Thirst by Tracy K. Smith
The old man they called Bagre
Who welcomed us with food
And rice-paper cigarettes
At the table outside his cabin
Was the one who told the soldiers
To sit down. They were drunk.
They’d seen the plates on our car
From the road and came to where
You and I and Bagre and his son
Sat laughing. I must have been
Drunk myself to laugh so hard
At what I didn’t understand.
It was night by then. We smoked
To keep off the mosquitoes.
There was fish to eat–nothing but fish
Bagre and the other men caught.
The two little girls I’d played with
Were asleep in their hammocks.
Even Genny and Manuel,
Who rode with us and waited
While we hurried out of our clothes
And into those waves the color
Before the soldiers sat down,
They stood there, chests ballooned.
When we showed them out papers,
They wanted something else.
One of them touched the back of my leg.
With your eyes, you told me
To come beside you. There were guns
Slung over their shoulders
Like tall sticks. They stroked them
Absently with their fingers.
Their leader was called Jorge.
I addressed him in the familiar.
I gave him a half-empty bottle
Of what we were drinking.
When it was empty, I offered to fill it
With water from the cooler.
He took a sip, spat it out
And called you by your name.
I didn’t want to see you
Climb onto that jeep of theirs–so tall
And broad it seemed they’d ridden in
On elephants yoked shoulder to shoulder,
Flank to flank.
Maybe this is a story
About the old man they called Bagre.
The one with the crooked legs
That refused to run.
Maybe this is a story about being too old
To be afraid, and too young not to fear
Authority, and abuse it, and call it
By its name, and call it a liar.
Or maybe it’s a story about the fish.
The ones hanging on branches
To dry, and the ones swimming
With eyes that would not shut
In water that entered them
And became them
And kept them from thirst.
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