The Words Under the Words

- 1952-
for Sitti Khadra, north of Jerusalem
My grandmother's hands recognize grapes,   
the damp shine of a goat's new skin.   
When I was sick they followed me,
I woke from the long fever to find them   
covering my head like cool prayers.

My grandmother's days are made of bread,   
a round pat-pat and the slow baking.
She waits by the oven watching a strange car   
circle the streets. Maybe it holds her son,   
lost to America. More often, tourists,   
who kneel and weep at mysterious shrines.   
She knows how often mail arrives,
how rarely there is a letter.
When one comes, she announces it, a miracle,   
listening to it read again and again
in the dim evening light.

My grandmother's voice says nothing can surprise her.
Take her the shotgun wound and the crippled baby.   
She knows the spaces we travel through,   
the messages we cannot send—our voices are short   
and would get lost on the journey.
Farewell to the husband's coat,
the ones she has loved and nourished,
who fly from her like seeds into a deep sky.   
They will plant themselves. We will all die.

My grandmother's eyes say Allah is everywhere, even in death.   
When she talks of the orchard and the new olive press,   
when she tells the stories of Joha and his foolish wisdoms,   
He is her first thought, what she really thinks of is His name.
"Answer, if you hear the words under the words—
otherwise it is just a world with a lot of rough edges,   
difficult to get through, and our pockets full of stones."

More by Naomi Shihab Nye

Streets

A man leaves the world
and the streets he lived on
grow a little shorter.

One more window dark
in this city, the figs on his branches
will soften for birds.

If we stand quietly enough evenings
there grows a whole company of us
standing quietly together.
overhead loud grackles are claiming their trees  
and the sky which sews and sews, tirelessly sewing,
drops her purple hem.
Each thing in its time, in its place,
it would be nice to think the same about people.

Some people do. They sleep completely,
waking refreshed. Others live in two worlds,
the lost and remembered.
They sleep twice, once for the one who is gone,
once for themselves. They dream thickly,
dream double, they wake from a dream
into another one, they walk the short streets
calling out names, and then they answer.

Two Countries

Skin remembers how long the years grow
when skin is not touched, a gray tunnel
of singleness, feather lost from the tail
of a bird, swirling onto a step,
swept away by someone who never saw
it was a feather. Skin ate, walked,
slept by itself, knew how to raise a 
see-you-later hand. But skin felt
it was never seen, never known as
a land on the map, nose like a city,
hip like a city, gleaming dome of the mosque
and the hundred corridors of cinnamon and rope.

Skin had hope, that's what skin does.
Heals over the scarred place, makes a road.
Love means you breathe in two countries.
And skin remembers--silk, spiny grass,
deep in the pocket that is skin's secret own.
Even now, when skin is not alone,
it remembers being alone and thanks something larger
that there are travelers, that people go places
larger than themselves.

Fuel

Even at this late date, sometimes I have to look up
the word "receive." I received his deep
and interested gaze.

A bean plant flourishes under the rain of sweet words.
Tell what you think—I'm listening.

The story ruffled its twenty leaves.

*

Once my teacher set me on a high stool
for laughing. She thought the eyes
of my classmates would whittle me to size.
But they said otherwise.

We'd laugh too if we knew how.

I pinned my gaze out the window
on a ripe line of sky.

That's where I was going.