Before the dam was built our people slept
under the water
and worshipped the dark bird-shadows of
which passed overhead, seen through
the ripples of distance.
Our crops were the weeds and growths that
trailed like tears
out of the sunken skulls of fish.
We scarcely noticed the water
weighing on our chests like a stone:
how do you notice a burden that has never
Speech went nowhere, a breath released into
the thick silence
that bathed us and sealed us in.
To communicate, we handed each other objects
dropped down from boats — a spoon for kindness,
a chronometer for death —
the phrases the gods had set for us.
After the dam was built we lay naked on
our dry beds.
It was so light we could not rest.
We had to believe that an element we
could not see
was now our own. The shadows we’d
learned to worship
streamed from every object. Some of us
to birds whose shadows flickered across
some to waving clotheslines’ shadowy flags,
and some to clouds that passed over the
dimming our other gods
to nothingness for a moment.
The weight of water being lifted from
we learned the terror of aspiration,
soaring, knowing they may burst.
And our words carried through the
almost more than we could bear — released
to travel, to die at unimagined distances.
published in The Christian Century