Sunday, August 2, 2009

2 Aces, 2 Eights, Fortune Cookies, Spilled Salt....

Today is the anniversary of Wild Bill Hickock's death at the age of 39 - he was shot dead while playing poker in the Dakota Territories in 1876. The poker hand he held at the time - two aces, two eights - is now called a "Dead Man's Hand." One more superstition to worry about, though I don't play poker often (a former student earned her graduate school tuition with her winnings from poker - maybe I should play more often) and no one I play with would shoot me. I think. Maybe I have just never held two aces and two eights.

Wild Bill doesn't look too wild. Maybe his moustache does. But the clothes are elegant - look at the tilt of the hat, the satin detailing on the lapel of the coat. And look at the aquiline nose, the delicate eyebrows. Elegant. And not unlucky.

I'm superstitious. If someone is rocking an empty rocking chair, I feel compelled to ask them politely to stop, even if asking makes me look foolish. I would never willingly open an umbrella inside the house. I'm careful with mirrors. If I spill salt, I throw some over my left shoulder. What's the harm? You never know what direction bad luck or the Devil will come from, so why not take some easy precautions?

Funny, I don't think I believe as much in things that portend good luck. Four-leaf clovers, maybe, but that's only because my grandmother collected them. I like to pretend I believe in good fortunes from fortune cookies, but I'm insincere.

Here's a poem I wrote in Rome, which is a city made for superstitions. In Rome, they tell you not to step over a threshold with your left foot first, and never leave a loaf of bread upside down.


Yellow hen in the left hand,
left hand touching dead fish,
dead fish on a white plate:
bad signs. Sorrow-bait.
Listen for bells. Don't wait.

Bells on the right: bad night.
Bells on the left: love in doubt.
Bells straight ahead: watch out,
bad sign. Touch salt.

Salt spilled in the morning hours,
flowers tossed in the afternoon,
short flowers in a tall vase,
tears soon. Sighs soon.

Widow in a window, window cracked,
black sky: hide your face,
bad sign. Worry and waste.

Bread in half, in half again,
crumbs in a circle: no friends.
Circles in a square, squares in a line,
lines in a circle: bad signs.

Circling swallows, no rain:
roll the dice. Try again.


  1. i love this poem. love it.

  2. Insincere, that's it exactly. I love the thinking in which you have nested this poem, and I love the way the poem itself seems to circle in the end. In India too, I've heard the injunction to step over the threshold with the right foot first. And my father has a whole array of words we're not supposed to utter after dusk: salt and snake are two of them. Death is another. As a child, I always wondered, did the prohibitions apply to any language? Did the mischievous spirits know English?

  3. Thanks, DP.

    And Uma, I will add uttering the words "salt" & "snake" after dark to my repertoire of Do Not Do These Things. I feel certain the spirits are multi-lingual!

  4. Thanks to Michael J. Manning, whose ancestors included lawmen in Deadwood, for his careful eye. I had originally posted the age of Wild Bill Hickok as 49 when he died - he was, in fact, only 39.