Refugees, circa 926 - International Publication Prize, in the Atlanta Review, Dec 2017
Refugees, circa 926
The boat is too small for so many
and only the twin babies sleep,
drunk on milk and swaddled tight
rocking against their mother
as the men row hard into familiar waters
of the Gulf of Hormuz for the last time,
the starlight on the receding mountains
dimming fast until what is left
of this new moon night is the abiding
light from their holy fire, fed carefully
by their priest with sticks of sandalwood
pulled from deep in his white robes, as he looks east
into the black Arabian sea.
All the joy and blood that had come before already turning to myth,
he counts how many generations it takes to go
from conqueror to refugee.
Gold bangles ring out as the baby girls are given
to their grandmother, then great grandmother,
and passed back to their mother, seventeen,
back erect, hair like molten copper
fawn brown eyes flecked with green,
hiding tiger, quick to anger,
as quick to forgive the every day abuses girls
seem not to know they carry.
The father, twenty-five, son of a farmer
named after his father’s father, and he his,
the same names reaching back into old Persian towns
winding up a river into orchards,
where they planned this winter voyage,
had four boats in sight ahead,
and six behind him,
but now they are hidden by night
as they row with speed, the wind still,
the vessels arrows through the air.
So, when tired eyes stir with the new dawn
and the babies tug with little hands to drink,
steam from their breath against her chest,
their mother lifts her head as the men cry “Land!”
she does not expect rose petal beach, like silk shivering before her.
She pulls herself to her knees to look
at this land at the waters edge that shifts and stirs
as if it is made of wings disturbed by the coming of her people
only to gasp, as flocks of long limbed flamingos
rise up into the sky and scatter,
revealing a sanctuary of white beach.
You know that feeling, when you are caught at the edge of sleep and consciousness,
when you are too tired to stay awake even if the world is not safe enough to rest in –
she drifts into that place –
the clouds fine lines in the evening sky;
she is falling into new earth;
the babies are milk-white rocks at either side, smoothed into oblivion.
She reaches for the voices that talk close by
but they do not remain long enough to comprehend,
before the words flap and are out of reach.
Their priest returns and his message makes her strain to wake, but she cannot.
Grasping for his words, she keeps dropping them, thuds, unbearably heavy stones on the floor.
She does comprehend, though, that they may stay.
They are told: her people may carry the past with them, every building, every word, even God, but they may not give it away to their new country.
They can remember, but they may not feed their old stories to their new neighbors as if they are the true God’s food. They say, though there are many gods here, respect ours but do not give us yours.
They are told: keep your stories whole but separate.
They are told: keep your fire lit, cut wood for it in our forests, grow your own trees on our land, but do not take our children into your temples.
They are given beaches, land that stretches as far as the eye can see to a river. They plant their seeds from their old home, pomegranate, rose, sandalwood.
The local builders sit with them and plan homes. The sea is rich with salmon, and mackerel. Dolphins call in the evening light. They teach the locals how to build better boats and plant orchards and flowers like their Persian gardens.
They flatter their new countrymen and add Krishna to their makeshift altars as they dig wells, and chop wood. The Portuguese arrive with Christ, they take him in. Worship the old gods, indulge the new.
Their fire burns quietly, it does not feast, it does not spread. They keep their promise.
For centuries, their numbers are small, then diminish. They have been too modest.
Is it the price of real civilization?
These three poems are set in the 10th Century. They imagine the journey and arrival of religious refugees from the Middle East to the coast of Gujarat in India. I wrote them as an exercise in exploring the word 'sanctuary'. They were first presented at the Split This Rock Festival in 2015.