I visited New Orleans once before, our honeymoon.
We strolled beneath my parasol, amazed at the waves
and boats, happy for once, often in stitches with laughter.
The white birds flocked, squabbling over
the bread we tossed. He threw the lit butt of his cigar,
and the one that got it was sorry. I myself was shocked,
having seldom seen him cruel.
When I heard the birds' name, I thought it was girls.
Twenty years . . . and Jesse in his grave nearly a decade.
Yes, yes, short for Zerelda, from the German, we presume —
ser hilde, woman warrior — in the end not an apt choice,
but it is mine, the girl Zerelda Amanda Mims,
now Zee James, the Widow James. It names me.

May we rest on the bench? We'll pinch our crumbs
and fling them to whatever young gulls attend us.
You must appreciate how much it pains me
to employ a detective, recalling the atrocities
the Pinkertons inflicted, and all in the name of justice.
They were, to us, a hideous eclipse.
No offense intended, but the aftertaste lingers
and is bitter. Still, I must resort to any means
to put an end to that arcade woman
who bills herself as the Widow of the Outlaw King
and shoots holes in aces or the cigarette
from a man's lips, all in service of selling postal cards
sporting her grinning picture . . . and my name.

I have sat for a camera only once, yet would suffer it
again if my image made briefly public
would show her for a villain. The carnivals, I suppose,
got wind of us as box office attractions
from the photographs of poor Jesse on a bed of ice,
all the swells gathered around, as if Bob and Charley Ford
were their lodge brothers. We need to think further on how
we define theft, but more importantly
it was murder. He loved oysters, you know, Jesse,
by the dozen, and the étouffé famous hereabouts,
but he would also gulp down earthworms or hoppers
for fun, to amuse the children. He signed himself
Dick Turpin in letters to editors. I understood
the hate: that hard war made him a danger to others,
but he was so often soft and comical
with me, juggling eggs, quoting the Bible
wrong, playful, as he knew his testament by heart,
child of a preacher, as am I, in both nature and name.

He could be a blood-and-thunder man,
I don't doubt, Ride to the sound of the guns his slogan,
but I would find him in the garden letting harmless snakes
curl around his arm like ivy or feeding house wrens
from his hand. I would say, Jesse,
promise to stop, argue for a pardon ,
but he answered a hound would not forsake the scent of a fox,
no matter what law was passed or paper signed.
We were denned up under our aliases, briefly safe,
so long as we did not whisper our true names.

But listen, now. Hear me out. I must
be rid of this imposter so Jesse can rest, I can rest,
all of us. Even Mother James weeps to hear of this liar
who cuts the fool, shows her petticoats and boasts
Jesse was a better lover than train robber. If private
property exists at all, such intimate information is it.
Of course, I had to see for myself, and it was all
I could do not to bolt from the arena screaming.
At the close of each show, along with fanfare,
they bring her a bouquet of white roses, which Jesse
adored bestowing, though I never warmed to them,
the perfume inadequate payment for the thorns.
I cannot help wondering her true name.

Our own masquerade, they never guessed:
Thomas Howard, wheat speculator, wife Josie and family.
Little Jesse we called "sweet Tim," who never knew his father's
name, nor indeed his own, until the neighbors
crowded in, whispering, dipping their linen
in my husband's blood. So many years denied my own name
and nature, I am loath to see it stolen.
I will pay you well and endorse any necessary means.

But, of course, you may be loath as well to accept
this commission, given my confession,
and his history, but know this: so much is legend.
He was never there at Centralia, Rocky Cut, let alone
the butchery at Lawrenceville, enacted
while he was still a boy harrowing Mr. Samuel's field,
where the Redleg Jayhawks found and whipped him
with willows, and though the scars did not linger
like the bullet holes, it was that pain and shame
he said drove him to be a pistol guerilla. It was never
akin to a game, despite his wit and chivalry,
and the woman billing herself Zerelda James knows
nothing of how we suffered. I do not wish her to suffer,
only to cease, but take the actions you think best,
and be certain she knows it done on my behalf, in my name.

I do not have the treasures rumored — a few keepsakes,
a lock of his hair, heart wounds and debt — but friends
have offered me donations to set matters a-right. Half, I am
willing to deliver now, the balance when I am certain
Miss Sharpshoot is no longer playing the charlatan
with my name. See how the gulls dive reckless yet never
quite collide. It must be a blessing to always evade
disaster. There, the last of the bread. I offer my hand
to seal the bond. No matter how bloody
they painted us, we could never live up to their nightmares,
but mark me now: if you accept my assignment
but fail to follow through, you had best head north
at a hard ride. I will not rest until a just
end is achieved. And I have a list,
and some rough friends. Mark you how
that small bird with the nicked wing rushed upon his fellow
and snatched the crust away? We should take our leave now,
and I expect your message within four days.
It will be some relief to erase at least this single shame.
Remember: ser hilde. Even in deep mourning,
I am learning to live up to my name.