I Couldn’t Tell Which Were The Thoughts
And Which Were The Trees

– from “Brownies” by ZZ Packer

Once we were old enough, they’d pack the car each summer
and call us vagabonds, which, for the longest time,
we thought was bag-of-ponds, and we loved it
because we saw ourselves as something splashable and fun,
and each year was a new place—with water slides
and amusement parks and beaches and steep windy woodland trails
and swimming pools and canyons—and the world
grew smaller for us, until that time, on the way home from Florida,
when dad lost his way and we stopped in that little town
where the people smiled and said, hey there,
where the men tipped their hats and the women waved,
and mom said it was the sort of place you dream of living in,
but then there was the tree in the park, across from the diner,
with people gathered round, adults with big voices and signs,
and you said they reminded you of the pictures in History books
of soldiers at war, with their two lines facing off against each other,
only they were shooting their hands instead of guns,
thrusting fingers at each other, hurling words and anger,
and dad asked the woman serving lunch what was going on
and she said, some folks got a mind to take that tree down,
but it’s been at the heart of this town since the beginning,
and mom asked why they would want to destroy such a beautiful thing,
and you and I envisioned climbing it’s thick branches, hours
in a three-tiered tree-fort, when the lady said, that’s the hanging tree,
over forty were lynched there, and you thought
she had something stuck in her throat because her voice got small then,
and when she went away I asked dad what lynching was,
because maybe it was a game we hadn’t invented for ourselves,
and his eyes were wet and he said, lynching’s when people reach
the end of their rope because other people are different from them,
and you said, like we are from the neighbors back home,
and mom said, yes, and dad said, and those people are afraid,
and I said, of what, and he said, it’s hard to say,
I don’t even think they could tell you, but they swing that rope
over a high branch, and I said, like that one, pointing to the limb
three boys about our age were sitting on, and he said, yes,
and they tie the other end around the neck of someone
who’s different and they do it in front of the whole town,
like going to a ballgame, you asked, and dad said, yeah, only
one team hasn’t got a chance and when they lose they lose everything,
and I said, you mean like their house and their toys,
and he said, I mean their lives, only more than their lives,
and the lady brought us our bread pudding, but none of us could eat
any more after that, and dad got us in the car and said he was going
to drive through the night and mom didn’t argue this time,
and we sat on the way home as if they’d clipped our tongues,
and I looked out the window and I knew the world had changed
and I had changed and, for the first time, I couldn’t tell
which were the thoughts and which were the trees,
which is why I took the gas can from the garage,
why I set the fires in the backyard, why I could look them in the eyes
and say I was sorry, not because of what I did,
but because I couldn’t find another way to save us.

(first published in Boxcar Poetry Review,
selected to Best of the Net by Juan Felipe Herrera)