44.1 Feature: Sabrina Orah Mark Reads FOR THE SAFETY OF OUR COUNTRY
Sabrina Orah Mark is the author of the the poetry collections The Babies and Tsim Tsum. You can visit her at sabrinaorahmark.com.
For the Safety of Our Country
by Sabrina Orah Mark
Listen to Sabrina Orah Mark read “For the Safety of Our Country” from 44.1.
Today is a new batch. The Presidents come from all over. Perishable Presidents in thinning sweaters. Presidents bent like moons. Thirsty Presidents. Humming Presidents. Thick, winterish Presidents. Sick Presidents. Beautiful Presidents. See-through Presidents. Watery Presidents. Presidents with faces blank as almonds. Hollering Presidents. Sad Presidents. Sadder Presidents. Presidents skinny as twigs. Presidents soft as bread. “We’re here,” announces the bus driver, “White House.” The Presidents stumble off the old yellow bus once, long ago, used for schoolchildren. “We’re lost?” asks one President, squinting in the sunlight. “Not yet,” says another. “More like we’re becoming lost.” I’m the one in charge. I am small, but quick. And I’m a hard worker. As they descend, I hand each President a sack lunch of chicken legs and oranges. I hand each President a small bottle of water. “Nobody is lost,” I assure them. “See,” I say, spreading my arms wide enough to hug them all, “we’re all right here.”
As they walk towards me, they leave behind like uprooted trees the barest trace of earth.
None of the Presidents smile.
They go through the turnstiles. Entrance is free.
I come from a long line of superstitious people. We spit three times, we keep salt in our pockets, we wear tiny hands against our chests, we throw no baby showers, we chew on thread, we break the glass, we knock on wood, we rarely smile for fear of bringing attention to a happiness we rarely feel for fear of someone out of nowhere taking our happiness away. And so I don’t expect anything from the Presidents. I barely expect them to stay alive. And this, for all of us, is a relief. This is why they put me in charge.
Yesterday I sent the last batch along their merry way. No one was whistling, least of all me. Like charred paper up a chimney, the old Presidents were here and then they were gone.
The new Presidents fan out on the grounds that are lush because of me. They shyly peel the meat away from the bone and eat. They chew stiffly. The grass on these greens is greener than most greens are green and wilder. Some Presidents get caught in the thicket and copse, but I untangle them before they even know it.
When they are done with lunch, I show the Presidents around. “Here is the dark pond. Here is the rec room, the china room, the crying room. Here is the library and here is the secret library. Here is the water fountain, but it doesn’t work. It never worked. And over there,”I point to over there, “is where the nickels and dimes are kept. And over there are all the pennies.”
“And here are your beds.” Thirteen rows of beds, like stripes on a flag. “One bed per President,” I instruct.“ Don’t take two beds because you only need one.” A few Presidents twist and mat together like fur, but I comb them out. I want to ask the Presidents if they remember animals but I know now isn’t the time. It’s never really the time.“ At the Eleventh Hour,” I announce, “we’ll meet back at the rec room.” “What?” asks a President. “At the Eleventh Hour,” I say as loudly as I can, “we’ll meet back at the rec room.” The Presidents will forget. They are still busy choosing beds. I will remind them twice more.
Among the Presidents there is one President named Huh. I notice him immediately. His black coat is soft and frayed. If in his graying beard is one half-written poem folded up many times, I wouldn’t be surprised at all. He picks his bed last. I linger though I shouldn’t as he opens his suitcase. Nothing but dustpans. He stacks them carefully beside his bed. He sees me seeing. Dustpans. It’s unquestionably a hearty collection.
Something about Huh makes me want to throw a stone into the sea, but there is no sea anymore. And the stones were collected and hauled away years ago.
It’s against the rules for me to love one President more than another.
I slip away down the hall. A bouquet of Presidents. I pull them apart at the neck.This is part of my job. Unbunching.
I spray Windex on our motto: “You are Here for the Safety of our Country.” I wipe it until it shines. I mop the floors with something scentless. I pick up everything the Presidents drop: pencils, socks, candy wrappers, loose leaf paper, apple peels, tooth brushes, dollar bills, bars of soap, postage stamps, worry dolls, shoe laces, combs, buttons, receipts, nail clippers, sometimes even a tooth. Soon it will be the Eleventh Hour. I go to my room to change into something more significant.
