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Saturday, December 19, 2015


by Alexa Poteet

Sherdrick Koffa, estranged from his family because he helped burn bodies during the Ebola outbreak. Credit Samuel Aranda for The New York Times, December 10, 2015

In Monrovia,
the wakes used to go on for weeks.
The living applied ointment to the dead
with gentle fingertips, kissed
their eyelids shut. Scrubbed under fingernails,
pressed through earrings. Sewed garments of gold, green
for those who would never dress themselves again. Bodies
were not washed but made new and dirtless
for the next life. Their pockets stuffed

with coins. Working men
went days without food to buy
mahogany caskets, marble markers
and plots large enough for houses.
On Decoration Day, brigades
of families brought bleach and good towels
to polish the hand-chiseled tombstones.
This, Liberia once said, was how to cross
into the next life. To keep ghosts
from weeping at your bedside in the night.
There were no burial boys then, you see.

Now—goggled, gloved, otherplanetary—they arrive. Breath
and sweat trapped in a terrarium of plastic. The medical
membrane that keeps good in and bad out. Underneath,
the pockets of their oil-stained clothes
brim with matchbooks. The tools
of this trade are plain.  The boys don’t cry
anymore because the masks fog in the heat. Burning,
the state says, is the only way

The mourners scream, beat their heads with fists
for children set ablaze. Their hair curling into
charred sulfuric tendrils, skin blistered
black.Their pooled blood—an acrid human ore.
Burial boys is a misnomer;
usually, they don’t have to.

Guardians of a safety no one can bear
to want, their belongings litter the street
outside childhood homes. Familiar voices break
in the telephone: You burning body?
Then I’nt want see you no more around me.
The Ministry of Health did not invite them
to the ceremony where foreign doctors
clasped hands with the president.

It sends them moonshine in old cassava crates
once a month. Easy, because they live together;
there’s nowhere else. At night, they pour
cloudy liquor for each other. Clean fingernails
before shooting up
until their minds are spotless.

Alexa Poteet is a poet and freelance writer from Washington, DC with a master’s degree in poetry from Johns Hopkins University. Her poetry has appeared in Reed Magazine, Lines + Stars, and PennUnion among others. She has also enjoyed staff positions at the Washington Post, The Atlantic and The National Interest.