Pilgrimage

Austin Gerth

It took a moment to understand

I had fallen, that my husband

had pulled us—me and the baby—

to the ground. I felt the railroad ties

spaced beneath my back and down

my body—my hip, the thick

of my calf, one scuffing the bottom

of my sandal. I felt the angular chips

of shale between the ties—

so strange—I thought of my bed

in my parents’ house, when I was young,

in Syria. No, not a bed: just a mattress,

centimeters thick, on the floor, made

only of straw and a layer of wool

overtop. I knelt beside that bed five

times a day at the muezzin’s call. My forehead

rubbed against the rough material

of the mat at the bottom of each bow.

And as I was lying on the tracks, the baby

under my arm, my husband behind

me, half beneath me, his arm

across my chest. His voice hoarse as he yelled

at the crowd of policemen,

he was screaming; the baby, calm.

We laid on our backs like a cutaway

of a nesting doll, every layer exposed.

The uniformed men reached for my husband.

I began to pray, silent, questions

only: Why are we here, Why is this happening,

Why? I could not bow, but I felt my forehead

against the mat again, as though still

oriented toward Mecca, even here.