The Common Good
July 1994

Chopping the Beets

by Elizabeth Ann James | July 1994

My dearest aunt, Butheyna, is chopping beets,

chopping the shamander. Klush, klush

she wields

a gutting knife, the chopping board

is a plank from ...

My dearest aunt, Butheyna, is chopping beets,
chopping the shamander. Klush, klush
she wields
a gutting knife, the chopping board
is a plank from a dhow. Klush,
klush. Now the tops.

She tosses a handful of chopped leaves,
and the huge kettle and my white sun dress
turn emerald, as though deep waters of the Gulf
have seeped into Butheyna’s voice
flooding the yellow kitchen.

"My mother
had two mothers and no poppa anywhere
on earth, imagine. One woman was abyed,
white, like anise sugar.
She concealed her good looks with shawls.
Her eyes were fairoz, bright
turquoise. A falcon
rode on the back of her wrist, and on calm days
she released him to the sea.
This woman sailed the boat.

"The second woman was black, aswad.
She rubbed her skin
with crude oil, her eyes
were amber hunks. Underwater
she was coal and diamonds, her one dress
was a torn sail. It was hamra, red
she loved red. She was the diver,
she slept on the pilings.

"Each woman
worked for the same captain
on different boats. Each carried half a baby,
an old woman would sew the halves into one.
They used to walk together of an evening,
the mothers, and paint each other’s hands:
‘Every second pearl I swallow,’
said the diver, ‘when my half
comes out tell her to slit my belly.
The pearls for our daughter will be there.’"

Aunt Butheyna carries a stain
like a pale apple on her brown face.
It does not wash off with vinegar or lime.
I wear a bikini and swim in a pool.
Klush, klush. I dream of pearls.

ELIZABETH ANN JAMES teaches poetry workshops for the Artists in Schools program and for the Cultural Arts Center in Columbus, Ohio.

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