Foetal Curl

hiding out
for years to come:
straining their ears
in utter darkness

That’s how I, as a little girl, pictured those who had gone underground way before I was born in freedom. Underground: surely that meant a life in cold soil, betrayed by your every move. If you could move at all. Hear the enemy’s boots above, feel the water push up from below sea level. Dark water, like Indian ink spilled over a clumsy sketch, where it drowns faceless men.

At night I practised to keep still. Peering into the dark for hours on end, I tried not to bring ghosts to the scene. They never failed to come.

So I’d be useless in times of war. To hush further fears, I deceived myself that people had gone under ground in the tulip fields. Hiding down there they might at least have cheated their hunger for a while. When nothing else was left, folks ate tulips—wasn’t it said time and again? And hence another image, never drawn, but had I done so, it would have been in wax crayon. A wild mess of ochre, sienna and pale flesh-colour covered with a thick layer of black. Make it a really thick layer. Take a little knife or with your nails scrape off bits of it to reveal what’s underneath:

stark naked
men and women
in foetal curl
clinging to a bulb
as if to a breast

These bizarre images never faded. Left to my spectres by grown-ups too busy avoiding theirs, I got it all mixed up. But I’ve done enough reading since, to straighten things out, and seen enough as well, to realize that nothing is so grotesque it won’t happen. Probably right now some boy strains his ears somewhere, wondering when he’ll be safe to leave the pit where he lies buried among his kin. Not to speak of those who never rise again, or the millions that didn’t have a thing to cling to before they ended in smoke.

It strikes me now, that I thought of the earth both as of a grave and a womb, wolfing down and spitting out life at will. Or is that what I made of it later? There’s a colour photo, showing me in a makeshift sandpit with the kids next door. Notice the graveness of our game, interrupted at times by excited cries when a spade would hit on something solid. See our faces merge into less lucky ones in today’s or tomorrow’s papers:

for those children
and their children too,
each pebble
holds a wonder,
every stone a dud

And while a photo yellows, perverting not only the colours of the scene, there is this other image, as bold and sharp as you can get it: our teacher, who would draw the streaming banner on the wet blackboard for every birthday child. Watch its red, white and blue beams emerge as the board dries off, watch her hand then neatly add a name and behind it a figure for another year in freedom.

Once a year she’d write my name. I’d climb a little chair adorned with garlands and face the singing class, my mixed blood raising a blush.

That little girl I was, still flushes for shame over her petty fears. Useless, even in times of peace! Like a big and wiser sister I let her curl up beside me every so often, until she straightens herself again. Yet, with countless children harmed worse ever since, who is to lay their ghosts to rest?

dark red
poppies colour the wind–
how long
must a heart be dyed
before it changes?

First published in
Modern Haibun & Tanka Prose, Winter 2009

Last update 14.04.2010

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