When did you bleed for the first time?
She will say – it was when I was holding
the green skin of guava fruit, and its lilac
meat. The juice squirted out so quickly
I thought it was mine to take.
What did you notice then?
The sky had a solitary eye
on top of the mountain, where the horizon
line curved itself into the redundant nature
of tall trees; it was only noon, and yet
a fat tear was approaching fast.
Tell me about the time you fell in love.
I was mad. The harsh whiffs of
desert winds and the striking hands
of older brothers made the same sound,
like a wave of the Red Sea was cut from its
drooling origin and shoved into the unassuming
whiteness of salt dunes. But words filled my
mouth, and the taste was new, milky.
What happened to your hair?
It was the same color of my shadow; its
texture harrowing at night. When Mother
was jailed, it felt her absence, her sharp tone
and gentle eyes. It fell in mouthfuls at a time;
it was Autumn and even leaves were falling then.
What of your sisters?
I planted a seed for each of them, wished they
could come earlier. I knew them before they
were born. My cheeks bruise so their hair
And your brothers?
I loved each in separate corners of my abdomen;
S. at the center, G. in the right, M. on the left,
Y. spread thinly all over my body. When I think
of Father, each of their eyes emerge from nowhere,
and I am there again.
When armed men came, where did you hide?
I didn't. I was taught to stand. They were looking for
something in the dark, and I was the light. Even now,
their footsteps can be heard right before sunrise.
I see only morning lights.
What about your father?
He sits on a cloud. I grieve every day.
And your mother?
I woke up at dawn to wash clothes
and stretch them to dry. I cleaned,
cooked and warmed the house. The mornings
were so quiet I could hear my heartbeat. And
merchants traveling from Karen. I hid behind
open doors to read and write. She was awake.
Tell me about your friends.
Some got lost in the fight. Some brought back
children not their own, others were promised
to men in silk suites and lovely pastries. We ate
ice-cream and went to the cinema. We spoke
other languages. We rushed back home before
curfew and never questioned the strident noise
of bullets that came afterhours.
Who saved you?
God was always there.
What of your children?
I taught them how to read
so they don't have to hide.
What about your only son?
He's still only a baby—
safe in the warmth of my belly
where armed men can't come after him
and beautiful women can't take him away
and spirits can't blacken his wings.
Tell me about your daughters.
This is what I tell them—
you are not women, or children
you are kings among men
and kings excel at what they do
and kings do not cry
they do not bend
they do not run away
they do not hide
they do not surrender.
Kings excel even as they fall.
Where is the earth that fed you?
I don't know. It belongs to those who
died. I have asked many times why the earth
keeps regurgitating me. I move away and
a faint trail follows me home. I belong—
What of Asmara?
My city is dead.
How did you cry?
In the quiet hours of the morning—
I didn't have enough in me for
wailing, but quiet tears find their
way down my cheeks, birthed
from my abdomen. They leave small
knots there, and years later, I am unable
to untie from myself.
Who did you kill?
Bones are lovely during winter;
their whiteness is tamed by corroded
pores and something empty. I am reminded
of Massawa, and the screams of neighbors
as the city was bombed. The Red Sea must
have been really bleeding then.
What did you listen to?
A long list of names, martyr heads.
A soundless prayer.
The laughter of Father.
Who are you?
I am free.
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: http://mahtemshiferraw.com/.