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I. She came out of the dust like a creature from the next world over.
They had been eating dinner, all four of them around that old low table in the front room, ma and daddy and Linney looking down at the corn pone ma had made like it was the only thing there ever was. But the boy didn’t want to eat the dust, no matter how hungry he was, and so he was looking out the window and he saw her.
He ran outside, and they followed him, rubbing their fists in their eyes and coughing like mad, curious to see what he was making all that damn fuss about.
At first he thought it was a girl made out of dust.
Then when she came closer, he thought she was a nigra, a strange one with blue eyes and white-tipped fingers.
Only when ma had wiped her cheeks off with a wet rag that had been covering the baby’s face did they see that it was the dust on her so thick that had turned her skin to pitch. They asked her where she was from, and who was her daddy and her ma to let her wandering out alone when there’s a storm coming? And can you hear me, little girl, or has that dust gone and stuck in your ears too?
II. The boy thought she wasn’t a real girl.
He thought he was the only one who knew and everybody else was just plain blind. She wasn’t a nigra like the sharecroppers’ daughters, but she wasn’t like them either. She wasn’t like nobody he had ever seen and the way the dust was part of her, the way her eyes were so round they were like little worlds—that scared him. He wished his ma wouldn’t touch her like that, as if she was a little lost puppy or one of his little sisters.
Linney held the girl’s hand like they were the kind of friends that might play jacks and tell secrets to each other. But he ran through them and broke them apart and shouted for his sister to watch out.
Everybody else was blind but he was not.
III. They asked her questions but she was real quiet for a while.
She stared into the blackness of the dust, looking for that thing called the horizon that the boy wasn’t sure he even believed in anymore. The baby cried and ma put the rag back on its nose and mouth to keep the dust out. Linney kept on holding onto the girl’s hand, but she looked at the dust-covered face like she wasn’t quite so sure she wanted to be friends anymore because the silence scared her.
She said ain’t you gonna say a word? Are you dumb or somepin?
Ma tugged Linney away and they brought the dustgirl inside, with him walking behind and staring at her thin back and spindly brown legs. He thought that it would have been so easy for her to disappear into nothing that it was almost like she didn’t exist. But she seemed more real once they were in the house and daddy had closed the door and stuffed the rag back under the crack. When ma wiped her whole face clean he and Linney felt less scared.
Now you feel like tellin us where you from?
IV. She said my name is Poem and I am from away.
V. They were all five of them real quiet for a while, even the baby.
Finally he said what kind of name is Poem?
The girl turned up her chin and straightened her spine out like she was a puppet been suddenly pulled up by its strings. That’s what everybody calls me, she said. Her voice was high and strong. She kept on staring right at him with eyes that were like ice until he looked away. Not because he was scared, all right? Don’t think that. He was eight years old and way too grown to be scared by a girl.
It was just he wasn’t used to being looked at like that.
VI. Ma sat them all around the table and the family was even more broken.
The dust surged up against the windows so fierce he thought his whole world might get swept away. Ma took a spoonful of corn pone out of each of their bowls and put it on a plate in front of the girl with a cup that was half milk and half water and said how long it been since you et?
The girl looked up at ma real curious. It’s been a little while she said. Ma shook her head and clicked her tongue like she knew the real truth that it had been days and days. The girl just didn’t want to say it.
Well you just eat up Miss Poem she said right back. You stay right here until the storm’s died down an we can find your folks.
He watched her eat taking little pinches of corn pone in her fingers and popping them into her mouth like they were bits of candy. There was a whole layer of dust on her plate but she swallowed it like it was seasoning god had put on the table just for her. The whole time, her round blue eyes were on his, watching him and studying the lines on his face and in his dirty hair like he was a pretty picture and not a real boy.
Howd you ever end up way out here? Daddy asked.
