C. Patrice Ares-Christian
Hibakujumuko, or Hibaku Grandmothers
Did you know some trees survived
the atomic bombs in Hiroshima?
Hibaku trees, bombed, survived trees.
More than one hundred grandmothers
saw day turn to white, to black,
to ash and shadow and wail.
Limbs disintegrated, tree-bodies unwhole.
Retreating into roots, into Gaia,
unable to not hear screams and silences,
more than one hundred grandmothers slept
gathered into themselves.
Slowly, grandmothers emerged, hibaku,
casting off the dead things
regrowing the missing things.
Some growing around what they had lost
keeping their scars to mourn, to love.
The hibaku grandmother trees returned to us.
If you are quiet, they will tell you
the absences caused by man’s inhumanity
and their own survival songs.
Back in the day, honey,
times were hard for black folks.
Of course, you know that.
Seems to me, for every happy day, there were a hundred sad ones.
On those days, the weather would be sunny and warm,
birds would come visit and sing their songs to me.
I’d chime in with the ones that I knew,
music emanating from my leaves.
My arms would wave as I danced.
I could get down, sho’nuff!
But then those nights would come, chile,
and with them, many terrors.
Slaves would always find me on their freedom journeys.
That patch of moss right there—
You see it? Right there on my left-hand side—
they’d touch that to find their way.
Some would stop to say a prayer before heading on.
A few would thank me for pointing to the right direction.
And that was all I saw or heard of them.
Occasionally, though, some of those black folks weren’t so lucky.
On those nights, they would leap into my arms
and climb as high as they could go.
The slave masters or overseers were never far behind.
Oh, I’d do my best to hide them.
We’d be so quiet, and they’d try not to breathe too loud.
As they whispered their prayers, I’d pray, too.
Lawd, all the prayers I’ve prayed for human souls.
Every now and then, the hunters would pass on by,
another slave safe for the moment.
But more often than not, those dogs would sniff out the scent.
My heart broke every time.
They’d yank him, or her, or them, out of my arms.
I’d try to hang on, desperately grasping at shirts or skirts,
but that burlap cloth would tear in my fingers,
and as they were carried off into the darkness,
I’d be left with only the threads of their clothing,
and the sounds of my pleas to God for mercy echoing in the silence.
I know this is rough to hear, baby,
but it’s been so long since I had someone to talk to—
someone who wanted to listen.
As bad as those nights were, the worst were those times
when slaves were brought to me unwillingly.
There was no hope, then, and I swear,
I forgot what happiness was.
At those times, the bird songs of those tranquil mornings would echo
hauntingly in my mind,
sending shivers up my trunk.
The light of their torches threw shadows on their faces.
I’d see the hardness of the masters,
their eyes gleaming in the firelight.
I’d see the fear,
gaunt terror etched in the lines of the captives’ faces
and piercing their families’ bloodshot eyes.
Those who weren’t afraid were numb,
resigned to their fate.
A few seemed defiant—
those were the ones who tried to fight to the end
those were the ones who got it worse than the rest.
When the stump was kicked out from under their feet
and their bodies shook as life was forced out,
the women and children would weep and cry out,
yelling last words and “I love you”
to those already gone deaf with dying.
Seemed like no one could ever hear my screaming and wailing.
My arms never felt so heavy as when a human was hanging from them.
I felt it—
They called them “strange fruit.”
That rope that choked the life out of them
burned like fire around my branches.
Oh, how I wanted my suffering to end.
I was the accomplice to too many murders.
I yearned for death,
but trees don’t just die.
The blessing, and the curse, is near immortality.
Tonight I drank wine
and meditated with Li Bai.
We swayed and allowed sounds
to come to us, to pass through us
As we considered the Tao,
like water, which abides everywhere
and is in everything,
and is strong and hard,
and is soft and flowing.
Leaning, we finished another bottle
and I told him of the Mother Ancestors
who are wise and nurturing,
who are beautiful and passionate,
who are listeners and storytellers.