The President named Huh knocks on my door. “What’s this country’s name again?” I tell him the name. “See,” says Huh, “it has no ring to it.” He leads me to the window. “Look,”he says. “All these people in their colorful T-shirts just staring up at me all day. It’s too much. I mean, I’m just a man.” I look out the window. There is no one there. There hasn’t been anyone there for years. He looks off into the distance. “How do you spell Woo Hoo?” “Some people,” I say, “use a dash. But I like it without.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a wishbone. We crack it. He gets the larger piece, closes his eyes, and makes what looks like a wish. “What did you wish?” I ask. The terrain on Huh’s face is silent, still. Under his left eye appears to be a small patch of moss where a flower could grow if only he believed in himself a little more. “I wished for nothing. I’m just a man,”he says. “And this is just a country.” He looks back out the window. “And those are just citizens.” I look carefully through the glass. There is no one there. “There’s nothing to wish for,” says Huh. He takes my hand and leads me back to his dustpans. “And those are just dustpans.” I look at the dustpans. It really is a hearty collection. I notice his breath: paltry. Puny.
Huh and I stand beside his bed holding hands for a long time. It’s impossible to tell one dustpan from another.
“At home,”says Huh, “I used to keep sheep. But the sheep got distraught.” “Of course they did,” I say patting his back. Sadly he chuckles. He touches my thinning hair. I touch his beard hoping to find something, but it’s empty. Not even a dustpan. Not even a small one. Huh goes back to his quarters, and I go back to mine.
When I arrive at the Eleventh Hour the Presidents are already drinking fruit punch out of small paper cups. Traces of pink mustaches float above their lips. The orange and blue and red and yellow and purple crepe streamers suggest a celebration. A knot of Presidents thickens behind me. I loosen them. I see Huh. He has the look of a man who left his only son, one hundred years ago, on a windowsill. Frantic and defeated. I go to Huh. I have to fight a little through the streamers to get to him, but I get to him. “Something happened,” says Huh. His lips are dusty. “Something is always happening,” I say. The Presidents like water swell around Huh. I look into their eyes. Cracked seashells. They’ve been through so much. “You’ve been through so much,” I say. The Presidents nod. The Presidents turn their pockets and out spill crushed flowers they’ve picked for no one. The President’s heads are bent, and they are making little gray sounds. Sometimes I look at the Presidents and dream of another life.
The Presidents have done nothing wrong. Not really.
“Something happened,” says Huh again.“ We’ve been briefed.” “The trees,” says a President, “have been shot.” “Which trees,” I ask, though I know.“ The Aleppo trees,” says a President. “The Aleppo trees have been shot,” says a President. “What does Aleppo mean?” asks a President. “It means to give milk to travelers as they pass through the region,” says a President. “Oh,” says a President. “Milk,” says a President. “Trees,” says a President. “Region,” says a President. “Do we need Aleppo trees?” asks a President. “On that we haven’t yet been briefed.” “Have all the trees been shot?” asks a President. “Most of them,” says a President. “And what fruit do they bear if they bear fruit at all,” asks a President. “Pear,” says a President. “But rarely,” says a President. “Rarer than rarely,” says another. “Never,” says another. I let the Presidents go on about the trees as I hand each President a white night gown to change into before bed. “What should we do about the trees?” yawns a President. “Maybe weshould tell them to just surrender,” suggests another. “It’s getting late,” I whisper like a mother. A thin layer of mildew has begun to grow over the Presidents’ faces. I open a window. The Presidents’ white night gowns quiver, it seems, in the wind. But there is no wind anymore. So it cannot be the wind.
“The trees have been shot,” says a President. “For their timber,” says a President.
Some of the Presidents, like scattered hail, have already curled into small, white balls and fallen soundly asleep.
The others drift silently into their beds, leaving behind a trail of pear seeds. Seeds from the fruit the Aleppo trees will never bear. I sweep up the pear seeds and the sound of my sweeping sounds like for their timber, for their timber, for their timber. Huh hands me a dustpan. Into it I sweep the seeds. There are so many seeds. Huh smiles. Between his teeth are seeds. His eyes are seeds. Caked in his fingernails are seeds.
“Tomorrow is another day,” I say. Although it isn’t really. For the Presidents there is only ever really one day. Huh climbs over his stack of dustpans, and tucks himself in. I want to kiss Huh, but there are no kisses anymore.The kisses ended a long time ago too.
The Presidents breathe in and breathe out, in and out. I look out the window. In the distance very small bodies are dragging behind them very soft things. I close the curtains.The Presidents need their sleep.
Had January not ended a long time ago, in the morning it would’ve been the first day of January. And it might have rained had rain not ended. And there might have been the sound of children playing had children not ended. Soon everything will end. Soon the mountains will end. And the snow on the mountains will end. And the sunshine will end, and the moon will end. And soon the very, very last President will arrive and then Presidents will end too. And then it will just be me. The very last citizen. Standing quietly in the dark. Knowing I did everything I could to make this country a safer place.