Monday, February 24, 2014

At the Elevator

At the Elevator,
9th floor
Lucia beat one fist
against the wire bound glass, screaming
her voice raw with a terror
as vicious as the flames
and as unrelenting.
You promised you would come back
she wanted to cry to the operator, so come back! 
The doors are locked,
for the love of God
come back for us!
But what left her mouth was

Through the press of bodies
she stretched out both shaking arms
wrapped in singed and tattered lawn,
searching. Mama had been beside her,
Where are you? She coughed, sucking in
There, she touched a familiar arm.
She clung to it,
as though the hand that had soothed fevers
could stop the flush in her cheeks now.

Fire-lit faces seemed all the same 
in the haze, but Lucia picked out one,
five feet off the ground. Her glass heart
Lucia kissed her sister's head, smoothed
her curls with one hand.
Madonna mia, not Rosaria, too.
She is so young,
we are all too young
to die here.
We are works in progress,
half-finished shirtwaists,
but she is fourteen.

Around her people screamed
Yiddish, and English
and the Italian of home,
one plea, one cry-
Please, God
I do not want to burn-
the words almost drowning out the roar 
of the flames.
The elevator did not come back,
did not come back
did not come back
The pile of women separated
by faith and language
held each other now.

They were dying here,
Protestant, Catholic and Jew.
No more differences among them, only 
fear, desperation, faith in a better place
beyond smoke and charred flesh.
No one would die alone, but all
in the arms of 
a mother, sister, daughter, cousin,
a friend. There was no room for strangers
breathing in each other's breath
breathing out the same plea:
I do not want to die,
in so many dialects.

Rosaria pressed her face against Lucia's shirtwaist
and Mama pulled them close to her breast
their hearts beating in time.
Prayers offered up in all those
shrill, hoarse voices, never sounded 
so holy as the flames
closed in.

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