The Hands in Exile
Copyright 1983 by Susan Tichy
Irrigation   Lying on My Cot    The Hours    When I stop work 

To an Irgun Soldier   From now on    The rich don't have children


Dust on my hair and face,
oil in the dust I can taste
when a truck has passed.
And the sting of grapefruit oil
in the small splinter-holes in my hands.
The smell of the plastic cooler
when I drink, water running down
my chin and throat and shirt,
disappearing in the heat.

A man told me his water truck broke down
in the Sinai, in one of the wars.
As long as convoys passed
he lived like a king
on cigarettes, brandy chocolate,
and pictures of girls. Their nipples
made his mouth water
in spite of the dust.
The soldiers drank
till they sweated again
and he slept under his truck, dreaming:

The wars were over.
His country was an island
where men worked all day
pouring sand into the ocean.
Some schoolchildren were reciting:
How many people live in heaven?
What color is God?
Where do trees go when they leave the desert?
Why is it cold?

And he heard himself answering:
Don't listen to your own fears.
Pitch your tents in the shadow of running water.
It's cold in heaven.
And there are many gods in this green tree.

First published in The Antioch Review (1981)

Lying on My Cot

The cigarettes taste like horseradish
but they're free. Bugs
leave holes in the rolling paper
going in and out.
Towns on the horizon go one and off.
The mosquitoes aren't so bad
since I let the lizards in.
With crickets, orange soda,
the big guns and small-arms fire,
it's peaceful, like thunder and popcorn
on the back porch
on a hot, Southern night.

Down below, a tractor driver
takes his turn at the gate. I hear him
check his weapon,
the spin of gravel when he turns,
the short chuk of a match.
One of his radios speaks code,
the other rock-n-roll: "Baby!"

I like to imagine the bugs
beating hell for fresh air,
tearing at huge walls of paper,
their teeth not fast enough,
their burned bodies traveling down my lungs.

Across this silence, Lebanon blooms
like an irresistible flower.

First published in Antioch Review (1981)

The Hours

The crop plane stalls its engines,
drops an octave and a hundred feet
into a zoom of poison,
plowing through sleep nose first.
That's dawn.

Noon is the whistle,
like a sword blade,
of passing jets.
They go nowhere.
They bomb nothing.
The papers say
no borders are ever crossed.

Dusk we mark by a rumble,
far away, noticed only
when a day's work is done.
The rumble is the animal that guards us.

So, what if I slept on the other side?
Right there, perhaps,
in that small twinkle of lights?
I'd stroke the black, shining hair
of the same animal
and feel safe.

This is peace.
It causes men to grow old. On women
the face of an olive leaf
into cracked ground waiting for rain

or darkness.
We each like down.
Wind lifts soil and branches,
lightening everything
but us.
It even blows the borders
back and forth above our heads:
at twelve we are in Israel,
at two we are not.

At five, when the crop plane
already revs its engines in half light,
we fall asleep and dream,
for half an hour,
that we climb the swaying ladder
to God's house.

First published in Antioch Review (1981)

When I stop work...

When I stop work and rub my face
I rub soil of the Promised Land
into my skin.

Whose bones to you suppose
are filling my pores? Who smiles
in the dark crescents under my nails?
A soldier, or his shy, malarial bride?

Except a corn of wheat
fall into the ground and die,
it abideth alone.
If I stayed here seven years
every cell would die
and grow again. I would be
Holy Land, all over

--except the brain, whose cells
are grains of sand in a rock fortress
imagined by tired travelers
to be the City of Peace.

To an Irgun Soldier

One camel survives Jerusalem.
A dollar-and-a-half a ride, it lies
bored on the pavement
on the Mount of Olives, in front
of the library. Don't you remember?

El Lawrence was not in sight.
The two boys passed time
molding camel shit into enormous piles
with their bare feet. I had just
asked you if a man
remembers what country he died in.

You turned to face the synagogue.
"When blood is spilled, may it spill
on the outside walls." Your eyes
nested in their deep lines--from laughing
or from squinting at the sun?
Your lips embraced their cigarettes,
your tongue its poems...
And yes, yes, you helped me
get a job, a ticket, drinking
toasts to me, to you. but here

I work. And here
the hillsides wear their houses
like an old tattered shawl.
I build. But what I build
some other will knock down. It's simply

Ha Yorden--"that which falls."
And everything I see around me
falls--men, houses, hair
of a woman, tumbling from its combs.
If not by bombs, by wind.
And last of all the sky.

Still, there are detaiils--flecks
of mica in the soil, streaks of red
down certain blades of grass. Be details
I remember this is more
than the dry course of our thoughts.

Just now, the hands you once compared
to white cups--unbreakable and pristine--
are oiling a pair of boots
with Vaseline. Once stylish,
the boots are French
and crudely painted black--an artist
would have had them for his models
if there were artists like that anymore.

And landscape? Days are cold.
The lake of miracles is gray
and placid as the sky. I've learned
to move slowly, to ask few questions
in these oil-and-mud-stiff pants.

I work.
And after work, I drink
until the memory of your hand falls
away, light as a shock
of wheat against my thigh.

And yes, yes, maybe you didn't
blow that building up. Perhaps ships
approaching on the two seas
--salt and sand--collided.

That's your business--
knowing what no one knows,
not seeing what everyone sees.
I believe it. I believe

crows wish there were no animals
dead at the side of the road.
And among these men and women
seated at the café,

one of them loves another. The rest?
We made it up. Your hands are virgins.
And Israel, their bride, lies still
just under the face of the hill.

Out in the street,
where boys are cracking puddles
with their bare heels, ice shatters
like clapped hands between the walls.

The death of God was not like that.
The death of God was gradual,
a workman's shirt falling slowly to pieces.

From now on...

From now on I am a road
just reaching the top of a hill--
I go one but I can't see where.

Let rain fall. Let breath
condense on the dirty glass.
The present is my house
and my house is full of children.
I lift each one above my head, and shake out
the armies that fly from their mouths.

Some of the children speak plainly.
Some comb out their tangled hair.
Some pack the suitcase
they'll carry to the next life.

But what I love and what I hate--
I'm letting go of their hands,
those two poor twins.
Who will take them in?

The sun will shrivel, the rain distend,
and the wind will roll me over in her arms.
No one will know what size shoes
I was wearing, not even me.

It will be "the day of labor,
the night of gunfire" forever.
No decisions but the necessary ones.
And no more nights like this one.

From now on I am a road of stone,
hewn, and mortared to the hill.
When a man strikes his foot against my shoulder
let him swear, let him stoop to rub the bruise,

and rest where a cypress blocks the wind
like a shawled woman turning her back.

The rich don't have children...

The rich don't have children
because of the expense,
the lazy because they're lazy,
and the sad because of wars.

Here that's especially true.
The rich go to America,
the lazy die,
and all the sad are drafted.

Fine soldiers, these boys.
They stay awake all night at the gate
keeping the dark orchard at bay. And they love

to walk through Old Jerusalem, inspecting
every one of her widening cracks
for bombs. A fine lady, Jerusalem,

united now with her lover,
her other self.
No more love letters.
No more smuggled children to be raised
by the dark sisters outside the wall.

"No rape at all?" said a French correspondent,
shaking his head. "What kind of army is that?"

"I'm sorry," said the Arab girl, "but it is true."

"I'm sorry," said the paratrooper
who gave me a lift to Bethlehem.
"We can't do everything. We are so few."

Irrigation   Lying on My Cot    The Hours    When I stop work 

To an Irgun Soldier   From now on    The rich don't have children