My poem “Crossing the Dead” draws from a difficult childhood memory. The incident happened in the backyard of my family’s modest ranch home on 49th Street North, in St. Petersburg, Florida, when I was about nine years old. My best friend fell from the top of our old pine tree, which towered several stories high. I remember the sound more than anything: her shriek and the clatter and pop of branches as her body slipped to the ground.
That day, we struggled together to pull my dad’s heavy wooden ladder out of the garage. Without it, we couldn’t reach even the lowest branches. We propped it against the tree, and I was the first one up. I climbed until I could look down on my roof where fluffy gray moss sprawled across the shingles. My friend caught up with me, climbed right on by, and kept going – higher and higher. Boy, did that make me mad! After all, I was superior – prettier, faster, smarter— those attributes came with being a year older. (Seniority was big in our neighborhood.) But the moment she climbed past me, through clumps of green longleaf needles, and into the clouds, I lost my clout. She climbed so high, I couldn’t see her, except for a bit of her pink t-shirt or a flash of denim. “Come on, Marsha,” she said. “It’s easy.”
I could’ve strangled her. How could she have outshone me this way? “Are you kidding me?” I looked at the teeny tiny pinecones on the ground. Our patio chairs had shrunk, too. A trembling worked its way from my bare toes, up my legs, into my tummy, and then shot into my throat. Clutching the soft bark that so easily broke, exuding a wet smelly sap, I headed down, not up.
When I reached the safe, solid ground, I felt better. For about two seconds, that is, only long enough to remember that my best friend had climbed higher than I ever would, and she was still climbing. I didn’t taunt her, as does the narrator in “Crossing the Dead.” I didn’t want her to fall. But I was miffed.
She’d turned me into a scaredy cat. Me! Marsha, tightrope walker of chain-link fences, jumper-offer of rooftops, and spelunker of lake drainage pipes. Me? Sadly, I was too trembly to climb the old pine tree in my own back yard.
Crack! Though decades have past, I can still hear that crisp, deadly sound of the branch breaking under her weight. In seconds, she lay on the ground like a sack of oranges.
Did I cry for help? Did I run inside to get someone? No, I stood there, looking at her, on the ground, unmoving.
All I know is I should have been freaking out, running for help, or at least checking her pulse. What I did was the worst possible thing: nothing. That’s what I find difficult to accept about myself and why the memory has lingered so long in my heart, finally finding some release in the creation and sharing of “Crossing the Dead.”
True, I was only a little girl when the incident happened. A young girl with quite a bit of growing up to do. Back in the 1950s, we didn’t have 911. But we did have moms who stayed home while their husbands worked. For some reason, my mom had a way of looking out the window at just the crack of disaster.
Marsha Matthew's poem "Crossing the Dead" appears in Relief issue 5.2. Read her full bio here. Those interested in reading more of Marsha’s poetry might enjoy reading her book Northbound Single-Lane, which can be purchased at Amazon.com. for $14.