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If the Living Won’t Listen


Margaret Johnson lived on Vine Street. She liked wild flowers: larkspur, lady slippers, bleeding hearts, wood sorrel, and little brown jug. She liked these words. She liked to see things live and grow. She liked to know the names of things. She liked to find life. She liked spring and how the dirt felt in the hollow of her hand. She liked the warm sun on her worn back. She felt that her dark skin was made for the sun to soak. She liked the breeze. She felt that the air was made to carry her words.

She spoke as she went about digging in her garden or rocking on her porch. Sometimes to a neighbor, to a passerby, to her dog, or to the flowers. If she couldn’t give them food, she could always give them good words. Often, she did both. Now that she didn’t have to “hold her tongue,” her days were like the squares of her quilts. Ragged-scrapheap-discarded-days, which she had taken in, tended, talked back to life, and stitched into something useful and beautiful. She was in Tennessee. It was 1896. She had outlasted slavery, and she knew it.

Most days, she walked to the cemetery, the war cemetery, where the confederate soldiers were. She didn’t take flowers. She took words—and once too often. She was taken to police headquarters to be examined, as to her sanity, in the recorder’s court. They said her “delusion is peculiar, as she imagines she has a call from heaven to preach to the dead in the confederate cemetery.”

But—if you ask her, she will say, “If the living won’t listen, why not speak to the dead? I suppose they may be quieter now and ready to receive at last.”

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