He didn’t know they lived in trees.
We drank more wine, and slurring words, pondered God.
Rain falls in an autumn dance
tapping against the house
forming floods near the gutters
Green leaves tinted yellow and brown
try desperately to hold onto branches
unwilling to concede to Mother Nature’s call
The red ones have already given in
Their fallen brothers and sisters scatter the
pray for a strong wind to huddle them together
to relive the best of the seasons together
before giving a rustling sigh
Neighbors rush past on the sidewalk,
clinging to broken umbrellas and flimsy raincoat hoods
Oblivious to the theater taking place underfoot
and as they walk carelessly by.
walking in the stillness
breathing only she can hear
and illuminated by shadow light
occupying space and nothingness
I inhabit the night
drink wine and try to forget that
ancestor spirits once called to me from the trees
take a break from planning the next la revolución
entreat the quietness to stay forever
Is it the illness or the drunkenness
that keeps me from feeling my legs?
in the darkness, I pretend I am alone
my mother taught me to have
nightlights around the house to discourage
and nighttime spirits
On a dark and stormy day
Oldest Sister told Younger and Youngest Sisters to play and
even let them use Barbie Dream Car.
Younger and Youngest Sisters squealed delight
did not see determination and tears in Oldest Sister’s eyes.
Oldest Sister lay on massive bed, hewn from tree.
Her head barely touched big adult pillows as Father
closed the door.
She had seen in his eyes greedy expectation and
something oneday people call lust.
Father unsnaps Oldest Sister’s overalls
the ones with the blue and pink flowers
Oldest Sister will remember warm, too big hands
hot mouth, saliva, teeth
And she will hate her small breasts, still growing
resent the nipples that she does not understand
Oldest Sister will try to cut them off one day.
Oldest Sister stares out window, sees Outside Tree.
She tries to forget allthethings as she holds her breath,
listens to giggles of Younger and Youngest Sisters
through too thin walls.
She pretends she is in Narnia, she pretends she is a unicorn.
When Father is done and panting
Oldest Sister tries to ignore his sweating, curly-haired chest.
Back on with the overalls that used to be her favorite
another outfit she will never wear again
Oldest Sister slides off big bed hewn from tree,
returns to Younger and Youngest Sisters who are arguing
over Barbie Dream Car.
Later, Outside Tree,
who knows and sees much, throws herself at
Father, falling onto bed hewn from tree.
Like a jungle of branches, Outside Tree sprawls
over bed hewn from tree.
Father escapes, but is very scared.
Oldest Sister greets Outside Tree, who knows and sees much.
Oldest Sister communes with spirit, gives thanks
for sacrifice, sends off spirit with reverence.
Father does not touch Oldest Sister for a long time.
Oldest Sister knows why.
Daybreak in Alabama
For Langston Hughes
This morning I awoke
and quietly listened to the sleep-sounds of
nature, and your gentle snores.
I crept out of bed
so as not to disturb you
and walked outside to meet the day.
At times like these, I am reminded of
daybreak in Alabama
and those mornings when I would rise
before the sun to greet the new day’s light.
Now, morning sun is climbing the horizon.
Dawn wind thickens the dew.
As fog lifts, I walk between the trees—
cypress and ash,
cottonwood and hickory.
Heat rises out of the ground like swamp mist;
I feel it through my shoes.
Soon I will return to you,
climb into our bed
and wake you with soft kisses,
make love to you in celebration of the new day.
I know the scent of pine needles
and the smell of red clay after the rain.
They remind me of daybreak in Alabama,
and these quiet mornings with you.
C. Patrice Ares-Christian: "I am a graduate student earning my Ph.D. in Asian American and African American literature. I am currently finishing a manuscript of poetry, among other creative projects. In addition to writing and studying, I cook, read comic books with my husband, and spoil my Yorkshire terrier."