Poem: Trees

They had grown together
like trees, trunks intertwined,
bark melting into bark.

They had been sisters
in the warm corner behind the tiled stove,
their bodies crammed into a space too small,
their hair mingling,
and their hands holding the book:

reading
voices
interrupting each other
and growing louder,
drowning
each other out.

Zuzi had that way of turning
her head imperiously,
a haughty glance,
so Alena had to follow.
They ran, Zuzi ahead.

Zuzi ahead, and Alena looking back
as if they were halves
of a two-headed creature,
Zuzi always straining to see the next valley,
and Alena lagging behind, twisting
to look at the brambles trailing
behind them.

Slowing
bodies
bumping into each other
and stumbling,
fighting
for breath.

***

Of course Zuzi remembers being born.

“Obviously I was desperate to get out,” she says.

“Especially when my mother ate pickled sausages.
I hated them, even then.”
“Imagine, being inside your mother’s womb. It’s awful!”
Alena says nothing.

“I managed to escape early, two weeks before the date.
My mother was at home, I popped out right there in the kitchen.
She was shocked,
she didn’t know
that anyone could be so eager to live in this world.”

Alena rests her head against the tiles of the stove.
They are too hot,
they burn her skin.

“As soon as I got out, I realised my mistake.
This is a prison too.
There are prisons within prisons within prisons –
and I’ve only escaped one so far!”

“Alena, are you asleep?
Aren’t you burning your face?”

“No,”
says Alena, moving her red cheek away from the tiles.

“A womb inside a cottage
inside a village
inside a country
inside the world,”
says Zuzi.
“You have to escape them one by one.”

“Because of the pickled sausages?” asks Alena.

“No, because of freedom.”

Alena sighs.
“I have to do my homework,” she says.

***

Alena always looks back.
She looks back at her mother
whenever she sees her.
She looks at her puffy middle-aged face
and sees her round smooth cheeks
and serious small eyes as she stands under a tree with Alena’s father,
who has no face, in this dream, just a shape.
They look at each other.
Alena’s mother twists away and runs off
across the field, through yellow flowers,
laughing, without losing the worry in her eyes.

She even looks back and sees her mother,
a little girl
in a black coat
in 1968.
(Her father older, faceless, not knowing her yet.
A student
throat twisting like a noose
when he sees the Russian tanks.)

All these things Alena has never seen, and has seen, has seen 100 times.

She looks back and sees her mother later,
pregnant.
Not eating pickled sausage.
Just sitting in the kitchen, eyes veiled with silence.
No faceless father,
only a bowl of soup in front of her,
set down by kind hopeful hands,
and Alena’s mother not noticing it.

She looks back and sees herself,
horribly alive,
horribly present,
beside a raw
awful
absence.
Little fists waving.
Little face familiar,
but not right.
Screaming,
and her mother walking in a dream,
not hearing her.

***

Trees.
Zuzi doesn’t look at them, not really.
Trees are just one of the things you can see
inside this prison.

Alena loves the plum tree beside her garden gate.
The plums ripen into small purple globes,
and fall.
Crush them, crush the flesh and the wasps which come to feast,
crush it all and let it ferment.
The stones add an edge of bitterness if you crush a few of them too.
Let it ferment.
White vats, tall. You can unscrew
a black lid and lower your head, push your face right into the smell!
The heavy, forceful smell.

At the distillery, Pan Sladký runs out of the house to greet her mother.
“It’s ready, Paní Vysoká! The best in a long time!”
He always says the brandy is the best in a long time.
But it tastes the same every year,
and that’s how it should be.
“Nothing ever changes,” says Zuzi,
but that’s how it should be.

A tiny taste is enough.
Alena doesn’t drink a whole glass.
The harshness, the bitter anger of plums.
You crushed us, you fermented us, you distilled us.
We are clear now, and cruel.
50% alcohol.
Now we will never be sweet again, only sharp!

(The wasps are fermented along with the plums,
and strained out,
along with the plums.
Only the waspishness and the essence of plums is left,
the biting, stinging essence,
good as a disinfectant.)

Trees: there are the spruces,
across the road,
rising above the orchards.
They all wear the same uniform,
and they never retreat.
(Never advance.)
They are standing guard.
Their trunks are spears,
pointing up at the sky.
Once, in winter,
the tops of the spruce trees froze.
With the thaw, the tree-tops dropped to the ground,
and Alena walked among a headless regiment,
severed stars of branches cluttering the earth.

The month of March is called the Birch.
April is called the Oak.
Trees are not there to be loved,
Alena thinks,
later.
They don’t need love, they need water.

This poem is an early version of a section from Tendrils. It was a finalist in the Eighth Annual Writing Contest for Study Abroad, organised by The University of New Orleans, UNO Press, and The Pinch.

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