The Teenager Has Gone Witchy (and other poems)

The Teenager Has Gone Witchy

When I come upstairs to ask her to do dishes, her room 
smells of acrid cedar smoke, slightly skunky, like pot’s half-brother. 

With the deep migration out of childhood, she is witching, 
this pale, pale daughter of the Appalachians. She notes what

percentage the moon is at, falls asleep in the garden. There are crystals 
bathing in the sunbeams on the windowsill, bowls of dried leaves,

glass jars on the balcony to catch rain water. The mountains 
offer her gifts, as they do to everyone who pays intention. 

Coyote bones by the road from the one her dad shot 
after it killed the sheep. A chunk of coal, washed up on the river bank 

and shaped like a lopsided heart. Teeth from the hog skull we left 
in the pear tree after our first slaughter. Crow feather. Slice

of shale. Bloodroot. Cohosh. Mint. Ginseng. Slippery elm.
Snail shell. Lichen from Papaw’s 75-year-old apple tree.

The head of a copperhead in a Smucker’s jar of denatured alcohol
dens in her drawer, killed in the garden last week. 

If I can’t find my bay leaves, caraway, or fennel seeds, I search 
her bookshelves. She is on the verge of 14, lies out 

on the carport roof watching stars, whispering their mythology
to herself. So little light pollution back in this holler, there is a lot to tell. 

A box of candles of all colors and a pewter talisman of some 
ancient and patient god arrived with her smudge sticks. 

I am happy to add-to-cart, even help her collect, 
cradling a broken-open robin’s eggshell for her during 

my morning walk. She programs the birthdays into her phone
of all the dead in the family graveyard at the end of the property

past the buckwheat field. She makes a pilgrimage down 
to bring them gifts on their day, these kin she never knew: 

George, George Jr., Zelphia, Onzie, Treva, Cleta, Arthur, 
Arthur Jr., Ozella, Joe. She collects their stories from family.

George Jr. was her daddy’s uncle, but the same age,  like
a brother. He dropped dead at work when an aneurism popped in his head.

Cornelius was ‘touched.’ They say someone slipped him LSD 
in an RC as a youngin and he never was right again, turned hobo 

across the country. She and he share a birthday 40 years 
apart. Someone beat him and left him dead on the railroad tracks in his 20s. 

Ruby Jean was her mamaw’s baby sister, hit by a vehicle on the main road 
when she was 9. Such a little grave. It has a baby lamb on it. 

The 8th grade graduation is drive-thru because of COVID, teachers in masks, 
one car at a time rolling up to the steps, kids getting out 

to be applauded. We watch from the Facebook livestream
as we creep toward the front of the idling line. 

She didn’t want to decorate the pickup, and we hang out 
the windows clapping and hooting when it’s her turn. 

As we drive home to change clothes for a picnic dinner 
up on the old strip job, we pass the graveyard. She shouts 

“I did it Cornelius! 
I did it Ruby Jean!” 

She sits up, late into the night, a novice granny witch, 
learning the old ways from the internet and her imagination, 

sifting through the gifts of the world she has collected, physical and intangible,
alchemizing them into something only she fully understands.

Pictures I Take With My Cell Phone

              — after Li-Young Lee

This one of her veined forearm and fist 
proffering a snapped-off crepe myrtle blossom  
is how I say the word tincture.
               This one of the amputated monarch wing 
               on the car hood is belonging. 

When I stepped in and tapped to photograph the child 
curled in a nap with her first menstrual pains, 
I meant surround.

              Curator is my mother in her chair, watching Maury Povich 
              DNA test results. When I zoomed in and cropped 
              to the remote control on the overstuffed arm rest, 
              beside her soft elbow, it is opportunity.

Him, watching himself shave his head in the bathroom 
mirror, mouth pursed, is culling.

              The early corn blown prostrate in the mud 
              by a hailstorm is internal.

The child, belly to the floor, blunt pencil drawing 
a dragon on lined notebook paper while a thin cat
naps against her leg is harvest.

              My lovers, all orange alchemy and flannel shirts 
              unbuttoned means aloft. The oak fire ghostdancing
              between them is husk.

The sidewalk Starbucks coffee cup with hot pink lip prints 
and Happy Holidays snowflakes is redundancy.
              With this selfie of me holding a rusty coral polka dot
              umbrella under a dripping hemlock, slate rainclouds
              snagged across the Appalachians, I’m trying to say non-fiction. 


  • Melissa Helton lives, writes, and teaches in southeast Kentucky. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Anthology of Appalachian Writers, Shenandoah, Still: The Journal, Appalachian Review, and more. Her chapbooks include Inertia: A Study (2016, Finishing Line Press) and Forward Through The Interval (2021, Workhorse).

  • Anna Atkins (1799-1871) was an English botanist and, some argue, the very first female photographer, most noted for using photography in her books on various plants. She became interested in the cyanotype process which produced images through so-called sun-printing. The object is placed on paper which has been treated with ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, after which it is exposed to sunlight and then washed in water, leading to the uncovered areas of the paper turning a dark blue. The process, known as blueprinting, was later used to reproduce architectural and engineering drawings, but Atkins chose to use it for what is considered to be the first work with photographic illustrations, namely her Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions(1843). Only 13 copies of the handwritten book are known to exist, some of which are in various stages of completion. Later, she would collaborate with another female botanist, Anne Dixon (1799–1864), in making two more books featuring cyanotypes: Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Ferns (1853) and Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns(1854). Atkins became a member of the Botanical Society in London in 1839. From Public Domain Review