Before She Was A Memory

by Emma Bolden

I didn’t recognize her without her head. The policeman took me to the morgue. He told me to look. I looked. There was an expanse of steel, smooth and inscrutable as any lake, her body arcing towards her neck. Then the savage intrusion of empty space. It was June. I didn’t have a cardigan. And for more than a moment she could’ve been anyone’s daughter. It could’ve been anyone’s yellow tennis skirt, anyone’s muddied Keds, anyone’s shoulder studded with anyone’s moles. They had given me a pill. On her right hand, I saw a circle of silver studded with diamonds. When asked, I said, Yes of course, a day at the park. The boy who drove seemed scrubbed to the ears. I was impressed with the precision of his haircut. As an infant, she preferred screams to sleep and I told her that she would regret it. I told her that when she was a teen, I’d keep a list of all the songs that she hated and play them, one by one, to keep her awake. I told her I’d turn up the volume as soon as I didn’t see her eyes. They had given me a pill. Were her eyes still in the head they searched the forest for, and if they were open, what would they see? One star had gone missing from the constellation of her ring. I imagine: the clean boy sped with his windows down, letting out all the Aerosmith and air conditioning. I imagine: she said, How lovely warm, the sun. When asked, I said, The ring was hers. I said, I know for sure because it was mine. I imagine: she was singing and the boy was singing and in the backseat, the air was singing. Each leaf pointed at them and their song. When asked, I said, Let her keep it. I said, I gave it to her so it’s hers. And the afternoon had been so heavy with gold. It occurred to me that I couldn’t be sure. It occurred to me that perhaps I’d recognized her not by how she looked but how she looked at me, that perhaps that’s how anyone knows anything, not by the looking but by the looking back. It had become very late. If I hoped anything it was that she kept singing. It was that the tree came too fast for her to understand goodbye. I was standing in cold air, which was empty space. When asked, I said, Yes, I am ready to leave. I said, Just like that, and the policeman said, Yes. Just like that. And then we were just standing there. And the silence was blue as a sky.

Emma Bolden is the author of Maleficae, a book-length series of poems about the witch trials in early modern Europe (GenPop Books, 2013), and medi(t)ations, a book-length poem forthcoming from Noctuary Press. She’s also the author of four chapbooks of poetry — How to Recognize a Lady (part of Edge by Edge, Toadlily Press); The Mariner’s Wife, (Finishing Line Press); The Sad Epistles (Dancing Girl Press); and This Is Our Hollywood (in The Chapbook,). Her poetry and nonfiction has appeared in such journals as The Rumpus, Prairie Schooner, Conduit, the Indiana Review, Harpur Palate, the Greensboro Review, Redivider, Verse, Feminist Studies, The Journal, Guernica, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Copper Nickel. Her work has been featured on Poetry Daily and Verse Daily’s Web Weekly feature. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at Georgia Southern University. You can find her online at A Century of Nerve (EmmaBolden.com)

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Before She Was A Memory I Remember”?

    I confess: my memory about the genesis of “Before She Was A Memory, I Remember” fails me. I want to say that it is based on a true story, but I’m not entirely sure if that, in itself, is a true story. I want to say that when I was a senior in high school, the local news anchors told the citizens of Birmingham, Alabama a story about another high school senior. I want to say she was a pretty cheerleader with a high G.P.A. and high prospects for a scholarship at Auburn University. I want to say she was in a school bus along with her classmates, traveling to a senior trip, perhaps at Oak Mountain State Park. I want to say that she and her classmates felt happy and free and hung their heads out of the window to prove it. I want to say there were trees. I want to say no one expected it. I want to say that we as a city mourned the pretty cheerleader, and learned that we should never trust joy or freedom that much. This story haunted me for years, so much so that I tried – and failed – to find evidence of it online. I asked my parents if they remembered, and neither were sure. I sat down to write a few days later and found my mind circling around the story again: this time, from the direction of memory and how it, too, is untrustworthy because of all of the ways it can fail us.
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