Minnie Bruce Pratt

Selma, Alabama

The Great Migration

The third question in Spanish class is: De donde eres tu?
She'd come for brand-new words: las flores rojas, el puente.
To have words like crema de leche on her tongue at least
for a few weeks before tasting the bitter syllables of their history.

How begin with the young woman next to her asking: Where?
Young enough to be her daughter but--
The place where you were one of five half-naked children
playing in the dirt under a porch. There was a yellow dog.
The place where I was a white girl sitting in a dusty car
with the window rolled down, looking at you. No word
to share. That place. That place.
She says, Del Sur.
The girl replies: We moved up here when I was eight.
Until last year every dream I had happened there.
I take my daughter down to see my aunts. She's four.
Back home she can take her shoes off. The ground's not
strewn with glass, like here. The dirt's clean, at least.
Do you have folks, back home?
From class to home
she tries out her lessons. At the bus stop bench, she sat next to
a man who hated spring, its thunderhead clouds, its green-
leafed rain. At home, he said, there was only sun. In the north
in Chile, rain was somewhere else, not falling everywhere
like sadness here. He'd not been back in twenty years.
There was him, and the man who hated the cold and the brick factory
and the one room with fifteen people he can't remember. He began
to walk back to Guatemala. Police picked him up in Texas.
No soles to the bottom of his shoes. Police stopped him in Mexico.
Three thousand miles in four months. He'd done it before. His compass
was walk south, toward warmth, you come to home before the war.
At home there was a dirt track by the paved road, worn down
through pink sundrops and fox grass, an emphatic sentence
written by people walking north to work.

Books called it
The Great Migration, but people are not birds. They have in common
only flight. Now, in the city night, they dream they're caught
in a cloud of dust and grit, looking down at land being shoved,
furrowed, or burned by huge machines. In the daylight they stand
in line at the post office and buy money orders to send home.
Beatrice is there to collect a package from her mother. This time
she's sent onions grown in sandy soil. She says they are sweeter
than apples, that one will feed a crowd, that they have no bitterness.
At home their neighbor said: I can tell any county I'm in
just by smelling the dirt.
Beatrice puts aside five
onion globes shining yellow as lamplight, like the old kerosene
lamp they set in the kitchen for emergencies. She'll give
them to the woman who sits by her in Spanish class, the one
young as a daughter, the one she'd never have known at home.
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