from Searcher

A woman employed to inspect the dress of a corpse, to ascertain
whether the law for the protection of the woolen trade had been
violated by robbing the body in any other material.
—Anne Baker’s Glossary of Northamptonshire Words and Phrases, 1854

You might expect children to be what
I most dread, but I fear the women
whom age has already begun to lay waste,
loosening their neck skin like hosiery
falling undone round an old woman’s
ankles, the first thing I see
when I bend to examine their burial
garments. I know all too well
how the underneath fastenings begin
to give way, the breasts sagging
onto the belly, the belly gone slack
as a haversack emptied. So there they lie,
summer or winter, in good English wool.
I inspect the dress, sometimes
no more than a nightgown, other times
well stitched with simple embroidery
over the bodice, a few tiny shell buttons.
All that’s allowed, if there’s wool underneath
such embellishment. The grave’s cold
beyond our poor souls’ comprehension,
so they should be glad of a garment
that’s woven of earth’s warmest fiber—
what I always say to the grieving.
And yet the grave leaks! This I know well
from seeing my mother dislodged when
the creek flooded. Wet wool clings fast
to the flesh, but their dead flesh feels
naught anymore, so that I lose no sleep
brooding over how well or poorly
the dead sleep beneath us.
Just once did I hesitate
over a newborn wrapped
in the slightest batiste,
no doubt brought from the continent,
asking myself if I dared let this
baby go down to rest in some French
cloth his mother had pieced into swaddling.
I needed this post. I had children myself
and a husband gone wandering.
But watching that woman unwrapping
those limbs yet again and beholding
the knotted fists, fingernails blue
as the first April violets . . . then wrapping
that flesh of her flesh with the rough wool
I carry to punish such lawlessness . . .
No, I did not wonder if, every night after,
she felt her skin chafe as she lay beside
her man, clutching the blanket I made her unwind.
I have learned how to make myself sleep
as the dead sleep,
beyond dreams,
beyond any need for forgetting.

When I hear the bell tolling,
I gather my bag for the journey

and fasten my hair
in a net, wash my face

and my hands, lift
my skirt to examine its hem

for old mud though I know
there will likely be new earth to cling

as I travel the streets
or the country roads; there will be

briars, perhaps, or the dung
left by horses. Perhaps

I will ford streams
or scale hills where sheep

graze. Wherever I go
I will find the same welcome,

a door opened,
nothing said, only the corpse

on a table or bed
and the faces averted as I

touch the clothing to verify
the wearing of wool.

Silver coins stare back
at me from the dead sockets.

Jaws fastened shut by a strip
of cloth, if I am lucky,

or else hanging open,
can gargle no last words

but what I imagine
the dead still remember.

Sometimes I am tempted
to lean closer. But I dare not.

The first time I marveled at how still
the body lay, then I grew frightened.

A body with no breath to lift
its ribs, no pulse to thrum its neck,

no heart to beat when I lowered my ear
to its breast. What’s the good of it,

then, flesh that finally lies
on a table, a day’s work

to bury it, after which everyone goes
back to dumping the slops,

hoeing turnips, and picking their teeth
with the stubble straw. Why are we here,

I would never dare ask, for it meant I’d be
heathen, no faith in God’s

providence. But now I ask.
I still remember how I kicked

the stones underfoot at my mother’s wake,
wanting only to hurl myself

out of this providence into which
I had been born, by the grace

of an Almighty god who gives,
then taketh and taketh away.

:: Kathryn Stripling Byer, in Asheville Poetry Review (15:1, 2008)

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