Meron Hadero is a finalist for The Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing.
Original version published in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern Issue 52, finalist for the 2019 Caine Prize for African Writing
When I met Herr Weill, I was a lanky 10-year-old, a fish out of water in –, Iowa, a small college town surrounded by fields in every direction. My family had moved to the US a few weeks earlier from Ethiopia via Berlin, so I knew no English, but was fluent in Amharic and German. I’d speak those sometimes to strangers or just mumble under my breath to say what was on my mind, never getting an answer until the day I met Herr Weill.
“There were moments when I didn’t need to tell my body how to move,” poet Marcelo Hernandez Castillo writes in the opening passage of his memoir, Children of the Land. He’s introducing a scene in which armed ICE agents arrive at his house. He’s a senior in high school. The agents are looking for his father, who isn’t there. They leave. Yet their presence, a longstanding threat finally realized, creates a shift. Hernandez Castillo can no longer act without thinking. He explains, “Even laughter required some kind of effort. I had to remind myself: this is funny, this is how you laugh—laugh now, laugh hard, spit out your food.”
Review: Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo
I tucked my hands into the pockets of my cardigan and pulled it around me in a hug as I set out for my walk. The sun was low in the west, the air nippy. I wandered into Central Square just as the City Hall clock above me struck seven. Crossing the street, past the noisy tavern on the left of the sidewalk, and people enjoying conversations and dinner al fresco on the right, I arrived at Rodney’s. The bookstore is an institution in Cambridge, MA. It sells used and rare books with a fast-changing inventory. I made a beeline for the New to Rodney’s table in the center of the store.
When I arrived for my shift, I heard talk of a search and rescue near the south end of the Ptarmigan Traverse: two climbers, stuck on an 18-inch ledge. They dropped their rope and most of their camping gear while summiting 8,200-foot Spire Point, the remote tail of the route, a spot between Sentinel and Dome peaks that most people reach only after several days of route finding. It’s fearsome, storm-wracked country — the Pacific Crest, where waters spill east toward the Columbia River or west to Puget Sound. And if you get high enough, your cell phone might work, as it did for those climbers this morning. They called 911, who in turn called us, the Park Service.
First you have to have hair. This trend toward baldness negates the problem.
Once you have grown a luscious mane, gather images on your lion tongue: ripe peaches, sizzle of bacon, crisp campfire scent of an almost winter night, handful of rain or feathers or marbles, the details of sunset, and and fast cars. Weave your materials carefully. Remember that birds like shiny things. The colors and flavors you choose may affect the type of bird you lure into your hair-nest.
I bend to earth. My fingers trace woodworm tracks along a beach log. I hold a frog in my hands and see patterns of mottled green. I’m looking for patterns. My Southeast Alaska landscape is woven on spruce baskets. On my walks, I’m like the ancient weaver who noticed a tree’s shadow reflecting on water. She moved her hands as if she weaved air. Later, with spruce roots between her fingers, she weaved the-shadow-of-a-little-tree on her basket. In her ancient Tlingit belief, the shadow of a tree is evidence of the spirit inhabiting the tree. The spirit is woven in shadow pattern, which becomes the “spirit of the basket.” The Lingít word aas daayí means tree bark, yet also describes the physical shell of a human being—aas daayí. In the Tlingit worldview, personhood is connected to the spirit of the trees, that is, people and trees share the same skin.