By Songyi Zhang

I’ve gained weight! Is this a sign that I live well in America?

Unlike what my folks think, I’m not mal-nourished because I lack hometown food. In fact, in a local supermarket, I can find almost all the Chinese ingredients I need, plus food and beverages that I’ve never seen before. Big round cookies, seedless watermelons, Dr. Pepper, mint chocolate chip ice cream, S’mores (saltine crackers with melted marshmallows and chocolate) and chicken noodle soup; you name it.

The food supply in America is astonishing—big portions, big packages, large quantities and zillions of choices. I think it’s hard for a single person to live in America because the products in supermarkets are big enough for a whole family. It usually takes me a month to finish a box of 15-ounce cereal. An entrée is good enough for two meals. I’m told Italians serve larger portions of food than the French. I say, American dinners are even bigger than the Italian ones.

Can you imagine a small coffee in an American McDonald’s is equivalent to a medium coffee in a Chinese McDonald’s? A large bucket of popcorn at the theatre is at least twice as big as a Chinese one. From soft drinks to ice cream, I’m gratified to order just the minimum size in America. I have no idea how Americans consume the large amounts of food and drink at one sitting.

I learn from the recent news that obesity in American adults has increased by 60% within the past twenty years, and obesity in children has tripled in the past thirty years. Every time I go to Wal-Mart, I’m stunned to see those roly-polies pushing a full cart of groceries. No wonder Americans like driving big SUVs. Otherwise, where else can people put the stuff they buy?         

When I first moved into my single apartment, I was surprised to see a big fridge in the kitchen– twice as big as the one in my home in China. Do I really need this big fridge?  

Yes, I do. After two weeks shopping for groceries in Pittsburgh, I learn that Americans live heavily on refrigerated food. I cannot shop for fresh produce every day like I did in Guangzhou. Instead, I have to stock up my fridge for at least a week’s supply.

Americans are not only big-sized, but they dream big—big houses, big yards, big boats, big dogs, big offices, big promotions and much more. That’s what makes America the Land of Dreams.


Wake and Wake

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt 

Once, while searching for an old photo, my mother unearthed an envelope that contained:

• My father’s obituary, dated 11/5/69
• A holy card (Saint Francis) from his funeral
• A dried four-leaf clover in clear plastic wrap
• A card with emergency air raid instructions
• Another card with a list of emergency alerts
o Air raid
o Ground attack
o Tidal wave
• A card explaining blood types, circa 1943: “Everyone’s blood is the best!”

“Madwomen weave gossamer around themselves that nobody can get through.” [Stephanie Golden, The Women Outside]

Mr. Y, carrying two crossed 2 x 4’s down his driveway, like Christ with the crucifix. (His stooped shoulders add to the image but his cropped white hair and plaid shirt detract.) And why shouldn’t he be a Christ? Though no crowds gather, only shadows of acanthus and sycamore, the sky is as blue as the Madonna’s robes.

The letter from the War Dept, postmarked 10/31/1944—an officer writing to tell my mother that her dearest love Oscar Sorensen (PFC) had been killed instantly by shrapnel from a grenade on Saipan. “He was an excellent soldier in every respect and died bravely.” Signed, Andrew B Campbell, 1st Lt. Chief Commanding Officer, 23 Oct 1944.

Maybe we volunteered for apocalypse,
lined up at the soul-bank, ready to donate.

Tranströmer: “We are at a party that doesn’t love us.”

How does a poet wake into some new part of the writing
life? Sometimes we hold a wake. We arrange the lighted
candles in a circle around our notebooks, invite the mourners,
recite the ancient texts. We step into the poems’ wake.
We keep watch and pray.


Life As We Know It: What Is Nature?

by Libba Nichols

Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve found solace in the natural world. Maybe it’s because one of my first memories is climbing the eastern hemlock pine trees outside my house in Alabama, or maybe it’s because I spent every summer between a cabin on the Blue Ridge Mountains and one on a lake in the Adirondacks. Or, maybe it’s because I have a certain disposition that would rather be enveloped by streams, countryside and wildlife than by buildings, business and people.

