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Cleaning Women

Night-people, their hour of rising
Is with the dark: the last elevators
Descending at six in the office towers,
Carry the power-suits and their briefcases;
The next going up bring the Royce-Rolls
Maintenance carts, and the maids in disposable
Gloves. One by one fanning out to their floors
Assigned, they part company in Spanish,
Vietnamese, Ghetto, Greek: cheerful night-wishes
For the night’s work to be done, gleaning
The littered fields where profit-takers
Have reaped their harvest. Dust is laid, trash
Bagged, executive carpets cleaned. The hours
Wear on. Down a midnight hallway, blank as computer
Screens before morning’s numbers rise again green,
A woman’s chocolate contralto bleeds in song: how
She will come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.

-- Nancy G. Westerfield
Kearney, Neb.

A Scripture Lesson in Kenya

In Swahili there’s no distinguishing
gender in words, the scholar explains,
no noun or pronoun to denote
man from woman, he from she,
There is only person, only human.

Imagine how that would be:
no signs that write you out of roadwork,
no sacred text in which you’re invisible
or by subtraction, irrelevant.
No reserving the Imago Dei
for the anatomically correct.

The Nairobi-born scholar concludes
her Scripture text, the visiting students
their reverie. Just one question:
Does she ever mind not having a word
to reflect her gender’s distinctness?

No. She minds only the long reach
to borrow foreign words that would deny
her priestly call.

-- Kathleen R. O’Toole

The Weight of Little Things

Each step was counted like the prophet’s
on his flight to Medina. The Serb farmer
along the road guarded his front door
with a loaded pistol after having locked
his wife and daughter inside. We looked
the other way, pretending not to notice
the burnt Albanian farmhouse across
the field from his. “Neighbor fighting
neighbor,” Fatima said. Back home
in Urosevac, our Yugoslav neighbors
brought us bread on Fridays for Sabbath.
Our children shared sweets with theirs,
Melaim would meet with Vlajko down
at the tobacconist’s for tea and gossip,
and always the televised soccer game
together after dinner Tuesday evenings.
We heard rumors, but nothing ever came
of them. One morning we woke up
and all the doors on our street were painted
with an S. All, except ours. Vlajko
was furious. “Those damn nationals,”
he said, scrubbing his door as he cursed.
There were little things; the red leaflets
stuck in the cracks of the mosque wall,
teasing from the other school boys
when they saw Zenel’s circumcised
penis — asking him if he was really born
of a dog. Yes, there were little things —
We’d survived them before. The army
had always left us alone. When the tanks
rolled down our road that day, we packed
our things and left. Not much weight to carry,
just the children, some papers and clothes,
our neighbors’ Serbian bread on our backs.

-- Jason Ranek
Sioux Falls, S.D.

Walking Through Paradise with a Friend
Who Doesn’t Believe

At the end of the path you expect nothing,
a clearing perhaps and then pure air,
no trace of animal droppings, insect bites,
just an opening in the trees,
an end of the path cleared before us,
a suddenly treeless empty plain,
not even the sounds of birds chirping.
Here is the story that you desire.
There will be no suffering, no cross.
Everyone you love will feel good.
Around each neck a chain with a rock,
instead of that man on a cross.
You would celebrate the caves of birth.

For me, there are rocks and blood,
nails and broken bones, but I am not
alone in this. We are all within
this one suffering body of life, Christ,
so long as we breathe, but
there is a window, a clearing,
an opening in the wall,
a way out of the cave.
Someone has shown us the opening
by passing through it first
and now calls us along this way.

I will meet you in that clearing, friend.
Whatever we go through, we’ll go through.
We will sing together in Paradise
where we have begun to sing even now.

-- Leo Luke Marcello
Lake Charles, La.

National Catholic Reporter, July 30, 1999