One morning after the crucifixion, a Sudanese boy came to see his mother and father. He found his hut burnt to the ground. Two figures dressed in white asked him, “Boy why are you weeping?”
“Because,” he replied, “they have taken away my family, and I do not know where they have laid them.”
The first Sunday, when her own boy
was too lazy to get up,
his host mother took him to church
in the town where Snowflake Bentley discovered
that each snowflake has a unique design.
She stepped on the gas,
black leather boot
crusted with salt
gunning it up the frozen hill,
truck wheezing like a stuck pig,
Achak clinging, afraid he’d fly out
into the mute, lunar fields.
She figured he might as well get used to it,
the snow, the whiteness,
so she pulled over next to some steaming cows,
crystal stalactites poking from their hairy chins.
Scoop it up like sand, she said,
his skinny limbs springing back in horror.
pale eyes finally left them,
thick pink fingers working the hymnal,
perfume stinging the walls of his nose,
his host mother’s optimism percolating in the early morning light,
the words of the Bible sliding over his brain
fast, too fast. Just as he caught one
others fell on top
in a heap he could not unscramble.
After the service,
powdered sugar all over his mouth, fingers, tie,
she wiping it off as if he were a baby,
proudly marking him as her own,
the oily eyes of the muzungus
nibbling at him in chunks
like fish at a piece of bait.
She told him the Bible
would heal him from his trauma.
He would make it his own, in this new land,
as humans had done for centuries.
He pictured spreading its noble words, back in Sudan, in a new suit and tie,
once he caught them and slowed them down.
Until then, the loneliness lay quiet during the day,
gracefully lining his heart like lichen, like frost,
as he stocked the shelves with dog food.
When Majok died, drunk driving
over the black snakes of ice,
there was no one left in this frostbitten town.
Suddenly he knew how lonely Mary must have felt
when she came upon Jesus’ empty tomb—
this pockmarked country that he walked across
still hungry after all these months,
the stones rolled back from the muzungu’s eyes,
the black holes everywhere.
At night, he rose from bed.
He moved as Frankenstein would—
wide-eyed, stiff-armed, fingers tracing
the hallway for his host brother’s room,
soccer poster tacked to his door.
But he’d always chicken out,
fumbling back toward his room
wrapping the past around him.
Every spring before the Arabs came,
his cousins and uncles, cocky from the cattle camps,
bellies swelling taut as gourds,
drinking cow milk till they could barely walk,
waddling up to get weighed.
He could hardly stand to watch them
step on the rusty scale a missionary had left,
two men dead already from the strain.
At Majok’s funeral, he sat on a couch,
insects, tiny and prickly, crawling up his spine, flooding his chest
until he broke into a sweat.
Fat ladies smelling like diapers noticed
and patted his damp skull,
dimpled caterpillar fingers pawing his head
until he catapulted out of the land of well intention
and threw up outside.
In the black of night, the white bone of moon eclipsed.
no sound was heard
except for the crunch, crunch
of his host mother’s boots,
coming to raise him up
from the snow and the dead,
coming for to carry him home.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.