sitting up to the full height of her four foot frame
she paddles too aggressively
splashing us with water and giggles
leaning over to peer at her reflection in the water
and we yelp, shift our weight, cling to the sides
our laughter mixing with hers
floating up and around our small canoe
teetering in the four foot depths of this suburban river
that curves through highway underpasses tagged by teenage lovers
who learned but don’t remember
that this lazyday tubing water
that moved steamboat loads of cotton by day
secretly carried blistered bloody hands to dreams of freedom
under cover of night
on distant shores, a mother wraps her child in a blanket of darkness
looks up at a skyfull of stars
whispers dreams of freedom
waits for the boat she doesn’t know will come.
waits for the men she doesn’t know she can trust.
waits for the land she doesn’t know she will see.
on distant waters in salty wet wind
they have eaten the last of their rice
they have seen land close enough to touch
but touch does not suffice
when home is a crowded sinking boat
– a raft –
the news will later say
no bigger than the one floating by us today
children squealing, pushing, laughing,
lathering sunscreen on each others’ backs
carefree, on a hot summer day.
back on the bank,
arms poking out of a rented lifejacket
she had tugged on my arm. eyes wide
and with English still sticky on her tongue,
she had half-asked half-declared
I fall down water, I die?
no, I laughed, and pointed to her vest.
this will save you.
and so it is lifejackets tossed first
into rafts packed with migrants
adrift in the Agean
tempest-tossed and hope long lost
they buckle bags of air around empty bellies
they are pulled into fishing boats
like a good day’s catch
handed paper cups of water that can’t be spared
taken ashore in a country that shuns them,
shuffles them off to camps,
assures food and water fit to drink
but denies them work,
leaving them to wonder what good is safety
without a school
without a job
without a purpose.
the fisherman who found them bobbing in the sea
visits their camp with empty hands
having already given them all there is
he comes to hear stories
spoken in a language he doesn’t speak,
yet somehow understands.
there will always be boat people.
for as long as there is war, chasing us
to the edge of our known world,
she has heard her mother’s stories
told like fables
of soldiers’ boots and midnight raids,
of running with no place to hide,
her people didn’t escape by boat
but eventually, by a lottery and an airplane.
at nine years old, she was sleepily enthralled
by the shimmery bluegray ocean below
by the low but unceasing rumble of an engine,
by the miles of sea and sky between her and home.
once settled in our small canoe,
she paddles fiercely, relentlessly,
pulling us wobblingly forward in energetic spurts
until out of breath she folds,
sighs, and to her surprise –
are the boat people,
buoyed by laughter
by imaginary games of Olympic races
(she declares our boat TEAM AMERICA,
thus ensuring our victory)
the other teetering canoes
CONGO SOMALIA BURMA
the only countries she can name,
places her friends can no longer call home.
today, we float,
and we splash,
surrounded on the calm water by our friends
rocking and squealing
crashing and singing,
learning that rowing is an art of memory and power,
of balance and communication,
of past and present.