“Nature” is a complicated word and I find its definition constantly needing to be altered with time. As a child I saw nature as anything not man-made, aspects of the world that were already here or could have been here before we humans existed. Yet, I also believed that we, too, are nature. For me, most beauty in the world exists in places that possess a purity which stems from the natural world: in creeks, lakes, mountains, trees, wheat fields, rivers and plains, in frogs, fish, loons, and moths. I call such places and things “natural” because I don’t know what else to call them. Whether they became what they are “naturally” or not, whether they have been influenced by humans or civilization, it is the only true “nature” I know.

Thoreau says “this old, familiar river is renewed each instant; only the channel is the same” in his Journal, and although written over a century ago, I find it very fitting for our time. Everything around us—our nature and our environment—is compelled to change and forced to renew. I used to think that as long as it was done over a gradual period of time and at a rate of natural processes, the power of the source (nature) would survive; the channel would not be destroyed. But as I grow older, I’ve started to doubt this theory.

Between recent environmental issues such as global warming, oil dependence, energy consumption and natural gas drilling(and those are just some of them) and the lack of compassion I see for the non-human world in our society, I have a hard time believing the child in me that says nature will survive, that it was meant to survive. Because I don’t necessarily think this single planet we inhabit has the power and potential to fight one of its worst enemies in the end: humans.

Nature writer and environmentalist Bill McKibben says that we’re consuming natural resources at an unsustainable rate, faster than they can regenerate. Not only are our individual consumption rates growing exponentially, but so is our population. This over-consumption mindset coupled with an extreme emphasis on growth has been enabled by cheap, dirty energy and is leading to the worst crisis mankind has ever faced. 350 ppm (parts per million) of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is considered the “safe upper limit.” In the past few years, scientists have shown that should this number increase past the 350 ppm, we would no longer have a planet “similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.” We are at 390 ppm already and continuing to rise faster each year. McKibben recently published a book entitled “eaarth”, deliberately adding an extra “a” to the word, making the point that the planet we live is on is no longer the “earth” we know. It has become a new, unusual, raped-of-its-resources kind of planet that—although we may still recognize as earth—has been degraded into something scary, and fundamentally different from anything we’ve ever known.

To try and define nature is to take an anthropocentric look at the world around our species. The true question to me becomes: can we step outside of ourselves and see our environments for what they are without the tainted lens of greed, competition, fear and ignorance? And if we do, does that make us any less human, less natural? Or does that allow us to change the way we live, to see our one planet for what it is: a beating, thriving life source that, just like any plant, vegetable or baby, needs to be cared for, fed and nourished, not polluted, tramped on, and damaged.

I’d rather be in the woods with the crickets, I’d rather be floating on a lake in the mountains, and I’d rather be surrounded by thick trees that bend at the break of the morning light. But now, I lie in bed at night wondering, fearing, if my children will have that same choice.


Jailhouse Journal XII

by Ella Stone 

“Man, it’s hard finding things to write about in here,” Charles says to me during class. “I just keep writing about the same depressing stuff, ya know? It’s like there’s only so much good you can find to write about in a place like this. And somebody told me, you gotta get out and see things to write about them.”

Charles spends the majority of class reading through some poetry journals I brought in for class. He’s the one that wrote his first poem without knowing what a poem really was. “That means it was already in me, right?” he says when I remind him he wrote an excellent poem.

More and more, I’m watching inmates leave class. They’re sent “upstate” to another facility, or if they’re lucky, sent home. Charles told me yesterday that he hopes they have writing programs like this one upstate so he can continue learning. “I’ve never done this before,” he says. “I never knew what writing was all about. I wanna keep doing it.”

My time as a teacher at the ACJ is coming to an end soon. With just a couple more classes and a final reading left, I can’t believe how quickly an 8-wk course has passed. I feel like I know some of these individuals; I’ve felt their pain through their words and stories, I’ve laughed out loud with them, I’ve been touched by their work, challenged by their ideas. I’ve tried to give them a supportive beam to rely on, if only within this classroom, so that they might have a little bit of extra hope in their creations, their futures, their lives.

