Night breezes catch in Mississippi Magnolia trees, ghosting hooks of blues songs through their branches like reaching tendrils of wisteria vines. Often, when the sky storms, spirituals slither up from the blood-drenched soil to meet the hallowed ground where shadows of figures wander, in and out of the moonlight, humming bits of hymns from books burnt to ash within their time enshrined tombs.
If you hike all the way down to the lowest part of the country, take a left at the bayou, crawl along pine tree-planted county lines, and snap the small hand of the clock off the town square axis, you will have reached Jackson, Mississippi. It is an island unto itself, the fingers of the nearby swamp-country steadily reaching for the haunted Oaks that thrive in the rich, dark soil, ghost-bodies swinging from boughs when rains come, a million whispered songs.
The Confederate monuments, stone men frozen in time, that have been the subject of much national conversation and controversy of late acne the landscape, hedged in manicured beds, in cities and towns all over the state. One stands erect in front of a courthouse I have found myself in recently, fighting a bitter custody battle between my disillusioned ex and a family bound by an adherence to Sophist rules and a cereal box interpretation of holiness. The statue is a Confederate soldier (Confederate Jim, I’ve named him) staring into the distance watching, it is said, for the inevitable advance of Union troops. Legend goes that the site of the monument is where General Sherman stored his arms after taking the city. The statue sits on a grave of weapons used to war against an ideology that fundamentally denies basic human rights to the now greater majority of the population. The spot marks the defeat of an army of de-humanizing ideals, and a great win for humankind.
I’ve been scarred with the knife-edges of the dehumanizing ways of the South. I was assaulted at sixteen, and married to a man I had no business marrying at twenty-one. I was a child, my mother warned me, but I was too young and too stupid to hear her. Now she fights against me in a court battle, believing that the only way to win anything is to play by an invisible code of rules that has been written on stone monuments atop the veneer of a system rigged in favor of those with right bodies, excluding anyone who is "other", gender, color, or ability-wise. I have no biological grandfathers that I have ever had any kind of relationship with, just a legacy of women who have survived, now straight-backed and hard-nosed, but long deserted by leaving.
I’m done with bowing. I’ve had quite enough of blind male authority dressed in the robes of religion and conservative politics. This queen’s waist is razor-straight start to finish. My daughter is free to make her own choices about how she will read the braille of the community, but she is only four years old now, and I would be remiss as a mother not to fight for her hand over fist, and in doing so, I have unknowingly raised a thousand corpses from their barely buried graves, summoning the ideological definitions of words like “woman” and “mother” in the process, eliciting a crowd of stone-throwers who wish to dispel any ideology that differs from their version of the 1950’s lens of racism and misogyny through which they have been taught to see. They sit tidily and properly in their judgments of my transgressions of having loved a man with more melanin in his skin than my own, of struggling with depression so vibrant it radiates outward from the guts of me in longing for my child, of having left the church, and spoken out about dangerous political issues within the confines of the steeple, no compassion or empathy, just sneers at best, and open antagonism at worst.
Sometimes, you can laugh your way through open jeering, a very public kind of hatred and petty recompense, and sometimes you can’t. I often have the privilege of being able to decide to find humor occasionally (I know many others in such life-altering circumstances are not given any moments of reprieve whatsoever), and so as often as I am able, I do. I suggested, for example, that we dress the local Confederate monuments, including Confederate Jim, in drag—give the cement soldiers and concrete generals a jazzy day-time look with hot pink lipstick, a feather boa, and some kick-ass high heels, the stuff of buttoned-down nightmares. I’m not sure anyone would be particularly surprised if I were arrested for gender-bending a local racist monument at this point in my life.
