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They Taught Us in School to Sing of the Huddled Masses

by Kory Wells

And now we’re an odd and tuneless lot,
crowded and waiting for a bus, or maybe
some crazy ride at a run-down
amusement park, tickets clutched
in sweaty hands. It’s cold but we’re
somewhere south. Or is it east?
Everyone’s trying to avoid eye contact
or preserve their personal space
or keep the children hushed.
None of it’s working. We’re over-warm.
Our coats smell of stale grease and coffee.
Someone in back lights up a cigarette,
or maybe it’s smoke from a cross burning
long ago. Or yesterday. A hazy stench
first rises, then settles heavier than guilt.
A few people cough, and now someone
hands to me a baby, swaddled and so small
I know she’s starving, maybe even dying,
and without a thought I lift my shirt,
uncup my breast like a dove before her mouth.
My pale nipple has not nursed a child
in twenty years. The body knows.
The baby latches on, weakly at first,
then stronger, her nose so close to my flesh
I worry about her every breath.
She suckles and the milk aches its way
from deep within. I imagine it thick and gritty,
but the body knows. Little as I have,
it will be enough.

Dark strangers. I know her parents
when they come. I hand her over
with a small, soft block of something white.
Maybe it’s goat cheese, or a too-obvious metaphor
for grace, or manna in new convenient packaging.
Or maybe it’s an eraser, the kind draftsmen use
to fix an error, leave fragile paper clean.

Read all work by Kory Wells


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