Robert Cooperman
The Long Black Veil

On His Deathbed, Emmett Ritchfield

“I spoke not a word though it meant my life,
for I had been in the arms of my best friend’s wife.”
          — The Long Black Veil

I wanted to tell my wife,
“Now that my life’s running out in spasms
sooty as our coal-fouled river,
all I can think of is the unhappiness
I heaped on you when I failed to say,
‘Go to Miller, find some joy in this life
that’s all we know of heartache and glory.’ “

I had my own guilty secret
in Grace O’Brien, but feared scandal more
than I loved my mother’s buxom servant.
Worse, an envious mastiff,
I made a gilded prisoner of Emma
in my dark and bitter mansion.

Worst, I wanted Miller to myself,
the friend of my childhood and youth,
the boy I played Indians and swore
a jackknife-bloody brotherhood with.
Still, I let him hang for a murder
I knew he didn’t commit,
raging at his betrayal of our boyhood,
when he and Emma would steal away
for passionate interludes,
deluded that I didn’t know.

For all that, I tried to beg forgiveness
of Emma, but what fell from my carrion lips
was that I’d glimpsed Miller
in the life beyond, and he’d cursed
her cowardice for not shouting in court
they were together when Edwards was murdered.

The dark rumbling of a monster from hell
Claims me, for that last act of lying malice.

Emma Ritchfield, As Her Husband Lies Dying

“But sometimes at night when the cold winds moan
In a long black veil she mourns over my bones.”
    — The Long Black Veil

Emmett raved I would smother him
with a pillow: “Vengeance,”
he rasped, “for your lover hanging
for a murder he didn’t commit.

“I’ve seen him on the Other Side,”
he continued, after a cough
rattled him like a coal car.
“He curses your cowardice,”
a last spasm lifted my husband,
like a canary’s frantic wings
at the first whiff of gas —
and he was gone.

Strangely, I wept,
though we’d been enemies
from the moment
Miller stood upon the gallows,
Emmett silent about his innocence:
vengeance for our betraying him.
But I was no better:
wild as a ferret in Miller’s arms
while the banker was murdered elsewhere;
still, at the trial, I too said nothing.

Death’s grim smile widened
on my husband’s stretched-thin face.
More tears poured from me, torn
between wanting to spit at him,
and knowing the truth he spat at me,
adrift now, without the man
I had sworn to love, but couldn’t,
even before I was first warmed
by Miller’s smile.

Emma Ritchfield, at Her Husband’s Funeral

“I spoke not a word though it meant my life
For I had been in the arms of my best friend’s wife.”
         — The Long Black Veil

Go quietly into the ground,
dear Emmett, and find a peace
you never knew and I never gave you
once you brought me home
to these coal pocked hills,
when I discovered, to my wedded shock,
that I opened like a mountain rose, only
with your boyhood friend, Miller Waggoner.

Though you never forgave me loving him,
nor his betraying your eternal bond
of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn,
you kept your own mistress,
and even on your deathbed cursed me,
while I had to stop myself from flaunting
my consuming fire in Miller’s arms
that in yours never even singed me.

“Dear Emmett,”  I sob now —
while the minister drones on about dust,
ashes, and resurrection’s uncertain hope —
my tears jagged as chunks of quartz,
“can we not forgive each other?”
Your answer: the silent clatter
of freezing curtains of rain.

Still, I pray that you and Miller clasp
blood brother’s hands in Paradise,
grip fishing poles, a jug of good
mountain liquor, and find
the trout stream woodsmen dream of.

While I conjure that sweet fairy tale,
I tell myself you’d have forgiven me
at the last, had you the strength to speak.

Nettie Greenblatt, Widowed Peddler

I spoke not a word though it meant my life,
For I had been in the arms of my best friend’s wife.”
          — The Long Black Veil

While everyone else in this coal town
tossed me coins, afraid my touch meant
they’d have to scrub off my “Jew-dirt,”
Mr. Waggoner’s housekeeper
served me tea in her kitchen, clean
As my mother’s house on erev Pesach.
She craved someone to sigh with her:
her heart beating for her employer
like a caged wolf banging against its bars.

She’d dream of him, pressed against
“my yielding softness,” while I smiled:
she’s all elbows and knees hard
and sharp as a blacksmith’s tongs.
While she cried, I thought of my Hiram,
and our peddling the roads for years,
until he sighed, “How I love you,”
and died in my arms, heavy
as the stones of the smashed Temple.

He’s with the Almighty now,
Mr. Waggoner too, though hanged
for murdering Mr. Edwards;
he was guilty only of King David’s sin
of loving another man’s Bathsheba,
he and Mrs. Ritchfield sneaking off
for infrequent, secret meetings.

Now Miss Early cries he wasted
his life “on a worthless female,”
and I remember my darling husband,
who pointed out the stars to me,
each one pulsing, he kissed me,
“With the Kabbalah’s secret
for prosperity, long life, and eternal love.”
At least he got one of them right.