by Doug Ramspeck
He can’t be certain how much he actually remembers and how much he has been told by his mother. The stories and his memories are the vine and the tree so intertwined you can’t know to distinguish one from the next. He does know he was very young in that time before they left for the United States. His father showed him how to hide beneath the Baobab tree behind their house. It was a great tree, as old as the moon—or so his father teased—with spirits waiting in the fruit from which they sometimes made a porridge. There was an indentation in the earth into which the boy and his sisters lay down, pulling across themselves what must have been leaves or twigs, though mostly he remembers being amid the heavy earth smells and gazing up at the high branches of the tree, which seemed far away and so as beautiful as stars. Sometimes it was the soldiers going by, sometimes the rebels, though it was hard for the boy to see one as any different than the other. And it was beneath that tree where the boy’s sisters lost their lives, though the boy did not witness that himself. It has been the one event that both his father and mother have refused to discuss in any detail, not for all the years. All three of them live now in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, less than two miles from the Ohio River, though the boy is not a boy any longer and resides with his wife—American born, with distant ancestors from, of all places, Norway—and their two young children, one boy, one girl. He works as an anesthesiologist at Allegheny General, and he does not have a hiding place in his own back yard, no spot for his son and his daughter to seclude themselves should the soldiers or rebels drive by with their Kalashnikovs. There is a swingset with a slide, a badminton net they leave up in the summers, and little nozzles that peek up from the earth in dry weather to dampen the grass. He does worry, of course, about what the future will bring when his children come into contact with typical city woes—thugs and gangs, drugs and sex—but for now his children are as innocent as his memories of making “monkey bread” from the Boabab fruit with his mother and his sisters, making sweet and sour candy from the pulp. So it came as a shock when his wife awoke him one late August night to say she thought she heard someone in the house. He rose at once. Told his wife to hide in the bathtub. Crossed the hallway to the rooms of his children. Hid them at the back of their closets, covered them with loose clothes. Stay quiet, he said, quiet. Then grabbed the baseball bat he kept in the bathroom closet for such occasions, crossed down the narrow hallway into the main part of the house. Over the years he had come to believe that his sisters must have been raped before they were killed, even though they were only children—and that was the horror his parents couldn’t bring themselves to share—and he tried, now, for a reason he wasn’t certain he could know, to call up the faces of his sisters. But all he could remember were the faces from the photographs he kept atop his office desk at the back of the house. He was enraged at the thought. He had nothing left of his poor sisters, nothing he could truly call his own. And now these intruders were after his own wife, his children. He knew it was foolish, knew he should be hiding with his family, knew he should be phoning the police, but he stormed into the living room with his bat raised in a striking pose. And he saw the moving beam of a flashlight. And he flipped the switch on the overhead light. And there they were. Two of them. Trying to remove his flat-screen TV from the wall. And so he went after them. He couldn’t have said whether they had a weapon or were unarmed. He couldn’t have said anything about them except that they were there, that it was an affront, that it could not be tolerated. They were fleeing by then, but he went after them, and the bat found the back of one of the thieves, knocked him into the couch. There was a satisfying grunt of air expelled from the blow, the pain of the affliction—but then something terrible happened. The intruder put up his hands to protect his face and body, and it was clear now in the light that he was just a boy—maybe sixteen, at most—and it was clear that he was terrified by this monster before him with the bat, as terrified as his sisters must have been so many distant years ago. So on the one hand he wanted desperately to bring down the bat, to crush the face of the child on his couch, but on the other hand he wanted to stroke the boy’s check and to comfort him, to tell him it would all be okay, he was safe now, he had nothing to fear. In the end the man sat quietly with the boy on the couch while they were waiting for the police to arrive, both of them with their hands in their laps, neither of them speaking or looking at each other, and at one point the man realized that both of them were weeping.
Doug Ramspeck is the author of five poetry collections. His most recent book, Original Bodies, was selected for the Michael Waters Poetry Prize and is forthcoming by Southern Indiana Review Press.