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Skull Trees, South Sudan



Published December 8, 2010 at 7:41 a.m.

Arok, hiding from the Arabs in the branches of a tree,

two weeks surviving on leaves,

legs numb, mouth dry.

When the mosquitoes swarmed

and the bodies settled limp as petals under the trees,

he shinnied down, scooping out a mud pit with his hands

sliding into it like a snake,

his whole body covered except his mouth.

Perhaps others were near him,

lying in gloves of mud, sucking bits of air through the swamp holes,

mosquitoes biting their lips,

but he dared not look.

What did he know of the rest of South Sudan, pockmarked with bombs,

skull trees with their necklaces of bones,

packs of bony Lost Boys

roving like hyenas towards Ethiopia,

tongues, big as toads, swelling in their mouths.

the sky pouring its relentless bombs of fire. Of course they were

tempted to lie down for a moment,

under the lone tree, with its barely shade,

to rest just a little while before moving on,

the days passing slyly, hallucinations

floating like kites above them

until the blanched bones lay scattered in a ring around the tree,

tiny ribs, skulls, hip bones — a tea set overturned,

as the hot winds whistled through them

as they would anything, really,

and the sky, finally exhausted,

moving on.

Adrie Kusserow is professor of cultural anthropology at St. Michael’s College. “Skull Trees, South Sudan” first appeared in The Kenyon Review, and was published in The Best American Poetry 2008. It is included in her second book of poems, forthcoming from BOA Editions Ltd.