Monday, October 31, 2016

Dead Woman's Crossing

Dead Woman's Crossing
a ghost story

When the moon was a witchboat small and tossing
in the fade-time where night can see day as her twin,
down the rough blacktop to Dead Woman's Crossing
came the carnival rolling on a dustbowl wind.
They spindled the midway, freakshow and toss-ring,
before they spiked twenty ripe melons with gin
for Harvest Home in the dark of September,      
so the marks can do what they won't remember.

There was Jacko the clown, stringy as a rat,
Ma's name and a snake his tattoo valentine,
Rudy the barker in a ten dollar hat,
talking apple butter, smiling turpentine.
The Doll from Philly worked the striped gypsy-tent;
her brown eyes had just the right mad dog shine.
Then night seemed to give a coyote-moon cough
that shook her gold earrings, and Katie showed up

with her deathrattle tale of carnival past,
how she, the schoolmarm, met the Fallen Dove;
Fannie, too red-haired, too ruined, too fast,
on a September midway, bent moon above;
how love like a cloudburst caught her at last      
a kiss-whisper in place of the stone cold shove,
a granite fist traded for a velvet hand
and a five dollar ring for her wedding band.

The Dove blew out of Texas like a broken branch            
running  from Jesus, Daddy Jim and the law.
When she hit Mrs. Hamm's Saloon and Hog Ranch
she knew she had almost no time left at all
but still more than Katie, hellbound for a ditch,
face pale through the water where the black crows caw.
Thru plugged ears Doll could hear the walking night moan,
thru shut eyes see the bridge where Katie talked on:

The heat lightning flickered as midnight slammed shut,
Katie in a nightmare where she was the wheat
waiting dry in the dirt for the thresher's cut;
for whiskey hard times in tangled sheets,
for one scar too many from a cheap White Owl blunt
while the tumbleweeds wrote her name in the street.
She put on her bonnet, she packed up her grip,
met the Dove smiling with her child on her hip.

They sat down stiff as strangers on the noon train,
the nights and the men left behind in the dust.
They got off at Clinton in the quick July rain
with the last of the wheat burning red as rust.
When the moon was a witchboat sailing the plains,
as diamond eyes smiled into lily-white trust
in the carnival night, storm in the willow,
the teacher slept sweet with her red-haired pillow.

The next day at midday, two girls and a child      
left town in a buggy to laugh and laugh last.
Fannie screamed like a bobcat, the wind went wild
when Katie's man came up through the tall sawgrass.
The Dove saw the buck-knife draw a cutthroat grin;
all she knew was to make the scared horse run fast
from the man who had Katie back, all his, dead,
while the Dove had poison and a red dirt bed.

When the moon's a hook, a witchboat, a sickle
when the last of the wheat stands brown in the ground
while Orion runs after Hecate the fickle
above the dwindling lights of a dying town,
the Dove does her dance to a penny whistle
and a dead woman calls her child with that sound.
The next fall, when Doll's carnival topped the ridge
it rolled without stopping past Dead Woman's bridge.

~September 2014

This was written as a personal challenge, issued to me by Magaly Guerrero, to write a poem dealing with a carnival taking place during the Autumn Equinox,

Process notes: Dead Woman's Crossing, also called Dead Women Crossing, refers both to a small community by that name in Custer County, Oklahoma near Weatherford, and the nearby bridge over Deer Creek where the decapitated body of schoolteacher Katie De Witt James was found in August of 1905. The events (other than my imaginary carnival) described in this story are factual up to a point, with completely fictitious biographical details and explanations of my own invention. You can get the details (as far as actually known) of the unsolved murder of Katie De Witt James and the poisoning of Fannie Norton here in this wikipedia article.

 'Grip' is an archaic word for a small traveling bag. Prostitutes of that era were often referred to euphemistically as 'Soiled Doves,' while 'fast,' 'fallen' and 'ruined' were terms used to describe women who had lost their virginity, were free with their sexual favors or considered  loose morally. White Owl cigars, including 'blunts' are an inexpensive brand that has been made in the South since 1887. They have about the same place in cigar hierarchy as Swisher Sweets (once my own occasional brand.)

Fannie Norton did use the name 'Mrs Ham,' but the eponymous Saloon and Hog Ranch is a flight of my fancy taken loosely from the life of Calamity Jane, who in her youth is reputed to have been a working girl at the infamous Fort Laramie Three Mile Hog Ranch, a 19th century 'military brothel' and stage coach stop near Fort Laramie, Wyoming, also said, like Dead Woman's Crossing, to be haunted.

This poem is written in the ottava rima form, with lines of eleven syllables.

Images: Circus arriving in Seligman, Missouri, late 19th century
Public domain via wikimedia commons 
Dead Woman's Crossing, by Nathan Gunter on flick'r
Shared under a Creative Commons license


  1. Still so compelling! Still love the story, your style, the way you marry the words with intent and purpose!

  2. Oh my goodness, the first line alone made me catch my breath! What a tale, fantastically told. I love the last stanza especially, and like the idea of the dove's cry being the mother calling to her child.

  3. Wonderfully wove words. Both in style ad story

    Happy Halloween

  4. I am still in love with that first stanza. It reads like a movie and a circus dancing with a poem. So many images. Such a great tale.

  5. Ever a pleasure riding along again here. The nigh-gossamer possibility of love between these two women trying to escape a poisoned badlands of men makes for arch All Hallows song. Where doesn't the carnival invade? Ay, that's the rub. Impeccably dreadful, a delight.

  6. genius.

    I think you've caught something uniquely American gothic here (not the tv show), in a landscape peopled by authors like Mark Twain and Eudora Welty, Washington Irving and Flannery O'Connor. The form helps keep the imagery hooped in, as it were, as it wends down the street and days of Katie: broadly sweeping, closely observed, and ever, inevitably returning to the dread heart rotting at the center of this rust-wheat land. ~


"We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry." ~William Butler Yeats