It has been years since we last descended
into its fiery throat — clouds of smoke rose like
white ash into limpid air, only to disappear under the
vast green blue.

There are songs for this river, love songs, mournful songs,
children's songs. They say this is where it all began, where it all
ends; pride is only a bleak version of the soapy waters
and their wet aftermath.

It is birthed beneath the hiccups of Lake Tana —

one could see its point of origin
only in clear, early mornings.

Sometimes the chants of hermit monks can
be heard from small islands, their prayers traveling
only through pebbles and washed mud,
their prayers only for more water.

At night, its voice is raucous as a wounded lion —

it breathes in and out, life, leaves, unguarded children
and lovers.

When shepherds approach it with their herds
its waters recede just a little bit, changing their
shade from snowy to gray and something translucent;

the eyes of cows reflect into another dimension.

The smell of something wild and torn, dirt and splintering,
speed and light conquers its sides, winter coarse under its
feet, safe nest for corpses, untold stories, the thirsty, the
poor and the grief-stricken.

And beneath it all, something sleeps, damp and forgotten
and cavernous in its roar — only those who drink its swelling
waters can hear it, and recount its secrets.

Mahtem Shiferraw is a poet, visual artist and cultural activist. She grew up in Eritrea & Ethiopia. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College. Her work has been published in The 2River View, Blast Furnace, Blood Lotus, Bohemian Pupil Press, Cactus Heart, The Missing Slate and elsewhere. She lives in Los Angeles. You can find her here: