In Kolkata, sweat of women I’d never know
who crowded the bus, spilled through windows
like branches, want of sun. Only lentils and cold tea
at the home for women who had lost their minds
or their families or were simply dying, too slowly,
no one to care and I’d like to say I didn’t pretend
saviorhood but who among us would admit so?
Not the nuns wrapped in white, like us,
called to the altar by stories of Mother Teresa
and her franchise of grace. By Jesus shining
like the skin-bleaching ads on the market wall.
I laid marigolds at the foot of a bed, woman dying.
Woman trampled by a cart. Woman who
must have been there for days until they
loaded her onto a van, maggots teeming
in her broken limbs. We had no words to speak
to each other but she knew nail polish. She laid
a trembling hand over my knee and I painted.
She cried and I painted. And when I was finished,
she wiped that still-wet hand on my pants, left
streaks of drying varnish stinking the air.
Held her hand toward me. Said, again. Again.
Image: McClure, Frank. “Procession of Nuns.” N.d. Ink. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.