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Poetry

For You Were Strangers in Egypt

This poem is one in my @notaleptic series of poems where the Twitter bot of the same name provides the first line or lines. I wanted to put a Jewish hero into one of my “creepy off-planet work assignment” poems, with the help of a Jewish sensitivity reader. I’m very pleased with what resulted.

—ERM

after @notaleptic

a year on a desert planet
one contract, danger pay,

surrounded by people you don’t know,
talking in a language you don’t speak.

not for lack of trying. your vocal cords
won’t rasp quite right. you understand

but can’t muster answers. you work
for water and for words, stimulants,

vocabulary. you wonder why everyone
sounds afraid. the lightning doesn’t

strike that often. the quakes, sure.
you’ve never seen heavy labor

this spooked, and there aren’t
enough bots. maybe a third of

what you’re used to. but you can’t
ask questions past “is there a

problem?” no, no problem, but
some of these engineers don’t act

like engineers and some of these specs
don’t have symbols you recognize

even with the dim familiarity of the
written languages you can’t read.

you’ve never seen so many workers
leave a contract, here then gone,

probably paying fines out the nose
and no one is replacing them but

no shift bosses yelling about slowdown.
they all seem pleased. they smile

and you don’t like that, bosses shouldn’t
smile like that, they’re never satisfied

at the best of times. less workers means
more food, double rations, extras—

that’s suspicious too, they should be
holding back. you think about leaving,

remember the penalty clauses and
go back to shifting sand and grit.

you ask a bot when no one’s looking.
it speaks your language. it has

nothing useful to say. you feel silly.
it telling you no sorry bye is the last

time you hear your language spoken.
five mandated rests go by and

they stop work. The transport is coming.
That is what being massed like this

at the end of a big contract means,
but instead there is a black slab

like the dark of space if space
had teeth. The bosses are here.

Bosses are never here at the finish.
Bosses don’t take transport with you.

You feel the panic before you see it
break out, before the chanting, before

the guns. You do what you learned
from your parling who fought the endless

war, before it ended: fall down, play dead.
The floor is slick with blood, the noise

unbearable. You don’t dare look, but
with bullets ringing in your ears

the tearing sounds still make it through,
the light is unbearable but you

cannot let an eyelid twitch. You know
you must smell alive, all sweat and

piss, however much cooling blood.
The sounds are too big. The screams

fade, but the stomping and crunching
and shrieking goes on. You cannot look.

Inside your eyes the light makes
ominous patterns, color bursts and

sometimes a great shadow. You

can smell past the blood now,
bird, meat, rot. Now the light

is flashing color that makes you
feel sick like transport. Light

shouldn’t smell like decay.
So many things are touching you,

so many dead things. Pikuach
nefesh
but you are dizzy from

breathing so shallow or breathing
at all. You want to gulp air but

it’s dirty. Pikuach nefesh,
you chant to keep your eyes closed

drawing in thin covert streams of air
to the beat of the words against

the horror here. the bosses had
transport, but it’s as far away

as your grandfather’s moon
while you play dead in blood

it becomes the Sh’ma. The sounds
and smells are less. The horrible light

has not become less so. You run out
of choices. You urinate down your legs,

impossibly slowly, like your dead bladder
is slowly letting go. Nothing approaches.

You have never been so happy to be
unimportant. You have never been so

glad to be b’nai Yisroel, however this ends.
One god. Whatever has been released is

not Hashem. All you can do is keep davening
slow as a breath, hear O Israel. All you

can do is lie still, and think of transports.
The sounds of devouring are gone but

it could come back, and you cannot look
with your eyes, you know somewhere

in your spine it will destroy you
or give you away. Keep them closed,

pray the Sh’ma, avoid notice,
Adonai echud . . .

Elizabeth R. McClellan

Elizabeth R. McClellan is a disabled gender/queer demisexual poet writing on unceded Quapaw and Chickasha Yaki land in what settlers call the Mid-South. In their other life, they are a domestic and sexual violence attorney working with Latinx immigrant survivors to provide holistic civil legal services. Their work has appeared previously in Strange Horizons, as well as in Apex Magazine, Eternal Haunted Summer, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Chrome Baby, Utopia Science Fiction, Apparition Lit, Illumen Magazine, Mirror Dance, and many others. Elizabeth can be found on Twitter and elsewhere as @popelizbet and on Patreon at patreon.com/ermcclellan.