Joice Heth was P.T. Barnum’s first act. She claimed to be the 165-year-old mammy of General George Washington.
When crowds started to wane, Barnum claimed she was an automaton.
God is not a mechanic. He never has the right
tools. I forget what needs fastening. I forget what
needs to be turned tight. I forget what screws and bolts
never found their way back into my body. My heart
tightens when the white man takes my pulse. He says,
You are not a woman. I am a thing better left dead. How
do you kill something that never truly lived? Does a
mechanic ask questions? Does a machine? Does a soul?
All I know: the white man thinks he has the answers.
Thank the Lord Almighty someone does. Who cares
if He’s wrong? A machine has a soul. Touch my wrist.
Take my pulse. Can you unfasten a soul from its body?
My body jerks and squeals. My body snaps shut.
A heart never breaks down. A soul finds its way
back into your body. If it remembered. The soul
forgets. So does the heart. So does the pulse
when you’re still alive. Do not tell me your body
aches. Questions make God ache. He has forgotten
if He has a soul. He knows I do. He know that leaves
me with no answer. A soul only has broken questions.
Joice Heth was P.T. Barnum’s first act. She claimed to be the 165-year-old mammy of General George Washington. When crowds started to wane, Barnum claimed she had come back from the dead.
A ticket to the afterlife. All I had to do was die
for him. For my audiences. For God. This is
what Barnum demanded. I was 165 years old.
How many times can you die in a lifetime? How
many funerals can you attend? How many if
they’re your own? I went to mine. Three times.
No one hired mourners. No one said a word.
They didn’t buy my body a box. My death was
worth an hour’s time with shovel and dirt. This
is the truth: the naked body loves filth. I hope the
afterlife isn’t clean. Of sin. Of filth. Of dead
bodies. Could one store an afterlife in a box?
God died more than once. Who am I not to
dare to be as naked as God? 165 years old.
No one could expect me to be clean. No one
could expect me to remain a body. This is
the truth: Barnum is filth. He beat his slaves.
He trapped them in a box. He saw them
as good as dirt. No one said a word. How
many years does it take? How many dead
black bodies? How many times does God
need to be told He’s nothing more than a shovel?
I will be dead. I will be hired to mourn
the word of God. The sound of a body
against clean dirt.
Steve Fellner has published two books of poetry, Blind Date with Cavafy and The Weary World Rejoices.