Andrea Bates

Daguerreotype, 1855

What did they know, and when did they know it?

I always imagined well-dressed men

would follow me through the streets,

passing their secret telepathically,

as they gathered at nightfall beneath a slump of oaks,

spinning a bread wooden wheel with my face at the center.

At the end of each spoke, faces of my sisters,

like sheets of tin laid out in rows.

My lucky number never came up, I was never chosen for a life

of wet hats staining the parlor table and cakes

cut when perfectly cooled.

If they were willing to peel the blue stockings from my legs,

willing to kneel and explore, speckling my hair and dress

with yellow, breathing in fur,

they would mark me untouchable daughter of mercury,

a small dose of poison sufficient

to snap their legs or arms spontaneously.

I read each night in bed after a bath

of real work, real brooding

to discover the translucent thinness of my skin,

laundry hung out to dry.

I know mad means insane

and ugly means repulsive to the eye,

and they are careful not to use both

in the same sentence as they pass by.