Gitanes

They spill like oranges from the back
of a van – no shoes, no buttons,
no towels, nothing.  They have nothing.
Just naked children and yellow mutts.
They race down the field to the river
jumping and calling, splashing over the stony beach
and into the water dressed as they are:
paint-stained jeans cut off at the knee,
thin cotton skirts you can see through,
their babies knotted up in scarves,
rub soap on themselves, their clothes.
That one, the dark one, he must be the prince,
snakes and eagles tattooed all down his back
and a beautiful woman that ripples as he moves.
He sinks below the swift black current
and the shampoo lifts from the top of his head
like a magnificent turban, to drift downstream.

I cannot read my book any more and
my heart is pounding.
T’as des cigarettes?  They stare at me
and I shake my head.
Du feu?  Rien a manger?  No.
No.  No.

Now the boys turn cartwheels on the hot stones
and sing hoarse-voiced, twisting their hips to the radio
while the girls clap time in their wet blouses.
That one breaks her last cigarette in two
to share with her sister, her friend.
This one flicks her black hair forward
and combs it out with her fingers
to dry in the sun.  She has streaked it with henna.
Her children chew at the end of a loaf.

I am afraid to swim in case
they steal my folded clothes, my rug,
my watch, my good book. My good life.
And the prince comes closer, smiling
in a way I cannot read.
Tu veux danser?
I am white, timid,
disapproving of their litter.
He takes the money I hold out silently
and tears it in pieces.
And they are laughing.
They are laughing at something.

Beatrice Garland