desiree C. Bailey. © 2021 Desiree C. Bailey. Reproduced by permission of Yale University Press.