On the Isle of Lesbos

by Tsitsi Jaji

For the ones who rescued refugees from the Aegean

Months later, the island’s sheep
shuffle, uneasy with silence. Last year
a hundred thousand voices begged to
drown here, not in Aleppo. They retched
as if heaving could save them. But only
thick seas of salt spilled onto the holiday sand.

An island man clenches his jaw. Now
the earth holds his only daughter still.
One Christmas, spasms seized her. The next,
her brother shook his way to lay down beside her
in the ground. Then this fishing man learned
what grave diggers know, by doing.

Only the boat’s lip remained, trembling on a crest
of sympathy. He moored himself in his nets, a morning
haul of squid miming hope. Then the tide turned:
his arms flooded full of other men’s children,
here to rescue him from the ocean
of a father’s aging grief. Mothers’ mothers

were caught off guard. They shepherded
this off-season crowd to the guesthouses, fed them
ewe’s milk, took care to pay their stumps no mind.
These sibyls already knew, from Turk and Greek, how
opposites can hurl waves of rage at a no man’s land,
and leave men and women in ruins.

If they had it to do over again, they would,
and could, now that their villages have cleared,
now that the boy’s photograph has won a
Pulitzer and slipped our minds. They feel washed
out, they feel their memories ebb. Under breath, their
Sapphic rags do not stand a chance against

the sirens of Madeira, and Ibiza’s disco scene.
Once a day a woman sights a tiny ghost toddling
across the water. All these islanders have earned
is anxious rest. Not even saints, stranded
at home, can live without bread to kiss
and milk to rinse away its taste.

Published on July 1, 2020

First published at Harvard Review Online February 9, 2018.