I’m reminded of all the pain that suffuses writing. We talk about how writing is therapy almost every class and some of the inmates tell me they don’t want to go to some of those places inside them. They don’t want to feel what digging deep makes them feel. I tell them it’s a process, and that getting it out on paper, though painful, might relieve them in the end. They’ve become more willing to share their inner stories. Through abandonment, drug dealing, stabbings, nights on the streets, gun shot wounds, betrayal, depression, and rejection, they reveal their lives to our classroom, and I try to understand where each one comes from. I have a hard time.

Their voices are strong, even though they might not know it. They’ve affected me, and I’m not much in the scheme of things, but they’ve made me change the way I see the world around me. Right now, this perspective is laden with a new level of fear and disappointment because I know what’s truly going on outside my bubble of a generally happy world; I face reality each week when I walk into the classroom and hear more about these lives. I see all the themes and threads of movies that I’ve watched come to life right in front of me. I’m slowly walking away from an almost childlike-trance of optimism, and wishful thinking, pacifism and ideal worlds.

No one’s life is perfect, not even mine. But I recognize the happy childhood I was given, the education I received, the chance to travel to growing worlds, wondering how much these aspects truly influenced who I’ve become.

And then I see perfection in one moment or one sentence, or even one look in an eye. And the child in me returns. Charles looks up from a book of poetry. “I want to write somethin’ happy,” he says to me. “Good,” I say with a candid smile. He opens his notebook and takes pencil in hand.


The Crucible of Cruelty

by Elizabeth Kirschner

Stevenesque blackbirds, grey March sky, the starkness almost alarming and the buds are still tucked in their wintry hoods. Cold rains on the way, for days this time, a brew of broody weather. No moon in the sky, but there is one in my heart and it is setting, slowly setting. In that moony heart is the heart of the moody child I once was and I’m crying for her as I write this, sob after sob.

Why? Because she had crow’s feet under her eyes when she was born. Because I have a photo of my mother, the one who nearly killed me, taken on the day I was brought home from the hospital. Early July, ninety degrees in the shade and me in the crook of my mother’s arms with my face squelched up in pain. A piglet’s face and who could love a piglet, especially one who snorted tears?

Mother couldn’t, wouldn’t, didn’t. Abandonment at birth and her with the movie star sunglasses on, her beauty still apparent, a beauty that would be ravaged by the time she was my age, which is fifty-four. She looked like a stillborn monkey or a starving child in a third world country and would die two decades later, almost on the day she was born. She who beat me within an inch of my life and me who shoved pot lids and books down the back of my pants so the blows wouldn’t hurt so much, but that only enraged her further.

I loved my mother. I really, really loved her, much more than my siblings did and they weren’t abused. She dished out punishment like some old Testament God, then told me to remember my prayers, beg for forgiveness for all the sins I committed, the biggest being that I was prettier and smarter than she was and that my father desired me, not her. Figuring this out, then learning to forgive her and my father, too, has taken a good decade because the only thing I remembered was to forget everything and as Eudora Welty said, remembering is done through the blood.

Shortly before my mother’s death, there was a big family reunion. I knew I needed to see her, be with her alone. I knew—but how?—I would never see her again. Just before her nap, I took her bloodless hand into mine, gently, gently, looked into her bloodless eyes, gently, gently and told her how much I loved her, also gently.

Now I’m really sobbing. Now I really want my mother even though she’s been dead for a decade. I want a chance to love her all over again such that she might love me back. I was the one who knew how scratch her back just right. I was the one who played the piano and sang to her so she could take her afternoon nap on the old gold couch. She needed my love, desperately so, and in return I received the crucible of cruelty.

Was I destined for that crucible the way Christ was his? He whose beauty was forged upon the crucible, as was his love and mine as well. Should I be almost grateful for it, I who would become Plath’s Lady Lazarus? I don’t believe in original sin, but I was devastated as a babe and that devastation deranged me. Nonetheless or because of all the remembering I have done through the blood, I created an end to my derangement, turned myself from victim to victor.

How one might ask? Because I have a seventeen year old son, a child who was loved long before he was born, a child I adored the way I wanted my mother to do, a child I left behind when my long and much beloved marriage came to its nearly killing conclusion.

How could I do such a thing, leave behind both husband and son, move away from what was for me, hauntingly so, Sexton’s Newton? Even now I can hear the deathly hum of her car in her garage and I was suicidal at the end of my marriage, highly suicidal. I was dying to die, the way I was dying to die as a child.

