Murder Ballads #1

By the Name of Polly Ann

You want the truth. Just tell you the truth. Connect point a to point b. Cause to outcome.

But the truth cuts a jagged line. You can’t follow it like a well-marked trail. You have to get down in the mud, at eye-level with the sticks and twigs and stones and bones broken in its wake. You have to guess, sometimes, which way the truth went.

All the while, you have to keep in mind that History is a grand conspiracy to keep the truth hidden. To make sure that you may never know what really happened, may never be sure you know what’s really going on.

Delia’s dead. Oomie’s dead. The Girl from Knoxville. The Girl from Wexford. Delilah. Jenny. Mary. Poor Rose Connolly. Poor Ellen Smith. Even Laura Foster. And the nameless ones. All dead. All art.

Here’s how it goes. It sounds like a fairytale, but it isn’t. Women in love. So in love. Women killed—drown, stabbed, pushed out of the way, off cliffs, even. Men singing, singing, singing. “I can’t forget the day I shot that bad bitch down.”

Before she was just a “bad bitch,” she was Little Sadie.

My girl, my girl. Don’t lie to me. Tell me, where did you sleep last night? When King Cudi sings it, do you hear it as a remake of a Nirvana song? Do you know it goes back to Ledbelly? Earlier than that? How long has that girl been in the pines?

There’s a woman in the pines now. That I can promise you. Tall, slender, with the wide shoulders that come from old-fashioned farm work. Her scuffed, brown boots lace way up. Her dress is simple, but sturdy. She carries a nine-pound hammer. And she will find that girl in the pines. Dead or alive. Real or not-real. Fiction or fact.

She will not be forgotten.

Not the girl in the song. Not the woman with the hammer.

That woman, swinging thirty pounds from her hips on down, she had a good man. She knows what it’s like to lose someone and then hear your tragedy in song, like there’s nothing going wrong.

There’s a break in the trees. A break in the clouds. A silver streak of moonlight shines down into the pines. For a moment, you see her, clear as day—the simple braid at the back of her head, the high cheekbones, her eyes so brown they look black, the hammer. His hammer. Her hammer now.

A cloud crosses the moon. You glance away. She’s gone.

In the distance, you hear chanting.

“Polly drove steel like a man.”

“No, no. Ain’t no man drives steel like John Henry can.”

“Polly drove steel like her man. Yes. Lord.”

“Polly drove steel like her man.”

That’s the direction the truth seems to lead, toward that chanting, deeper into the pines. That’s the way you head.