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The Tribal Knot

Rebecca'a newest nonfiction book, The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change is now available from Indiana University Press and Amazon.

Tribal Knot

Early Morning, Downtown 1 Train


In this car packed with closed faces, this tube
            of light tunneling through darkness: two sleeping boys, so close
                        I could touch them without reaching—their smooth brown faces,

planed cheekbones like Peruvian steppes leading from
            or to some beautiful ruin. Boys so alike they must be brothers.
                        And the small, worried man they sprawl against, too young to seem

so old: father. How far have they come? How far to go?
            They sleep as only loved children sleep, wholly, no need
                         to tighten or clutch, to fold themselves in. Their heads are thrown back,

mouths open—no, agape, which looks like agape
            the highest form of love, some minister told me long ago.
                        As if love is a cupboard of lower and higher shelves, and why bother

reaching if you have hands like the hands of this young father,
            cracked and blistered, stamped with the pattern of shovel or pick.
                        For someone must do our digging, and rise in the dark to dress

the children carefully, as these boys are dressed, and pack their knapsacks,
            and ease out of the seat without waking the open-mouthed
                         younger one nor the older whose head now rests fully

on the emptied seat . . . but, “My, God,” I think
            as the brakes squeal and the father moves quickly to face the door, “he is leaving
                        these children, a father leaving his children.” The train slows at 50th

and he presses his body against the door, lifting his arms
            above his head—a signal? surrender?—as the door slides open
                         and a woman steps in, small and dark like the father, her body

lost in a white uniform. She touches his sleeve, something
            passes between their eyes. Not sadness exactly, but ragged
                        exhaustion, frayed edges meeting: his night her day, her night

his day, goodbye hello. She slides onto the seat, lifting
            one son’s head to her lap. His mouth is still open, his body limp.
                        She smoothes his collar.  Her small hands move to his lips,

closing them gently the way one closes the mouth
            of the recently dead. But the boy is not dead. Just sleeping,
                        an arm thrown over his brother. His mother near.

Published in The Georgia Review

Early Morning, Downtown 1 Train
More Family Poems

Also...

  • Aunt, an essay from The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings