Age: 15, Grade: 9
School Name: Horace Mann School, Bronx, NY
Educator: Yael Schick
The Cry of 10,000 Mothers
Gui Zhou, Southern China
The roads are unfamiliar again for the lady
She begins to sweep the streets of Gui Zhou and when the pattering of rain,
Marks the humid beginnings of the fifteenth spring,
the juddering tears of the clouds;
A puddle of spilled milk against a carton of blue
Join her own.
She puts on her straw hat
Worn from the sun, wind, and the occasional lightning clap
That has aged with her.
Her eyes hunt the crowds, seeking out the young men,
stepping out from the bus stops and around the street corners
lingering on their foreheads.
Just for a moment, and her eyes flicker,
Her fingers wrap tighter around the handle,
Pressing crimson crescents into her palm.
Her eyes become black whirlpools that reflect the morning sun, bright, before
They drain away, and her arms move against the broom once more,
As she had always done.
She moves, one street to the next, her halting steps shuffling past
Uneven cobblestone and littered fields that she sweeps clear
Her broom clutched in the calloused remnants that tell of her past,
Roughed valleys of harsh jutting bone and the scatter of sunspots,
Pallid brown seeds planted at the nape of her gnarled fingers,
the tree that drained its life before its first leaves.
She scours her brain for an answer
Blaming herself, boring away at old wounds
If only she’d left the shop earlier on that rainy Wednesday,
If she didn’t stop to converse with that neighbor
Chasing a dragonfly into waiting hands
The sky strung together by gray clouds that shielded the sun from the mud and pavement
And a magicians warped smoke curtain,
That stole her son, from her.
A sapling, plucked from the ground and robbed from the earth
The very soil from where it sprung;
By the hands of human traffickers
Fingers tainted by the bodies of a thousand youths
And the material worth of the discrete rolls
Passed beneath the tables. 1
And so she sweeps away with her broom
The dried leaves, furled and long dead
Off to the side of the streets
Her footsteps across China, that of a fine toothed comb
That spanned a thousand miles
And in those cities and towns, her eyes sweep the sea of people
Searching, silently riding the waves of passer-bys
And within a frothing current of scattered prospects,
Looking for her son.
Perhaps she would spend the rest of her life
Riding in the current of the train tracks
Sweeping the streets of Hei Long Jiang to Chang An.
Because she cannot bear the ‘what if’s’ that would follow
That led up to that day and that moment.
If she turned her back, stopped holding on
To the fading picture of a cherubic boy
With the star shaped birthmark on his forehead.
Folded into a dozen squares in her back pocket
That she could have found him
If only she kept on searching
and hoping and believing
That her child may still be out there.
That her child will return home.
Shenyang, Northern China
The hike to school is long.
A winding path through the mountain and fields, encrusted
By a powdering of snow and the weight of hanging ice crystals,
bending the backs of naked trees
The backpack weighs her down and hunched her shoulders
An excuse to look down, eyes trained at her worn shoes,
Away from the sympathetic glances and the curious chatter
That flutters away from behind upturned palms.
She blames it on herself.
For all the times she pushed him around
Turning the lock on the door before his clumsy fingers
Could warm the metal’s cool surface
How she laughed when he fell,
Face first into frozen sludge
The product of a late autumn snow storm
That turned to water as it hit the ground.
And the times she said that it wasn’t her business
That he might as well wander off on his own
Because she couldn’t care less.
But when she walked back up the trail
That same path she took everyday up to the schoolhouse
The frigid air was empty next to her
She felt small fists tug at the straps of her backpack
But they were fluttering on their own, pushed frantically
By the relentless attacks made by the howling wind.
She waits for the phone call,
That would cut short the harsh reality that it was.
The subjects of the stories they were warned of
Children trafficked by the thousands
Ripped away by shadows, lurking behind street corners
And backlots and empty playgrounds.
They were only tales to her once.
When her family notified the government
Adding his name to the list of thousands
They harbored hope that he would one day,
be found again.
But she knows the list only grows longer
The wait will stretch on
Weeks turn into months and then into years
Perhaps they will never find him.
Left on the constant doubt that lingers
Throughout their lives if he may still be out there
And perhaps one day, long into the future
The police will find him, living a different life
With a different name and a different family
And that they may walk to school hand in hand again.
That her little brother would return home.
Northern Guangdong, Southeast China
The buildings are yellowed with age – and something else
It’s all the backdrop to someone’s play
The hollering of schoolchildren below
In their blue and white uniforms
The spicy fumes from the Zao Dian shop – the smoke machine
Wafts and curls its tendrils around the ankles
Of some stray dog and a construction worker
Ambling to an early morning shift
I press my cheeks against the harsh ridges
Of the gates that enclose me from the outside
The clamoring of car horns and the rickety kiosks
Laden with fruits and children’s toys and the
Cigarette tainted conversations of the taxi drivers
In their mid afternoon break
Raucous story telling mixed with Marlboros stubbed out on glittering car hoods.
As they leaned on road side fences, shirts rolled up past their chests
beneath collars that drooped over, wilting petals in the summer heat.
I grew up in a world
Secluded by the harsh black lines of a gate
The warm fingers of my Grandmother that clung to mine
Warning me of bad men, that stole children away from
The breasts of young mothers.
To stay away from strangers on the roadside,
Because you never know who they are behind the smiling mask
Of cooing greetings and friendly banter
They were scary stories to me
Sending me hurtling into a waiting duvet
Because even when my eyes found its own way
To paint the world a rosy pink:
From the way arms tightened around my shoulders when the sun began to fall
Below the skyline.
And as I wandered off on my own
The incessant scolding of my kindergarten teachers,
The wrinkling in the corner of their eyes and twist of their lips.
I knew it was real.
Even for me, the promise of shielded eyes and guarded walls
Can give away to a drop of water that seeps its way
Through an unnoticed crack.
And in the back of our minds it is there.
A reminder that darkness is constant even in daylight
When the newspaper slid under the door
Posted yet again, with a photo of a small child
Cut through with bolded black letters
It comes not as a surprise,
But another call for the numbers that are still rising
Of child abduction in China
The list that only grows in numbers
rising off forgotten names
The only things that signified that they ever existed
A small heartbeat that once dared breathe the air
And feel the Earth beneath their feet.
Each year neglected,
but for the unheard cry of 20,000 mothers.