journey_bean_500She was still alive when the doctors started. They first carted off her breasts. Both glands at once, after the cancer. Next, patches on her arms stippled like ostrich skin, burned a syrup-thick hazel from sailing trips in the Whooping Crane up and down the salt-slow gulf. They’d begun taking from her ages ago. Begun with her sister Joyce’s throat swollen shut from strep. The girl smothered at six, hallucinating Seraphim. Then her teenage son, Rusty, his plum-sized brain tumor. He died five minutes after she sat by his bedside. It’s okay. You can go.

She donated her body after breaking up the knife fight between two students she’d taught in her math class at St. A’s. One girl turned on Jeannette’s face with the razor. Saint Anne, meaning grace or favor—apocryphal mother of Mary. Texas—fiery mother of my maternal line. After Uncle Cecil filed for divorce, went to live on a red houseboat, leaving behind all of their photographs of Rusty. She donated her body with a quick signature, with the tick of terminal lung cancer. She did it without a fuss. Told my mother over the phone, Hell, Cindy. Can’t take it with me. Her East Texas drawl—no “H’s.” Her blown-out smoke. Lucky Strikes. She’d always called my mother lucky. Called her gullible. Over-protected Girl Scout who sang campfire songs to kids. No rock ‘n’ roll, even though it was deep into the Summer of Love. The sixties skipped whole parts of Mississippi. Pampered shrink’s girl, eager to please. That breezy brick house in Jackson—its pin oaks in mossy columns, its cheerful cross-stitches, its diffusing one-story cool.

Jeannette once took my mother snipe hunting in a salt marsh near Corpus Christie: Body of Christ. Cicadas in the clay. They carried burlaps sacks. Just hold it open, close your eyes, and go, Whoop-whoop! Jeannette said. Birds’ll jump right in. My mother could imagine summoning them. Calling the feathered bodies from the muck and madrone. Whoop-whoop. She whoop-whooped until Jeannette began to laugh, said, Let’s go home.

She’s scattered now, her skin arranged into Petri dishes, her cells splayed under microscopes, her body dissolving across dissection slabs as medical students chat about lunch. But there’s a part inside her so small they’ll never find it. Not at all. Unless they look into the mind of my mother: her campfire guitar in its black stand in the corner, her first graders turning another page of a book, her voice lapping the marsh’s dark edge that could set a burlap sack flapping. It’s the imagination of a woman who still has hope. Has both of her daughters grown, still breathing. Both breasts and a husband folding the Post into fourths. That kind of rustling. Snipe coming from the rushes, now closer, half-coy, hooked to the buoyant lure of a voice.

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Anna Journey is the author of two poetry collections, Vulgar Remedies and If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting, which was selected by Thomas Lux for the National Poetry Series. Her creative nonfiction appears in AGNI, The Antioch Review, Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, Utne Reader, and elsewhere. She’s received fellowships from the Corporation of Yaddo and the National Endowment for the Arts, and she teaches creative writing and literature as an assistant professor of English at the University of Southern California.

Photography by Laura Frantz