Madison Hemings was the second of six children now known through DNA evidence to be the offspring of President Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings.
How does one address owner / father at once—
sir? master? mother’s rapist?
How did you address my mother / your
property, who bore six of your children
in a sooty, windowless room, waited on—
you at your deathbed, helped dig your grave?
My mother, who when pregnant at sixteen with a future president’s child—
negotiated her offspring’s freedom, but not her own, never her own.
What would you—
say to her now?
Say her name.
When Nonna was a bird,
she could smell the best
figs from miles away.
This is the old story she tells
in her kitchen as she readies
the fruit, runs her tiny thumb
along soft, purple curves—
pierces the flesh, blade’s flash
“When I was a bird, long ago, before you
and everything else, even before time—
I flew to this tree for the best figs.
“Sweet and plump, soft as summer rain,
smelling of bee’s breath, swollen with
sugar and sunlight…”
She pauses to stir syrup
in a copper pot, scent of orange
zest, honey, cinnamon rising.
“I was a bird until your grandfather
called me to earth
with a song.”
I can see the fig tree beneath which
they were married swaying
in a light breeze.
She places the heart-shaped globes
carefully in a terra cotta pan,
pours golden liquid over the top.
As Nonna wipes juice
from her hands, I notice the smudge
of numbers staining one small arm.
While the figs bake,
we rest on the garden bench.
I take her hand,
place my palm over her wrist—
feel her heart warble and throb,
preparing for yet another escape.
Gina Williams is a freelance journalist, gardener, former wildland firefighter, and visual artist. She is the author of An Unwavering Horizon, a full-length collection of poetry published in 2020 (Finishing Line Press). Her writing and visual art have been featured most recently by The Inflectionist Review, Carve, La Piccioletta Barca, Moss, River Teeth, and Electric Lit, among others. Gina lives and creates near Portland, Oregon USA with her best friend and fellow poet, husband Brad Garber. Learn more about her and her work at http://www.GinaMarieWilliams.com