Bessie’s Island Dancer Recalls the Fight for her Life

By Stephanie Dickinson

Bessie smith postcard 1 cent

Graveyard Dream Blues

Galveston, TX

Bessie’s Island Dancer Recalls the Fight for her Life


My Island Girl told me how she staggered and fell to the ground. The sun moved, rippled and blackened. She saw the men above her but through the wrong end of a telescope. Her body went rigid and bits of foam bubbled between her lips. The body shuddered as though it was about to break apart. Afterwards she quieted and a string of foam trickled from the corner of her mouth. Her rib cage expanded and she took a breath. Keep breathing. There’s air under the old moans of blues singers strumming guitars made with baling wire, under the field hollers and Scottish hymns. My dancer girl from the Islands told me she grew up in the land of heat and flies.  Her breasts were high and firm, yet in the mouth soft fruits and sunlight sheltered there. Her hands slid into her pockets, something there, something important. Maybe a short oar to the boat. A way to get away. She fought like a wild beast, she clawed and bit but there were too many. She ran into a fist. Her left eye filled with blue stars. The hand pushed the knife past her rib. He did strange things with her body, almost as if she had a hinge instead of a waist.


I trace the long purplish scar from the small of her back to her neck.  “That’s ugly, isn’t it?” she says. Far from ugly. The scar grew up right along with her. And then the heat, all those hundreds of degrees creeps in through the screen. Almost dusk, the magnolias are beginning to wake up and seep their white scent, which mix with her brownness–the odor of nutmeg in her hair. “I love you,” she laughs. “You make me glad.”

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Stephanie Photo - by Lawrence -2

Stephanie Dickinson, an Iowa native, lives in New York City. Her novel Half Girl and novella Lust Series are published by Spuyten Duyvil, as is her noir novel Love Highway. Her other books include Port Authority Orchids, and Heat: An Interview with Jean Seberg, and Flashlight Girls Run. Her work has been reprinted in Best American Nonrequired ReadingNew Stories from the South, and 2016 New Stories from the Midwest.  She is the editor of Rain Mountain Press.

Read more by Stephanie:

Bessie Shames the KKK
Bessie & Ma
Bessie and the Chain Gang
Bessie Takes Aim at Billy Gee