My departure was almost heroic. I left Sexton’s Newton in order to save both my husband and son, to make sure that when they came home from school or work, they wouldn’t find me dead in a fetal ball from a drug overdose. That was two years ago, almost to the day and last May I did take an overdose and I nearly died, would have most certainly died is it weren’t for the intervention of a friend who somehow figured out what I was up to. In the end, a living mother who loves her son above all others is most certainly far better than a dead one.

There’s a beautiful, excruciatingly beautiful adagio playing on the radio. That is what my life has been—an excruciatingly beautiful adagio and I am a trained dance, know all the right steps, especially when it comes to performing the swan song. Down I go, all the way down, driven by crippling, debilitating pain that leaves me crying and screaming in the fetal ball, the one I went into as a child also crippled by debilitating pain.

Night is coming on and I want the flannel nightgown I wore throughout my childhood and well into my twenties, the one with the snowmen on it, the one that went from touching the floor to barely brushing my knees with its threadbare cuffs up to my elbows. I danced in that nightgown long after bedtime before my dresser mirror, a little Cinderella in one hell of a hell. I need that nightgown now. That and my one-eyed teddy bear with the forever silky ears.

Instead I have my son’s teddy bear. Because I couldn’t take him, I took his green bear, a bear he insisted I take with me when hospitalized—yes in psych wards—to use as a surrogate. Back in the house in the bed where he was conceived, he has piled all of his other stuffed animals on the side that was mine, a mother shrine.

This is the stuff of tragedy. A childhood annihilated by violence. A lost marriage and a beloved son I see only once a week. And yet—more tears—he’s happy. And this week I turn into a Frisbee Mom, will drive from where I live in Southern Maine back to Sexton’s Newton to attend his games, watch him fly for the disc—his golden ring.

And mine? The marriage band of course. The one with the tree of life engraved in it which sits on a tray painted, as well, with the tree of life. Why oh why did it stop bearing fruit until I was truly love-starved, wanted only to die? Why oh why oh my?

Stevenesque blackbirds, blacker sky and I’m back on that crucible, loving my dead mother, my only son. And I am alone, very much alone and lonely, too. I who was a girl Christ turned into a Mother Mary, bore the fruit of my womb in excruciatingly beautiful pain. I loved my long travail, still do, but my now ex-husband resented his only son at birth because, or so he said, of the pain that birthing brought me. Maybe just maybe, it really was because I loved that babe more than him and I did love my ex, devotedly so.

My middle name is Mary because my mother, good Catholic that she was, wanted to invoke the mother of God in it. And my son is my God, he who I deify with my pen. I had a mother who couldn’t love me and my son has a mother who can’t stop loving him. I was a haunted child—remember those crow’s feet—and yet I am the mother of my own beauty and beauty is love, beauty is love.


More Tomorrow Village II

from a memoir about growing up in Belize

by Maryam Abdul-Qawiyy

My mother sent my older brother and me to the village’s river to get water for cooking and drinking. She boiled the water until it tasted of charcoal, a smoky wetness. Ibrahim was an athlete, so he sprinted down to the river, his feet slapping against the bank. My legs were long and I wobbled, trying to keep up. We descended the river bank with a gallon in each hand and slid pass the elephant tree.

This tree had mystical secrets. A dark hole, stretched into a lazy yawn, was carved into the trunk. The resting place of Tataduende: a short human-creature with no thumbs, who lured men, women, and children away from the village and into the unknown. As we passed the dark hole, I was certain a duende watched us—waiting for one of us to trip, fall, and black out so he could drag us into the undiscovered.

Further down the riverbank, we heard the loud moans of howler monkeys. Echoes of Huuuuu! Huuuuu! were sung daily. More Tomorrow villagers called monkeys baboons, but in my mind they were invisible giants, singing sad songs. Outcast creatures lurking above the canopy, who screamed their laments because they could do nothing else. My mother said “no fear them,” as most Muslims recited to Allah huu huu as well and so the howlers were praying, just like us.

As our feet patted into the red clay and we descended the bank, the howlers’ warnings swelled my belief of the lurking duende. I imagined its fingers pressing into my shoulder, clawing at my neck and I thought, just once, that he whispered my name. But I never saw him. Many claimed to have seen a duende though. My mother was sure she saw one.

