By Jessica Wharton
They used to tell me the bogeyman lived here,
In the room with dirt walls at the back of the cellar,
Once a refrigerator for everything but the honeycombs
That didn’t need one. I’d walk downstairs with my grandmother,
Clutching her thigh, afraid. It’s cleaner now, but once the dust
Settled thick on that single light bulb I couldn’t reach when I was young.
Outside that far window (when I stood on my toes) I could see the young
Dogwood tree with pink flowers that couldn’t have been here
While my dad was growing up. His handprints were still pressed in the dust
On the glass panes in the door that led to the room at the back of the cellar.
The printed glass was cracked from the outside, and as my grandmother
And I swept up the decades-old shards, she told me, Watch your fingers, honey.
That darkest wall next to the back room was lined with honeycombs
In mason jars stacked floor to ceiling on a bookshelf. Before my younger
Sister had any teeth she would suck the honey off my grandmother’s
Finger; after she grew teeth, she was able to come with me down here.
The first time she examined the honeycombs, with their individual cells, her
Eyes widened and she dropped the jar to the floor in a cloud of dust.
It shattered, and all the syrup and all the lint and glass dust
Congealed together into a slow, sticky shape, the chunk of honeycomb
A centered island in the golden lake in my grandmother’s cellar.
That’s a beehive, she said, disgusted, pointing an imaginative young
Finger at the spill. Grammy fed me bees. If you look closely, here,
You can still see the dark stain from the honey that my grandmother
Was never able to get rid of. We could try again now, sure, but Grandma
Scrubbed at it for years. I don’t know why the stain bothered her but the dust
Never did. It doesn’t look so dusty now, but if you were to come down here
When she was alive, you’d see different. Last week they took down the honeycomb
Shelves and they all had to wear surgical masks because Mr. Young
Could hardly breathe with all the dust in the air in this cellar.
He and the rest of my uncle’s friends went through all the stuff in the cellar. They picked apart the workbench, and called dibs on my grandfather’s
Canvas paintings of old ships that he had tried to sell when he was young.
One of them wrote a racist joke with his finger in the dust
On top of the freezer that was full of Grandma’s small honey-cakes,
Of which he took three or four home with him. It’s different here,
Now, than it was when I was young. The men are kicking up the same dust
I did when I played in this wine-dark cellar with my grandmother
Between the honeycomb shelves, way back when the bogeyman still lived here.
Donald Hall Poetry Prize Winner