Before Penicillin


The doctor steps in to the room.
Light is December dusk. Sleet clouds
bunched up. All the beds are here
in this one-room shack, pushed

up against the wall, and even in this shambling
light, he reads the diagnosis
in her face. Gray-green.
Bone-stiff.

The parents
pull up a straight-back chair for him.
Her brachial pulse runs in a thread
so thin it would fray if you blew on it.

He takes the hand of a child he delivered
thirteen, fourteen years ago.
It's all right, Evie.
Then he folds the army blanket down.

The girl's entire abdomen is abscessed.
Burst appendix, rotting for days and now
spread. She opens her mouth and the
smell–

He listens to her chest, tucks the blanket
back under her chin.
Let me get her to the hospital.
In 1932, there is no such thing as

penicillin.
No Sir, Doctor, the father says. You take her
over there, she'll die
. They quarrel
and the mother says Please, once, then is still.

When the doctor finally steps outside,
he can hear the younger children begin to keen.
He tugs the brim of his hat down low. His wife
will be angry again, at him and the house

and the bank in town which has filed
to foreclose and their four small girls
whiny with colds and the sleet which will needle him
wicked thwik on the road and in the ditch

the nine miles home. He can hear
the younger children begin to scream. He washes
his hands on the bristling grass, runs them
under his mare's black mane, and leans on her neck,

on her fragrant, inculpable neck.


Belle Waring, Dark Blonde: Poems, Sarabande Books, 1997.