Bending over a bucket of damp clothes, the bushes rustled. She looked up and saw a gaunt face, staring at her.

“Who you?” she asked. The music of her Belizean Creole echoed into the bushes. “Who you?” The figure sat low in the grass, unblinking and stared directly into her. “Jose Luis? You bloody-rude-pickny.” She advanced toward him, thinking that it was a child who when we moved to the village had called her ‘negra’ while scoffing. She cut through the grass quickly swish swish swish; it purred with her movements.

She stood looking at it, waiting for an answer. But the face started to crumple in on itself: the cheekbones pushed forward and the eyes sank back into its head. The face wrinkled and wrinkled and wrinkled, like a brown paper bag, until the young boy resembled an old-old man. She lifted her machete, which she always kept nearby and advanced even closer, but he vanished. She rushed further into the bushes, a tight grip on her machete, and down the riverbank. Nothing.

Every time I passed the tree, I looked ahead and stared at the moving river-water. If not, her story lingered: Would duende come for me, always knowing where I was? Would he whisper for me, like Jinns? Spirits? Would he take me into the dark hole, with flies and worms, and show me his secrets?

The river water was sparkling green, but had a reddish tint. The earth dyed everything it touched, colored everything to its own. The river was always moving, it’s current strongly pushing things in a twisting and unknown direction.

When I sank my toes into the red-tinted-water, I knelt down as if praying. I dipped the empty jugs into the surface of swirling currents. The gallon’s opening sucked the water in with a swirl. I stayed in the shallow waters, where shaded reflections of swaying trees moved on the surface. My brother was beside me for a short time and then splashed into the deeper, more forbidden, parts of the reddish pool.

Soon we’d be walking back, our gallons full. The river bank was a steep uphill trek and water sloshed out of our gallons because we didn’t have covers for them. Our wet feet mixed with the soft clay and made a slippery union. We dug our toes into the mush, becoming one with the red as it slid over our toes and feet. We pushed all of our weight down and finally waddled up the bank. I always felt that I had survived a great thing when we got back near our room; that the river bank had let me out; that I hadn’t disappeared into a dark hole or moving water.

Then, a rough hand pushed me into the river one day. I sank into the strong currents as it swallowed my limbs. One gulp and it tasted me. I was inside its belly. Water rushed up my nose—my head flooded. I panicked. My mouth contorted. My throat choked. I saw my black hair flowing all around, as my nails scratched at the heavy water. My outstretching arms clung to something hard and slimy. I grasped the underwater branch and climbed. The water pushed inside again, not letting go of my breath. My face, finally, emerged and I coughed my life back into existence. I feared that a mystical creature was waiting as my body wrung itself dry.

I looked up and saw a group of boys laughing; it was my brother, he’d pushed me.
Only then, had I learned to fear what was in front of me.

What Makes a Good Teacher

by Publius 

One reason I’m grateful to my colleagues is that, occasionally, they provide clarity.

 So this morning I go to the weekly meeting.   The new department chair reminds us about student portfolios.   To which I reply, ‘Huh?   Is anyone keeping portfolios?’

 “You remember, the one’s we’ve been keeping since Charlie was boss three years ago.”

 “You mean those dusty cardboard boxes in the back closet?   We gave that up for a lost cause two years ago.   We should update the dusty boxes?”

 At which point my colleague, Jack, says, “You know what your problem is?   You spend too much time worrying about term papers and such.   You need to stop worrying about teaching, and start concentrating on looking good.”

 “Yea — and you need more bits of colored paper on the wall,” David says.   “Nothing says Great Teacher like colored bits of paper on the wall.”


Poet’s Club

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

Our first “Poet’s Club” was held at Kathleen Lynch’s house. Our group included Catherine French (Side Show), Carol Frith, (her latest, two for a journey just came out from David Robert Books), Victoria Dalkey (twenty-nine poems and In the Absence of Silver) Lisa Dominguez Abraham (Low Notes), Mary Zeppa (Little Ship of Blessing and The Battered Bride Overture) Kathleen, of course, (whose book Hinge won the Black Zinnia prize a few years ago, and who I’ve written about in a previous blog), and me—seven women—that was our plan.