VII. Then she said the strangest thing he had ever heard.
I came here on the wind
They are heavy with sadness
But I float above them
The dust is in my eyes
But I can see through it
And they cannot
VIII. It wasn’t a song and she got upset when ma asked if it was.
Poem looked at ma with her eyebrows up real high. No she said. And then she wouldn’t talk no more, no matter what he said to her. She just sat there staring out the window and rubbing her two fingers together like there was a special piece of dust in between them that she wanted to keep forever.
Ma went in the other room and brought out two blankets for Poem to sleep on and she put them in between his and Linney’s. She said it was time for all of them to go to bed. It wasn’t really night, but the dust had made it black anyway, and they couldn’t leave the lamp on for too long. He and Linney lay down on their blankets but Poem just sat staring out the window like she was about to cry.
Come on we gotta go to bed, he said.
You feelin all right Poem? Ma asked.
IX. What she said was with a voice that was fierce and I-told-you-so.
When I was running away it was late and I was two shadows
One was my used-to-be self
The other was a girl
Who had just escaped from her undulating
At night they disappeared
I looked in the mirror and asked where they fled to
But the girl who was there
She must have run away too
When she had the chance
Then she got up and went to her space on the floor.
And they looked at each other with eyes that understand only that she was different. And he thought to himself, I told you so.
X. He listened to her crying all night.
Even when her sobs had faded she cried with her breath. And she cried with her coughing and her shifting on the hard floor. He thought about what she had said, the song-that-was-not-a-song, and he wondered if where she came from people looked at her with eyes that understood.
XI. In the morning he watched her sleeping even though he wasn’t sure why.
Poem was almost. Her face was almost round and her lips were almost smiling. Her hair was almost blond and her eyes were ice, almost blue. The boy thought she was almost beautiful.
Ma and daddy and Linney were gone when she woke up. The boy forgot where.
He wanted to tell the girl that it was all right for her to say her songs again because they made him feel like he was inside them, even though he really didn’t know what they meant. His family they thought she was crazy but he thought she was a real live music player. Instead all he said was, you hungry?
Poem looked at him with her almost eyes.
XII. A little song slipped from her mouth and he tried so hard to understand his mind hurt.
A beast with narrow eyes
And sour breath lives inside me
It lives on the dust I breathe
XIII. He finally asked her but he was afraid of the answer.
If it isn’t a song what is it he said with a determined voice.
A poem she said.
The boy looked at her with his mouth a little open. That’s your name he said.
That’s not my real name, the girl said smiling. That’s just what they call me. Because of my poems.
The boy brought her out the brown bread ma had said to give her and he sat watching her eat for the second time. He poured her out all the milk and didn’t even add any water because he thought she would like that.
Are you made out of dust? the boy asked.
The girl laughed and the dust that had been left on her face sifted to the ground. No she said. Are you?
Sometimes I think so, the boy said. That’s all anything’s ever made of here.
They sat quiet for a minute, and then the girl put down her piece of bread. You’ve never heard of a poem before? she asked.
Just then the baby let out a high shrill cry, and the boy jumped to his feet. He went into the other room and came out carrying it like a sack of flour, with his arms around its scrawny waist and its legs kicking out wildly beneath him. Ma was always saying that damn baby will be the death of us but he didn’t understand why.
That’s a poem, she said and pointed to the baby. You take that and put it in words and that’s a poem.
The boy furrowed his eyebrows and put the baby on the table, and put a wet rag on its face like mama always did. He wished he could put it on his own face and sit with the dark and the cool and forget the dust had ever been there. A poem is a baby, he said.
It could be, Poem said.
What’s your real name? he asked.
She shook her head and said, does it really matter?
XIV. A poem is, she said.
What is captured on paper is just the beginning
The end is a moment of blinding light
Against the eons-old stars in their silken black pockets
XV. The boy looked at her long and hard, and he remembered what the girl had said, and he looked out the window at the dust.
Maybe, he said. Maybe what it really is is that you are realer than anyone and that is why I am afraid of you and in love with you at the same time.
XVI. Poem held out her hands and clapped and clapped.
Bravo she said. That was the prettiest poem I have ever heard.