The men left the house in the early morning
the young men, and even some of the old
I was a child then, I stayed home
among the children and women, but one,
only one of the women left. I was there
in the courtyard with the other children
and the laundry and the smell of chickens roasting
for the dinner we did not know if they would ever eat
but still we had to roast the chickens and wash the sheets
and get everything ready for survival or death.
That one woman was not my mother but that day
she was my mother. There were terrible sounds
no one could interpret, there was no communication,
in a coloring book I killed ants and set them
on fire, I made ants run from disaster
silently shrieking with all their legs and antennas.
My mother said please no more killing, let the ants be,
remain kind despite everything here in the courtyard.
Only if they come here to kill us, we will pour on them troughs
of boiling water, of screaming fat, the slaughtered chickens
will peck out their eyes and dig their graves with amputated feet,
we will bleed on them until they drown, we will pull the house
from under them and down on them and in on them,
we will die on them until their death
and afterwards our teeth will swoop from the sky
and reduce them to atoms, that is how we will win
even if we lose, even if our own do not come home,
the men and one woman who is everybody’s mother.
The city did not burn down that day
most of them straggled home
one of the old men was killed or died of his own accord
my father was carried in pale and furious
at the loss of two fingers, but that was not the worst of it
everyone talked at once, trying to persuade him to stop bleeding.
The one woman did not return, no one knew what
had become of her, we secretly prayed
she had not been captured alive, but killed
once and for all, meanwhile my father continued to bleed
and always there was less blood left in him
I don’t know how he managed to live,
that was concealed from me, though my mother
was the closest thing we had to a doctor.
There were others wounded and suffering,
but in the end all those who could eat
ate the roast chickens.
After three days when the enemy left
to gather itself for another assault
the one woman came back. She would say
nothing, her eyes frightened everyone, she took food and drink
and locked herself in her room. After two nights she emerged,
pushed my mother aside and began to chop carrots,
then cut herself and started to cry. I buried my face in her skirt
and held onto her arm till she dropped the knife,
I held her leg and wouldn’t let go
they had to pry me off so she could lie down
and finally sleep. While no one was looking,
an old man left. No one saw him go,
no one saw him ever again, we made for him a fire of rocks
and poured on it libations of sand. Birds came to the courtyard
and pecked at the ground, finding something we could not see
or survive on, and we children said the world
has not yet abandoned us, God still sends birds,
little dragons who will carry to our enemies
seeds of poison, we said, but we didn’t believe.
We didn’t know why they wanted to kill us
we knew only that we were still alive,
our mothers were alive, most of our fathers were alive and
they went out again, hungry, watchful, scheming
carrying birds in their pockets that would explode
in the mouths of the enemy, carrying lightning storms
and fire ants and tarantulas and Morse Code
that we children could not read. They carried memories
of us and our mothers, the very memories our enemies
wanted to kill they carried into the heart of danger.
Birds flew back to us with news of defeats.
Pride got some of us killed, my father said later,
he didn’t say surviving had killed his pride.
The one woman who had gone out before
went out again one night and returned before morning.
She is old now, and has never said what she did
but we all know she did something.
I still think of her unknown act
and of the old man who walked away
all of it stays, unspoken except
when we say goodbye
we wish each other peace and safety
the children don’t know what we mean,
we keep resolving not to forget.