Until someone brought up the idea of including Quinton Duval, poet and publisher of Red Wing Press, and a longtime pal to most of us. 

Quinton’s poetry is full of duende; it has a great, big heart—and, not surprisingly, so does he. He studied with Dennis Schmitz here in Sacramento, and with Dick Hugo in Montana; his first full-length book, Dinner Music, came out from Lost Roads in 1984 and, after a long hiatus, Cedar House Press brought out another full-length collection, Joe’s Rain, in 2005. Among Summer Pines, his latest chapbook, came out two years ago. 

We took a vote: Q, as we call him, was in

And so we’ve had a great time these past few years, meeting roughly every month or two—celebrating and sometimes pummeling (or both) the books we read and discuss—writing lots of new poems—sipping more than a few glasses of the good grape, and savoring quite a few tasty dishes (like Q’s famous-among-us Savory Bread Pudding). 

“Poetry withers without fellowship,” Stanley Kunitz once said. 

We have been in the fellowship thick of it. We love each other, nothing romantic—we’re joined at the poem’s hip. 

Things changed a few weeks back. 

The last time I saw him Q was battling allergies; he was scheduled to be the host for our upcoming meeting but had to postpone it when his doc subsequently diagnosed him with bacterial pneumonia. Shortly after that, we got word that Q was being taken to ER. They put him on oxygen and checked him into ICU.  We were asked to hold off visiting until he was stronger. 

Then the tests began, and a few days later we were told it was cancer—one of the most aggressive kinds, and it had spread almost everywhere. We felt like our hearts were being ripped from our chests. 

Q died on Monday, May 10th. They had sent him home a few days earlier, in an attempt to make him more comfortable. We know his death was peaceful, without pain, and within view of the garden he loved. That helps some, of course. 

And Q’s poems are still so alive on the page! —so full of living and breathing and singing. It’s hard not to ache for him, and for ourselves when we read them now (so many of them in his last collection like a long goodbye to life) even as we also take heart from his words. 

That word heart keeps coming up when we think of Q. Here is the link to his  book Joe’s Rain. You can read a bit about Q here, and sample a few of his big-hearted poems for yourself. 

And here is my own tribute to Q, which I was asked to write for our local publication, Poetry Now. The next issue will be dedicated to Q. The poem appears here with their permission.


Letter to Q, May 17, 2010


…a piece of the continent/ A part of the main…

                                    –John Donne 


Dear Q,


This morning our feisty little dazzler of a hummingbird

dropped by, with the thrum and whirr of  those posh


jade wings, and that off-kilter

boutonniere of shy ruby.


Then the local host, aerialist and stickler for tunes,

Mr. Mockingbird, started in a cappella; so of course


I thought of you, and that virtuoso

gang of old choristers, who


by now you must have found. I picture the lot of you

crowded around some infinite campfire’s galactic blaze,


hoisting a few glasses of otherworld wine,

as you cook up that dreamy asparagus


and potato number you nonchalantly served us a few months back.

Even a body without a body as we know it will zero in on


certain basic constellations—

to eat and drink whatever is


offered, of fellowship, good wine, asparagus, and stars. (As you would

say, it’s all nectar.) So I know you’ll stab anything and everything you can


with that strange new beak

of invisible heart. You’ll stir it up,


heat it to boiling, and write a few more great recipes for song. 

                                    (Quinton Duval, November 6, 2008-May 10, 2010)



by John Samuel Tieman

I don’t know why the young must die.

I fought in a war, but I don’t understand war.

I don’t understood why the memory of one war isn’t enough to horrify us when we hear the rumor of a second.

I spent a week, ten days maybe, on a little island in the Outer Hebrides, Iona. June of 1978. One afternoon, as I passed their war memorial, I counted the dead from World War I. As I recall, there were about thirty. It occurred to me that, since this fishing village numbered some 100 folks, these were the names of all the young men.

All of them. With the exception of the guys that came home without a leg, an arm, half-crazy. I remember reading a letter from one British woman to another. 1920 or so. She said, “We will have to have a new standard for male beauty.” Meaning, don’t complain that your man is blind — you’re lucky to have a man at all.

