PANCHO’S SISTER

Aiyee, mi hermano, is what they say true?
Across the land they sing their corridos of you.
Where is the Doroteo of our young days,
Tending the land under the sun’s scorching rays?

Our Papa toiled hard to make his way,
With scarcely a peso to be had in pay.
Put in the ground, no longer alive,
He left Mamacita and the five of us to survive.

Scrabbling for food, we nearly lost our pride.
In rags and hunger, we worked side by side,
The hacendado’s wealth to increase,
Never knowing when our own pain might cease.

Then came the day, the hacendado’s son came to call.
He took my soul, my virginity, my all.
And, now, I lie here in the dirt,
Never to know further hurt.

But, you, mi hermano, took my cause for your own.
In rage and sorrow, you raised full grown,
And at sixteen, you murdered that whelp
Never asking any others for help.

Into the mountains, you fled
And, oh, what a life you led.
They likened you to Robin Hood,
Taking from the rich to spread the good.

You learned of sweet freedom in the company of like souls,
And turned your sights toward greater goals.
Diaz and his ilk were finally to fall,
With promises from Madero of equity for all.

From this dark grave, I watched you thunder across the land.
Drawing women, children and men to your band.
While you raided and plundered, your fame spread about,
Until by the thousands, your name did they shout.

In Huerta’s dim jail, you had time to learn
More of reading and writing than where to turn.
Wanting land for the poor, and frijoles in the pot,
Education for all and free elections, like as not.
By rail and caballo, or Dodge touring car.
Over desert and mountain, to river and sea so far,
You roamed the land, and gathered wives to yourself,
Often leaving children and lovers on an emotional shelf.

A villain to some, like President Wilson and his sort,
You riled them all with your following court.
Herrera, Carranza, Obregon and Zapata, too,
Utlimately wanted nothing of you.

Each in his way tried to lessen your favor
But scheming and plotting only made you seem braver.
Then, at Columbus, New Mexico in ‘16
Carranza’s poor peasants, in Villista whites, turned mean.

Your name, General Villa, now smeared in American blood
Brought shame and outrage in bitter flood.
Pershing gave chase and into the mountains you ran
Until his army collapsed in the desert’s hot pan.

Wounded at Guerrero, you stopped to recover
And, then, to the field once again, you went as a lover.
Still seeking freedom for each lowly minion,
You stumbled and railed against public opinion.

Carranza was murdered and then, Zapata, too.
None has ever suggested it was you.
From the long struggle, you were tired and worn,
Until it was your body the bullets had torn.

My death may have sent you on your long path,
Doroteo, mi hermano, now we lie in earth’s sandy bath,
Knowing that our lives, so soon spent,
Accomplished more than even God meant.

Whether Doroteo or Pancho Villa, you are my brother,
Who sought to revenge me unlike any other.
Let the people sing out in freedom’s name,
Of the soldier, the leader, the man of great fame.

WHITE GIRL, BLACK HEART: SUMMER ‘59

On that first Sunday, Annie dressed in green plaid,
With Peter Pan collar, shoes, and purse all white.
Curly golden hair streamed down her back,
While her blue eyes tried to hide her fright.

It took three buses to cross the town,
Until, at last, she saw St. Mark’s steeple,
In a neighborhood of worn-out mansions and left-behind people.

Tawny browns and ebony blacks, mahogany and coffee-laced-with-milk
Were some of the colors meeting her at the church door.
In satins and silks or cotton worn thin,
Big-hatted women and crisp-suited men were all going in.
Children nudged and pointed at Annie, until stilled by a command.

Heavenly light showered down from stained glass
To scatter more color across each yearning face.
Thundering piano and joyful choir sang of Grace.

There, at the sanctuary door, Annie heard Mrs. James demand,
“How come you to hire that white teacher?
It’s my turn to lead our summer session.
‘Sides, we’s a black church now, Preacher!”

His answer came as he caught Annie’s eye,
“Like I’ve been saying for months now,
White folks are fleeing,
Black folks are seething,
When it should all be about believing!”

Annie slid into a pew nearby and studied the program without really seeing.
What have I done?
What a horrible blunder!
I don’t belong, I don’t fit in.
I’ve never had a close Negro friend.
I never marched against the drum to plead freedom for anyone.
I know we’re equal but I don’t know much more.
Nothing of race or culture or custom.
Little of strife or poverty or shame.
My family came first cabin from across the sea,
Not as plunder or property.

What can I do here, a college girl, and a white one at that?
I know the church and the Bible pretty well.
I can lead songs and follow the lesson, offer up prayers,
And even wipe a child’s tears
But of life, I know so little.

