There is News Along The Ohio River, IV-VIII by Beth Gilstrap

You have come to call her Mama, this water. Today she is high and rising still, ornery in the midday sun, carrying trees that stood tall and reaching for five of your lifetimes to their final destinations. The way Mama strips their bark, leaving them smooth and rolling, how they turn and you know it’s not so far-fetched to wade in—you can hold your own in angry currents—to hug a log close and ride. You wonder what the water would feel like between your toes, the grit and gristle, buckeyes and cornstalks gathering more speed than you, light as they are. There are behemoth catfish down there lumbering along the bottom and in your exhale, piano, a memory scavenged from your genetic mother’s hands somehow tapping the keys, somber and wailing as far downriver as anything.

There is news along the Ohio River: a porcelain-haired woman has planted herself on a bench in Indiana, her gaze on Kentucky. Escaped slaves crossed this river on their way to Ohio and freedom. There is a marker for Hannah Toliver on which they still use the word fugitive and you think connotation matters, word choice matters, you wield them after all. Fuck the writer of that sign, probably put up by a white person with good intentions, but the river won’t ask this woman holding the bench’s arm why she thinks she might float away any second. The river will just keep on shifting color and shape and when she recedes, marks, demarcation lines. Before and after and the land beyond return. For the first time in your life, as she closes her eyes and turns her cheekbones upward to the sun, you long for ancient times when it would have been nothing and everything to remove her shoes and wash her feet.

There is news along the Ohio River: a man in mud-bottomed jeans has propped himself up on his backpack, knees bent, eating vegetarian baked beans from a single serving can. You think of the hundreds of times you’ve eaten them, stirred thick with chipotle pepper and smoked salt, aged cheddar charred on top. You know you need protein. Beans are easy and you need to remember to order can openers by the dozen and drop them in the free pantry. It hasn’t been so long since he’s had a haircut; he looks like a boy you knew who died young. He looks like Patrick when you talked on a mountaintop in Harpers Ferry, when you talked about John Brown and the feeling of a fight coming but that was the nineties and you didn’t know shit. He looks like Patrick, freckled and small-framed, a water-damaged paperback poking out of his bag. He looks like Patrick before you shared a joint on a dilapidated porch back home. He looks like Patrick before the shotgun.

There is news along the Ohio River: you have walked these banks, this bridge, this borderland of metal, earth, and water for eighteen months. You have added to your dead. Starlings. Geese. A goat after the tornadoes raged through western Kentucky. A doe, whose soft ear danced in a circle and you fell to your knees for all you couldn’t save. Your father-in-law whose spirit reached you on the bridge itself in an image of bare feet in a doorway, a border collie guarding his body.

There is news along the Ohio River: you have not filled your pockets with rocks. You have not thought about how beautiful a view it would be if you jumped on a cloudless day, how you would meet your new mother with your toes pointed and arms wide because you never learned to dive as the Great Lakes gulls sound the alarm.



Beth Gilstrap is the author of Deadheading & Other Stories, Winner of the 2019 Red Hen Press Women’s Prose Prize and finalist for the 2021 Foreword Reviews Awards in Short Fiction. She is also the author of I Am Barbarella: Stories (2015) from Twelve Winters Press and No Man’s Wild Laura (2016) from Hyacinth Girl Press. Born and raised in the Charlotte area, she recently relocated to Louisville where she lives and writes in an ornery old shotgun house. She also lives with C-PTSD and is quite vocal about ending the stigma surrounding mental illness.


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