Iona has a, literally, royal graveyard. MacBeth is buried there, as are several dozen kings, dukes and duchesses and such. Of those graves I only remember three, each marked with a simple slab that reads, “A German sailor known only to God.” Submariners who washed ashore during the Second World War.

Hence my sense of identity with the guys who came home from WW I. All those fellows who watched as kids marched off to the next world war. Siegfried Sassoon. Robert Graves, who lost his son in WWII. Erich Maria Remarque, whose books the Nazis burned, whose sister the Nazis guillotined. Like the guys who fought The War To End All Wars, when I came home from Vietnam, I took solace in the thought that my nation will not make this mistake again.

More Tomorrow Village

By Maryam Abdul-Qawiyy

In 1993, when my family moved from San Bernardino, California to More Tomorrow Village in Belize, it hadn’t occurred to me that this new place would allow me to deeply experience the rawness of the natural world. We moved to a village because my mother wanted to go to the most remote place and show us—her American children—that a different world existed outside of suburbia. “You need to see how I lived as a child,” she’d often say.

My mother, older brother, two sisters, and I lived in a small room. We shared one bed, a portable stove, a kerosene lamp, and a small bucket hidden in the corner — our new indoor toilet. “We are living here until our real house is done,” my mother said. We didn’t know she’d begun purchasing materials for a house even before we left San Bernardino. Clearly, she planned on staying in Belize, and until the “real” house was finished the single room was our abode.
The grainy cement walls kept out large slithering creatures and other wild animals. Most nights we could hear the sobbing snarl of a panting jaguar. My mother would light a solitary candle and the flame flickered enough to see its prowling silhouette in retreat. We heard snooping men of the bush. Their hushed voices near our windows and their rubber boots being sucked sloppily by the muddy ground. Spop! Spop! Spop! I listened as the sounds retreated further and further away and I cradled myself under the mosquito net.

Thankfully, the only creatures that entered our room were flies and bats. The latter silently swooped in and tucked themselves into the cracks of the bumpy grey ceiling. I assumed this happened earlier in the day whenever we left the door ajar. Came dusk, the sky changed colors to match the red mud of the village. The bats were swooping and throwing their black bodies in the air, flapping noisily. Even though the bats beat the air like helicopters, if the sky wasn’t pitch-black, we had to ignore the bucket in the corner and use the outhouse. I pretended like the fluttering bats didn’t cause me to run.

The outhouse was wooden and decrepit, and of course, smelled like shit.  Tons of human waste had piled on for years and years, until frothing tiny bubbles burst in the rank air, creating a stagnant immovable funk.  For days, the odor lingered on my skin like a foul spirit.

The small shack sat near the river bank and leaned backward, as if one finger could push it over. The interior, separated into two small sections by a soggy plywood wall, had one area for bathing and the other held a gaping, wooden, toilet seat—clouded by flies. Home to many flies: house flies, horse flies, doctor flies, sand flies, dragon flies, short jacket-flies, the occasional flying cockroach and millions of mosquitoes that constantly buzzed, buzzed, buzzed. As I sat and listened to their song, my droppings splash into thick slush. Once, I curiously glanced into the hole.

The red tinted muck was moving. My eyes zoomed in and tiny strings of life had immersed themselves into the sludge. Worms and flies, tiny black specks, bathed in it; they lived their entire lives in that hole.

Several times, I tried squatting in the bushes instead, but that wasn’t always best when Belizean cow-itch gave a painful rash. So, I endured the fly-fly songs, the engulfing spoiled egg smell, and worried that if I fell in, then Shaytan, the devil, would be there to clutch me and pull me under the water.

Adjacent to the outhouse was a rain-water vat. Wobbly gutters streamed water into the large cylindrical basin. The blue-green paint curled, revealing rusted dots. Vibrating-burps of frogs resonated within the vat. At night, the long and low pitched chants boomed like praying monks. Myooooooon! Myooooooon! Sometimes, when I listened closely, they sounded like a car that zoomed by really fast. Myooon! Myooon! Or kittens. Myoon! Myoon! The faucet, for the vat, was rusted and close to the ground. When we twisted the nozzle it spat green slime and brown water. It caught the rain we couldn’t drink.