Lost in reverie, Annie’s soul began to stir to rhythms surrounding her.
Song vibrated from wall to wall, people began to shout their amens.
Her spirits lifted as Annie sang out, and looked at her neighbors.
In God united they stood and swayed to the beat of a belief understood.

Grasping hands across the aisles, prejudice and fear were set aside.
Here was a place, a people and a task
Where Annie would do as good as she was asked.

CLARA’S AIR

Old Mom-Mom told her
“it’s a track without a train,
a railroad running north
and, sometimes, underground.”

In the dead of night,
with more stealth than wealth,
they slipped onto the barque
of a Louisiana swamp.

Three dark panthers melding into
the shadows’ thin cover,
where a white man
at the helm did hover.

Fear and quiet made the slither
of pole on green water
seem to shout
upon the wild river.

Near to dawn, they put in at land,
there to await,
the next helping hand.

In a slimey cave they rested,
In Mom-Mom’s lap.
Clara’s head softly nested

Sullied water and moldy bread,
a wormy apple or bright berries,
it was on these they fed.

Night two or was it more?
Gators snapping as
carefully they stepped
in mud and gore.

Sounds of tiger growls rent the air,
when the tree snake reached down
to dust Clara’s curly hair.

 

Dawn found them on a sandy beach,
here to hide and keep watch all day
against the sound of dogs at bay!

When Clara’s feet began to bleed,
Mom-Mom tore her turban loose,
to wrap those tiny feet
beyond the scent of any breed.

Night after night, they traveled on.
Hiding again at first light,
always searching for guide or clue
to carry them from all they knew.

Until Clara wondered at seeking more,
hiding from the searchers,
their dogs and gun,
when hope itself had nowhere to run.

Hiding in cramped attics or soured hay,
behind a secret wall,
under a bed or up a tree,
caused them often to pray.

A thin soup, a crust of bread,
an ear of corn to chew,
where came the next meal,
they seldom knew.

Drained of hope by pain and sorrow,
their next stop
caused them to burrow.

To Illinois-land they came,
Trackers’ hounds at their heels.
A house, a barn, a cellar,
promised respite from their flight..

Thin, tired to the bone,
with blistering feet and soul,
they fell into a restless sleep.

Awakened too soon and pressed below ground,
no light by which to see,
the shifting dirt drifted down.

Clara, Old Mom-Mom and the others, too,
huddled against a sudden outcry.
when a critter ran across a foot,
fear doubled and took root.

On and on they sat in silent dream,
thinning air adding to their sleep
sending them into a well too deep.

Clara shuffled close to Mom-Mom’s ear,
“Air’s there. See the mole mice
at they’s mother’s teats?”

“Hush, child. You wants the mens to hear?”
Old Mom-Mom’s voice faded,
her lungs stretched thin.

“Y’all gots to smell the air,”
Clara wanted  to scream.
Tugging and pulling,
she made Mom-Mom’s face fit the hole.

A gasp, another and then a whisper,
“I declare, child, you’s right.
Dem moles is drinkin’ they’s mama’s milk,
Sure as we kin drinks the air.”

And so the time passed,
as each had the luck
to suck of Clara’s air
until the last of the slave-seekers left.

The lid popped open from above and.
the whites declared,
“A miracle from God”
that all still lived.

But, Old Mom-Mom and the others knew,
it was Clara’s air
that saved the day
and them, too.

THE APPLE FACTORY

She told me her story on a fine spring day.

Across the long miles of all the Russias,
Into the Manchurian cold,
They went to build a railroad.

Raised up a native in Chinaland,
She asked her daddy,
Where is the apple factory?

Summer of 1914,
He sent her to find the apples.
Back to the Caucasus,
Where Grandpa lived to a hundred and thirteen,
Where fruit trees grow,
Where the family founded itself.

Homeward bound, an archduke died.
Forty-five days is a long train ride.
Making room for soldiers,
The apples turned to mush.
Daddy, what is a war?

Ninety-nine years and the lease was up.
Railroading in Manchuria,
blaSplitting of rails and family,
Lost addresses, lost lives.
For forty years they were scattered.

She learned the other war
Took Daddy and Brother, too.
Sister found her in harsh January,
To say, Mother died just last October.
But, what of all the years before?

And now she stands,
Looking out from her California kitchen
At her own apple factory.
Tangy Gravs and Red Delicious stretching
To the Russian River beyond.

And she remembers the flavor of 1914
When war was a delay in the timetable.