Near Zgharta, Lebanon, 1976
My father at fifteen walked the unguarded streets
having learned the cadence of rounds, measuring
the distance between safety and crossfire by sound.
In those days the electricity stuttered
or failed, and water had to be brought
from the reservoir on the edge of town.
He was thankful for his older brother’s absence,
thankful to be the one his mother sent for water
or rice priced like grains of gold.
He walked the streets where the sun
cut glass into sharp glares
and he was thankful for that, too—
he’d drifted around the dark flat too long,
in the caged-lantern light between shut doors,
school off again until the fighting staved.
His father still went every day to his tailor shop
where he met with neighbors and smoked the argileh,
the undraped dress form tied with measuring tape,
paneled mirrors reflecting and multiplying the men
until they were surrounded. Smoke sagged like old news,
the stationary Singer needle hungry for work.
A man asked about the other’s Mercedes.
Then they asked about the tailor’s boy in Romania,
how many Mercedes he’ll buy once he’s a doctor.
My father’s father glanced at the unfinished suit on the worktable,
chalk-marked for his oldest son’s return, but he didn’t say
anything. Instead, he passed the dish of candied garbanzos.
My father ran from blockade to building, making wargames
with his shadow, flattening his back against the brick
and whipping his glance both ways before slinking on.
He slung the water jug on his shoulder like a missile launcher,
knelt to steady his aim. The sun was a crystal ball in the palm of mountains
and he imagined knocking the star from its shelf, the thousand glittering pieces.
He wandered to the next neighborhood, meeting a friend
at the water reserve where in the distance gunfire crackled
and lured them to the overlook above the river,
water chasing the smoke zip-lined overhead.
Their hearts were spools reeling blood to their feet,
roping them there as they watched the bullets volley.
The wind shifted and pealed past their ears, the report
steering toward the ledge where they anchored, so they bowed
and scraped to the stone-wall, elbows plowing the gravel.
It seemed like proof enough that they were invincible
when they stooped in the shade of the barrier, a few stray
shots notching the spot where their bodies had been.
They jogged home in the dirt-kicked light, giddy with
the breath that filled their chests, and lobbed small rocks
at each other. A hit to the gut and my father performed his death,
his hands seizing the invisible pierce then reaching
to clutch his wound’s trajectory. From his hand,
the remaining stones kernelled
the road, sugar-white as the candied chickpeas
his father only brought home for his brother,
and he crumpled to the dust of the empty road,
extremities folded like a paper star,
the pebbles freckled around him
like an inheritance.
—from Rattle #38, Winter 2012
Ruth Awad: “I’m still trying to figure out why I write poems, and I’ll probably write a poem to figure it out.” (website)