Read an Excerpt
in Natal, South Africa,
a woman carries water on her head.
After a year of drought,
when one child in three is at risk of death,
she returns from a distant well,
carrying water on her head.
The pumpkins are gone,
the tomatoes withered,
yet the woman carries water on her head.
The cattle kraals are empty,
the goats gaunt
no milk now for children,
but she is carrying water on her head.
The engineers have reversed the river:
those with power can keep their power,
but one woman is carrying water on her head.
In the homelands, where the dusty crowds
watch the empty roads for water trucks,
one woman trusts herself with treasure,
and carries the water on her head.
The sun does not dissuade her,
not the dried earth that blows against her,
as she carries the water on her head.
In a huge and dirty pail,
with an idle handle,
resting on a narrow can,
this woman is carrying water on her head.
This woman, who girds her neck
with safety pins, this one
who carries water on her head,
trusts her own head to bring to her people
what they need now
between life and death:
She is carrying them water on her head.
The roads of our village are jammed by buses
with childish, alliterative names:
"BlueBird." "Grey Goose." "Peter Pan"
But the faces in their windows
are mostly old
they've come to see the leaves
before they die.
"At this stage, there's nothing else to do,"
an old man joked this morning
when they stopped to ask directions
I'll spend the day inside.
I start a fire
and listen to the news on the radio.
The report's about the tourists
in the Philippines,
who come to sleep with children.
There are thousands every week
the aging Japanese
believe it will "revive" them.
An Australian and a Briton
have been jailed
to set a "harsh example" for the Western press.
But the parents protest
their children are for sale.
They're the gross national product
(and it's the way to get a television).
There are colorful brochures in sixteen languages
"Sex Tours" is an English one
they guarantee there'll be "a virgin
The reporter asks two children
to tell about the man
who took them to his room.
There was a shower ("it was warm"),
a bed ("with sheets"),
they posed for pictures
they'll be sold on the Internet.
The leaves outside
are gold and red and dying.
But the planes are flying home
where every child's
still a virgin,
where no one's
growing old, where nothing
changes but the sheets
where it's warm in the stalls.
Despondent from burglaries and muggings,
Hans and Emma Kable, close to eighty,
took their own lives, Bronx, NY
Last night they made love
a new way:
her skirt draped across the bed,
the delicate white blouse
beside his suit,
the red striped tie laid neat
there is no embarrassment.
The note won't tell
what they whispered in their ritual
to ease each other
to the bright breaking of blood
as on the first night.
After fifty years,
there was no need to be naked
to be assured by a hair pelt
touched through to the heart's grain.
Last night it was a new position:
binding their necks to doorknobs,
razors at their wrists
releasing one another
to supreme escape.
Far away in the Arctic,
the aged wander to the polar jaw.
In Africa, they seek the uplands
and await a predatory kiss.
Here in America,
they are left behind in cities
to make love.
there is no embarrassment.
A mousecaught badly in a trap
and this morning (while I waited
for the coffee to stop trickling),
I spotted it beneath the ledge of the cabinet,
where it had dragged itself across the whole kitchen
through a maze of cartons of unshelved books.
I moved the trash can and looked at its eyes
(while it looked at mine),
and I remembered Whitman's line
that "a mouse is miracle enough
to stagger sextillion of infidels."
And I noted its modest share of miraculousness
and felt a nudge of faith
that even now it could escape me.
I nudged it with the broom. (It knew the kitchen
better than I didI was new here.) It would know
some hole beyond the purview of my problems.
But as it moved at my prodding,
the sprung trap, clamped to its foot, clattered behind it
and stopped it in the corner,
where it lifted its eyes that said, "More."
"Be humane," I thought
I had seen the word on the package of mouse traps
and had recognized my species
the executioners in the Death House,
the infidels in the Gulf War
by our aim to "kill swiftly and efficiently."
I brought the snow shovel from the porch
the coffee gleamed on the counter
while the mouse below it
was craning its neck for an opening.
It knew what was coming(just as our old cat knew
that its last visit to the vet was no ordinary
checkup). I lifted the shovel
it went struggling up the wall along the crack beside the
but couldn't make it through.
I've seen humans go like thatdragging the pain, the
trying to resist the "swift, efficient" blow.
I've stood by their beds
where I've seen what their eyes said
while the rest of us said, "No."
AT CAESAR'S GRAVE
The Hudson can't be seen from the house
though from the way the land slopes
(beyond the unmowed field), it's clear the river isn't far.
Why didn't they build their house along its shore?
Weren't they the first onesthe first rich, white ones
and wasn't the river what they had for a road then
back when Indian trails
were too narrow for their wagons to pass through?
It was the river below that hauled them to their markets
in vessels weighted down
with pelts and crops and timber.
In winter, they sailed above its surface in their sleighs.
They'd shut their shutters,
give instructions to their slaves,
and go off visiting for weeks
escaping the isolation of their acreage,
the daily monotony of privilege.
It must be that that huge black conduit
(that angles down from the sewage treatment plant)
holds the course of the creek I once read about.
Perhaps the house once faced the creek
(that could explain its odd orientation to the north).
But that cemeteryso close to their dwelling
they must have put it there intentionally,
knowing it would intrude in any permanent escape
each son's desire to leave these woods
and live among people
each slave's design to slip among the trees,
each new bride's dream of making it unnoticed to the
and back to her parents' home.
The house has been for sale for three years now
(looking vast and affordable in the realtor's booklet),
but that conduitand especially this cemetery
make living here impossible.
We have to strain against the cemetery gate
till it groans at the effort of admitting us.
A rusted plaque informs us
that seven soldiers from the Revolution are buried here.
But there's no way of knowing which they are.
As far as we can tell through the abrasions of the weather,
they're all named "Nicoll" and "Sill"
all relations of the old patroon, Van Rensselaer.
Which one, I wonder, is the first "Master of Bethlehem,"
who married here and raised a family
and, at sixty, declared himself "a baby,"
and instructed Caesar, "the family retainer,"
to build him a cradle, six-feet long,
and spend hours every day, rocking him in it.
(When the master drowned
in the creek that no longer runs here
I wonder if Caesar was whipped or rewarded.)
Here's Caesar nowin the back near the fence.
He was the last slave to die outside the Confederacy
a tribute to his own longevity
and the irony of a Yankee benevolence
that kept elderly slaves unemancipated and dependent.
His parents came here on the day of the master's wedding
two unnamed people, topping the list of presents.
Caesar was born the following spring,
and I can picture the master, still in his prime,
smiling as his pregnant bride gave the child his name
one she might have saved for a stallion or retriever:
"Caesar," the swaddling, black "emperor."
When he died (at one hundred and fifteen),
he had outlived five generations of their children
long enough to see them all ruined,
their lands partitioned and sold off
so that only the house and this little plot remain.
It's not surprising that Caesar's grave
is the most legible. (For the bicentennial,
his single namewith its eternally mocking, imperial
was incised on one of the humbler markers
perhaps it's really his.)
The rumor was that he'd been "beloved"
a notable example of some benign variation of slavery.
Contemporary accounts portray him as ornery
(chucking stones at little children when they grew too
But it's quiet now. The grass is overgrown
it seems no one's tended it for years.
We close the gate, wondering who it's intended to
(or maybe keep inside). Caesar lived here. Caesar died.
We leave him to the myths that we call "history"
in that last small plot of human life
where slaves and masters
share their common legacy.