Imagine the confines of a long grey corridor
just before immigration at Washington Dulles
airport. Imagine two Ethiopian women amid
a sea of familiar international plastic blandness,
entering America for the first time. Think of
their undulating multi-colored turbans raised
atop graceful heads, transforming us,
a grey line of travelers behind them, into followers
and mendicants, mere drab, impatient, moneyed
and perplexed attendants to their bright,
excited, chattered arrival.
Imagine a sharp plexi-gass turn left and suddenly
before them, in biblical astonishment, like a vertical
red sea churning, like the waters barring Moses from
The Promised Land, like Jacob standing before the ladder,
a moving escalator, a mode of rising, a form of ascension,
a way to go up they’d never seen before, its steel grey
interlocking invitation on and up to who knows what,
bringing them and everyone behind them, to a bemused,
complete, and utter standstill.
So that you saw it for the first time as they saw it
and for what it was, a grated river of lifting steel,
an involuntary, moving ascension into who knows what.
An incredible surprise. And you knew, even through
your tiredness, why it made them raise their hands
to their mouths, why it made them give low breathy
screams of surprise and delighted terror. You saw it
as they saw it, a staircase of invisible interlocking
beckoning hands asking them to rise up
independent of their history, their legs or their wills.
And we stopped as we knew we had to now
and watched the first delighted be-turbaned
woman put a sandaled foot on the flat grey
plain at the foot of the moving stair and sure
enough quickly withdraw it with a strangled scream,
leaving her sandal to ascend strangely without her
into heaven, into America, into her new life.
Then, holding her friend away, who tried to grab
her, to save her, to hold her back, who pointed
and shouted, telling her not to risk herself,
not to be foolish, she silently watched her shoe,
that willful child, running ahead, its sole intent
to enter the country oblivious to visas and immigration,
above the need for a job, uncaring of healthcare,
pointing toward some horizon she had never dreamt,
intent on leaving only its winged footprint
for her to follow, like a comet’s tail, like an omen
of necessity, like a signaled courage, like an uncaring
invitation, to make her entrance with sould and style.
Because she looked up at this orphaned, onward
messenger with her eyes ablaze, threw off the panicked
clamboring arms of her friend, raised her chin
in noble profile, and with all that other hurrying
clamor of the world behind her, with a busy,
unknowing, corporate crowd at her back and questions
beginning to be asked out loud, she lifted her arms,
clapped her hands, threw back her head and with
a queenly unbidden grace, strode on to the ascending
heaven bound steel like a newly struck film star,
singing the old, high pitched song her children
would hear when she told the story again.
And as her friend below sang,
applauded, danced on the spot
and ululated her companion’s arrival,
we stood there behind her,
transfixed, travel weary,
and crammed into the corridor
like extras from some
miraculous scene in the Bible.
her arms straight out,
wide eyed and singing.
— David Whyte, River Flow, © 2007 Many Rivers Press