You see, women like me down here are madgirl-misfits, Miss-Does-not-quite-fit-anywhere-in-Mississippi, nor the veneer of a placid society beneath which danger floats with ancient teeth and claws, ropes and hymns tangled in pre-historic jaws. Several years ago, I broke all the rules, ripped up the "how to play" instructions, mixed Candy Land pieces with Monopoly money, and drew a Licorice Lagoon in on Boardwalk Avenue. I scribbled circles in the sand while those closest to me picked out the best stones in which to execute their illusions. I stand in the center of the bedlam now, my clothes torn to shreds, having been hauled from my lover's bed. He escapes this awful metaphor. I do not. It is me they are after anyway, not him. I am the wild horse who will not be controlled by bridles of pedantic manipulation and miscommunication. The crowd gathers, I recognize all their faces in dystopic conjunction— all of them masked, but easily recognizable.
The first stone slams into my mandible, loosening my teeth. I tongue blood back from my gums, choke on the richness of it.
I’m sixteen and my legs are forced open, my shorts ripped out at the crotch. I’m thirty and there are man-hands around my throat, bruised ribs, and the expectation that I am to take responsibility for my own thrashing. "You should have known better" is the chant over the carmen et error, Ovid's famous "poem and a mistake."
I stand again, though, and discontent with prayers of penance, I skip rocks on the surface of brackish waters, and stare back at the monsters who threaten to surface, roused from easy slumber, irritated and hungry for the conflict on which they feed.
But there has been no time to even consider the philosophy of gathering my own stones because---SMACK---the entire onslaught has caught me off guard, left me spinning.
The next stone slams into my temple, blurring my vision. I stumble. I left the temple of my Father a long time ago, but I did not leave the sacred. It crouches in the dirt over by the side even now, drawing with a stick in the sand, an invisible poem.
“You know the difference between the Proverbs 31 woman and the modern-day woman,” I hear my pastor speaking before a crowd of a hundred waiting ears in a church I served in as well, an echo nearly ten years old by now, “The Proverbs woman had servants, and the modern woman has a dishwasher and a microwave.”
The center of me caves, my eyes bleed, I re-walk the church aisle alone this time, no welcoming on the outside, just villagers with fire, witch-hungry. They’ll burn this madgirl and the elegy between my teeth if I don’t spit it out as quickly as I can. Time runs in a circle, but sometimes, it does run out.
I am outside of the courthouse now, running, running, blonde hair down my back singeing the wind, but the last stone catches me and I tumble to the ground at Confederate Jim’s feet. Above me hard words dance on stone: "States' rights and home rule truth crushed to the Earth will rise again. Men die, principles live forever. Although conquered we adore it; weep for those who fell before it; pardon for those who trailed and tore it."
States’ rights want to limit the humanity of anyone who is different, this dazed bit of a girl before you. The Confederate army was crushed to the Earth, but the theology of their gunfire was not. Men died in pursuit of the power to make their warped ideologies reality, and as a result women still shudder at ubiquitous piles of rocks. "Principles live forever." Chains wrap as tightly around ideas--the ideaof slavery abstract in nature, but hard as granite in practice, a new Jim Crow, a new Samaritan-shaming, a new resolve to make America Great . . . . Again? Come on guys, we’ve always had racism and milkshakes and sit-ins and sock-hops. The Dark Age of America is now, Knowledge is in the grave, all the books are burning, and Progress has a knife to its throat in some skanky back alley that we all pretend not to see.
The people have begun to disperse. Maybe they have grown tired of their righteousness. I could crawl away, make myself disappear. But suddenly I feel like yelling, “There’s a wolf in King’s Kandy Kastle and all the plastic houses are on fire!” I won’t. I shouldn’t. I might.
Heat trickles curtain-like from my hairline. I pull the weight of me around the statue, away from the heat of anger and judgment. I can just make out the etched words in the south side of Fed Jim, scarlet obscuring my view: "Love's tribute to the noble men who marched neath the folds of the 'Stars and Bars' and who were faithful to the end. / 'Under the sod & dew, waiting for the judgment day.'"
Thighs bruised from forceful fingers, a scared girl, and a backwards-baptized woman who saved her damn self this time.
