portion of Lyn Lifshin's artwork

My Father Tells Us About Leaving Vilnius
Lyn Lifshin

On the night we left Vilnius, I had to bring goats
next door in the moon. Since I was not the youngest, I
couldn’t wait pressed under a shawl of coarse cotton
close to Mama’s breast as she whispered “hurry” in Yiddish.
Her ankles were swollen from ten babies. Though she was
only thirty her waist was thick, her lank hair hung in

strings under the babushka she swore she would burn
in New York City. She dreamt others pointed and snickered
near the tenement, that a neighbor borrowed the only bowl
she brought that was her mother’s and broke it. That night
every move had to be secret. In rooms there was no heat in,
no one put on muddy shoes or talked. It was forbidden to leave,

a law we broke like the skin of ice on pails of milk. Years from
then a daughter would write that I didn’t have a word for
America yet, that night of a new moon. Mother pressed my
brother to her, warned everyone even the babies must not make
a sound. Frozen branches creaked. I shivered at men with
guns near straw roofs on fire. It took our old samovar, every

coin to bribe someone to take us to the train. “Pretend to be
sleeping,” father whispered as the conductor moved near. Mother
stuffed cotton in the baby’s mouth. She held the mortar and
pestle wrapped in my quilt of feathers closer, told me I would
sleep in this soft blue in the years ahead. But that night I
was knocked sideways into ribs of the boat so sea sick I
couldn’t swallow the orange someone threw Estelle from an upstairs
bunk tho it was bright as sun and smelled of a new country I
could only imagine though never how my mother would become
a stranger to herself there, forget why we risked dogs and guns to come

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