Cahokia

By Kathy Nelson

Featured Art: Homestretch by Mary Kate McElroy

I don’t know how to be a vessel. When my mother’s father
drank himself to death, she was a day’s bus ride away
at school, got the news by telegram. Today,
in the yard, the trees are disappearing into fog so blank
you could forget they had ever been there. In the 60s,
along the Mississippi, bulldozing for I-64,
workers dug up beads, shells, remains of Cahokia,
a city as large in the 13th century as London was—
plazas, mounds, courtyards, towers. Imagine
getting to work with your backhoes, blueprints,
your federal funding only to find that someone
got there first. My father’s grandparents, eighteen,
already three years married, left green Tennessee,
headed west. I don’t know why they forsook Eden
for the wind-raw Texas plain. Great grandmother
vowed never to cross the Mississippi again.
And she never did. That’s how the old ones said it—
and she never did. I can’t explain how I wound up here,
so close to the farm where she was born. At the end
of her life my mother’s mother exacted a promise:
keep the stacks of funeral visitation books, proof
the ancestors had been somebody. My own mother
dead, and thinking of my daughters, I snapped
a photo of every page and threw them into the dumpster
with her mouse-ridden sofa. In Cahokia, the Mississippians
built a woodhenge to mark the sun’s solstice. Now,
the sun is burning away the fog and across the valley,
Flat Top Mountain smolders in autumn light. I don’t know
where in these woods the copperheads are readying
their dens for their long winding sleep, where the wild
turkeys are fattening on acorns, their long necks ratcheting
down and up. If I knew how to tell you that, I would.


Kathy Nelson, a newcomer to the Sierra Nevadas, is the author of the chapbooks Cattails and Whose Names Have Slipped Away, and her poems have appeared in LEON Literary Journal, Five Points—A Journal of Literature and Art, The Cortland Review, Tar River Poetry, Asheville Poetry Review and elsewhere.

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