Love’s tribute is a fist to the face, fools. A hunk of rock in a dated town square, a wall against Knowing, a remembrance of the kinds of bodies citizens are allowed to have, and those they are not allowed to have.
“The King is naked! His clothes are not invisible, they are non-existent! You don’t have to pretend anymore!”
His-story keeps coming, though, harder and louder than any crazy girl in the street. There is nowhere to back away to, they progress and I crawl toward the stone, red from my bleeding skull in my wake.
More words, more hollow truth: "To those who wore the grey, in legend and in lay our heroes in grey, shall forever live over again for us. / The epitaph of the soldier who falls with his country, is written in the hearts of those who love the right and honor the brave."
Love. Right. Honor. Brave. A fundamental misunderstanding of both symbol and syntax. I'm just a whore-girl, a madgirl naked in the town square, watching the ways in which the dead live.
The people disperse, a reprieve I think, but they reassemble just as quickly, cradling canyons of granite in their arms, more stones than before even.
I have thrown my own stones in the past, been angry and belligerent and compassion-less. I have been on both sides of this onslaught, and shame over my mistakes makes the rocks feel almost welcome now. I will take what I have earned, but I will never stand in false judgment of another human again.
The West side of the slab of stone is above me, though, the square complete. The Union soldiers advanced from the West goes the story, the statue a lone man, helpless, waiting for defeat to march in on him, grey and ready. I catch snippets of the slant-lined language, can nearly make out what the fourth side of stone reads. I pause, the bloody circle I have crawled around the monument also complete, in front of me a shadowed relief of a crossed sword, a bayonet, and a rifle, instruments of horrific destruction, the blood of a woman enshrining it with color and spent life. A different kind of sacrifice, an offering of my-Self for my daughter, the Christ-story ripped inside out and torn through the middle, the abdomen of the earth opening for all of the unheard and misunderstood Daughters of the world.
"Lord God of Hosts be with us yet lest we forget, lest we forget,” it reads.
There, off to the side, the dark man with the stick, that pen, scribbling silence in the dirt. He does nothing to stop the horde, just keeps writing a poem that I no longer have the strength to even strain to see, my eyes pooling red now and spilling dust to mud, yet still no one seems to even be able to recognize his presence. He is the silent poet, the one who goes unworshipped in a furious desire to make this woman pay for her sins, to make her answer, to make her stand and bow to invisible laws of a war-torn country. Briefly I think my muscles will fold beneath me, I think I will let them have what they want, my body in bits, my child in their home, I think there is no way I am strong enough. But suddenly the noise of the day closes in my ears, the poet pauses, sees me, and, just for a moment, our eyes meet.
A great wind roars in from the West, sending time rippling into waves, knocking us all—myself, the stone-ers, and Confederate Jim—back against a prism of granite until rock and rainbow all mixed up and you can’t tell who is whom.
The blood of a woman encircles the square of the Old South, molding new shapes out of old wounds, writing new stories in red from tired myths in black and white. The poet's story is all of ours, none are without transgression, we are all cripples dragging our broken bodies through the street, trying to outrun the leprosy that lives in our bones.
And still the dark poet sees it all, silent, waiting, lest we forget. Lest we forget.
Megan Ainsworth is a Southern United States essayist and memoirist who teaches writing and literature at a community college in Jackson, Mississippi. Her work has been published in the Brick Street Press 2008 and 2010 Short Fiction Anthologies, on Elephant Journal, The Good Men Project, and on her blog site; she was a finalist in the “Lorian Hemingway Short Fiction Competition.” Madgirl Elegies is a six month installment column for Corporeal Clamor. She is interested in gender politics and race relations, particularly at the intersection of faith and spirituality in the Deep South. She shares a home with a precious and precocious four year old daughter, three rescue pups, and a fish named Steve. She is completing a memoir and a novel-length work of fiction.