The five finalists this year were Anne Valley-Fox’s “Because the Road Rises to Meet their Feet,” Jennifer Rane Hancock’s “St. Mary’s Orphanage: Galveston Island, September 8, 1900,” George Perreault’s “Mr. Richardson’s Nails,” Helen Stevens Chinitz’s “After Hearing Ellen Read Tarfia Faizullah,” and James Crews’ “My Father Asks for One Last Thing.”
Because the Road Rises to Meet their Feet
by Anne Valley-Fox
Our driver lifts his hands from the wheel and points
to a group of refugees walking along the road
in the warm night. “Did you see them?”
His voice is rough and sad.
“Every night a hundred more land on our shores
in Turkish rafts. Mostly they come from Syria.
They are walking to Mytilene, hoping to cross
to Athens. And then? They don’t know.
Our own children are leaving Lesvos—here
there are no jobs. The EU has Greece by the throat.
What can we do? There is nothing we can do.
And still they come, every night they come.”
They walk in clusters of twenty or thirty
along the road’s shoulder. Hum of talk
as we pass. A woman turns to a man, their laughter
strumming the dark, like Spanish guitars.
July’s full metallic moon spangles their headscarves
and hoodies, the sable heads of small children
carried in their arms.
How dark their joy!
Because of the bottomless sea.
Because landfall was cushioned with smooth pebbles.
Because the road rises to meet their feet.
Because they walk in the open with sons and daughters.
Because they have honey and figs in their packs
to feed the children.
Because their neighbors are corpses.
Because bombs whistle as they fall.
Because all praise belongs to Allah.
Because blood darkens outside the body.
Because Christ is nailed to the cross in roadside shrines.
Because of the viper coiled in the solar plexus.
Each dawn one or two innkeepers greet the refugees
with food and water. “I’m sorry,” a woman laments
as she climbs off the raft. “There’s nothing
we need,” a grandfather says, “except your prayers.”
Because of a pile of life jackets, plastic bottles,
a child’s pink inner tube abandoned on the shore.
Because the dingy has already been deflated.
Young men call out Hello!–not Yassous!–as we pass
on the road by the sea. They can tell
by my walk, my easy assumption of ground and air,
I come from America.
Sun melts the back of my heart as I climb
the olive-studded hill
to the yoga hall.
Pastel mats float on the polished floor.
Cicada racket—pushed on a breeze through open windows;
the ribbons of my teacher’s voice come undone.
Late in the day I bob in the sea, instinctively
keeping clear of the channel where Turkish rafts, sagging
with human cargo, cross the dark water.
Sun lowers into the branches of a weathered pine, winging
between balcony and sea.
Three crows swoop to the field
where eight goats graze.
All night the sea on soft rollers
coming towards me.
Birds puncture the dark with song.
Sapphire sky ricochets off the Aegean.
Mid-afternoon when we go into town, a group of refugees
sprawl on the ground at the bus stop under an awning;
now it’s too hot and they are too weary to smile.
Because there is no safe harbor,
we’re all on our way.
St. Mary’s Orphanage: Galveston Island, September 8, 1900
by Jennifer Rane Hancock
Fear we not, tho’ storm clouds round us gather . . .
God of the sea and of the tempest wild.
When the men found them days later
mostly-buried beneath overturned dunes,
they followed one tiny body to another
to whichever Sister had tied them to her waist.
That first man was probably sunburned
and soaked with the whiskey
he’d been given to numb the pain and stench.
His job: to find bodies, stack and fuel
the beach pyres. They were so high the smoke
could be seen from Houston. He might
have tripped on the twine or seen the outline
of a small, curled hand, perhaps thought
oh god, one more, and gently dug around it.
Or perhaps he was beyond gentleness,
beyond care or counting, and yanked the twine
so hard sand shivered along its length
like rosin powder from a violin bow.
Maybe he retched. We know he called
the others, who climbed over the thin ribs
of the dormitory and the rotting fish
and shooed the late summer flies to find him
pulling in the heavy air. We know
what they found: ten women
with ninety children tied to their waists
like chains of Victorian paper dolls,
and three boys alive in the remains
of a tree to bear witness to the storm.
When the drunk, ravaged men
cleaned the sand from the boys’
mouths, they told of the ocean rising
to fill the Sisters of Charity of the
Incarnate Word like
the Holy Spirit and of the singing,
the hymns, the children’s voices that kept
the East Texas pine boards strong
until they weren’t anymore.