Poem 12 ± World AIDS Day 2017

David Schimmelpfennig
The Road Forever Traveled

Not the type of road I’d otherwise pick.
No forks like Frost’s: just dirt, rutted and unkempt.
Meandering out to the main one
that sticks out on maps.
To the smooth tarmac that isn’t devastated
every time the donga’s get upgraded.

How many times have I walked this road?
Really a foot trail wide enough for a car.
Ever since I was three, one way or the other.
This time back toward my family.
Away from the bus stop,
electricity, telephones, running water.

Toward the hut, the village, our kraal.
No longer my hut or kraal—
I’ve made peace with that turn I chose to take.
Away from home and kraal,
probably that time when the bus was late
and the offer so inviting.

A momentary pleasure behind the store.
A turn taken never to be undone.
The cost was cheap, but who really pays?
Did I or is it them?
How are they without me?
I must go back and see them, minus me.

It’s not far away,
I can see the smoke from evening fires
sliding over the veldt.
Cooking smoke that lingers above the grass.
Not as hot as brush fire smoke
that hurries up into the sky.

I can see the breath of a few young men that pass.
A chilly night, but no steam passes from my lips.
Follow the footprints into the village.
The prints tell a lie, no new ones left behind from my steps.
Our hut’s door is open and dark
Do I need to sneak, ashamed how I made them cry?

My dearest Evelyn is easiest to see,
closest to the fire
kneeling in front of her
dented aluminum pot,
teetering on a grate over a fire
cooking pap for six.

Why all choked up, now that it’s meaningless?
I was seldom home for this.
Hardly ever enough for everyone;
a good enough reason.
Now without me they have even less.
She turns the white porridge to keep it from burning,
steam joins the smoke rising
through the hole in the thatched roof

We have four children together.
Blessed by almighty.
The eldest are boys, seventeen and eighteen,
working separate jobs in the city.
They send home money in a single envelope,
and look out for one another.

Our eldest daughter is fifteen
and will be married soon.
Such nimble fingers and strong back.
I got most of her lobola but it went too fast.
She fetches the water for most dinners
and brings enough in the plastic drum for breakfast.

Our youngest is twelve.
She does well in school and
builds up a big appetite on the running team,
always in the podium mix.
That makes three,
but this pot will shortly feed six.

Evelyn’s brother also rolled the dice with HIV
and had even better odds than me.
At least she had a regular job at the Hy-Vee Mart
But like times before kissing dice in town, he lost.
Two of his six will stand at their posts by this pot
and share space on the floor of the hut tonight.

AIDS also took my youngest brother.
There’s no Xhosa word for brother-in-law,
just her husband’s brother.
Our families are close,
even more so as they get smaller.
One of his boys waits feeling guiltier than the others,
not too far from the aluminum pot.

He’d rather be out of the hut;
beyond the village,
out in the quiet half-darkness lit by the moon.
So since, as usual, there’s no rain,
he’ll make a ball for his pocket out of his serving,
and head out for as long as he has courage.
No money for school; no curfew

The pap is starting to slowly thicken
as stomach’s ache in anticipation,
and after some sleep and breakfast tomorrow,
Evelyn’ll strain her back and collect firewood again.
Carry it home on her head in a tied-up-heap.
No one cares that parafin is subsidised and stoves are cheap.

They’d all say the same to anyone,
mieliepap cooked over a wood fire,
is number one.


logoDavid Schimmelpfennig’s work has appeared in Science and National Geographic. He holds a BS in industrial management from Purdue University as well as an MA and a PhD, both in economics, from Michigan State University. He was a senior Fulbright Scholar at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, in 2002 and a principal investigator on Rockefeller Foundation projects assessing the impacts of genetically modified crops in South Africa from 2000 to 2008.

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