The shoemaker’s wife ran preschool
With a fist made not so much of iron
But wire bristles on a wooden brush.

She made us recite and learn by rote.
Our trick was to mouth words, sound
As if we knew what we would one day

Come to know, what would dawn
On us as sure as a centipede knows
What to do with its myriad legs.

She made us settle our feet on the mud
Floor of her daub and wattle hut and she
Wielded a cane cut from wood that bit

Into the palm of the hand and left a burn
That resonated up the arm for an age
After its smart swing and crisp contact.

Worst of all was the shoe cupboard
Where the old man stored his wire
Brushes: a cold, dark, narrow place,

Replete with brushes hung on nails
Covering every square inch and said
To come alive when a child was locked

In with them so that they scrubbed
Flesh off that child’s bones. She said
We would end up there if we did not

Concentrate, so we stilled our feet
And spoke the words in the right order
For colors in a rainbow until the very

Thing took her place in front of us
Arranged in cuneiform, polished,
Brandishing a window to climb out.

More Poems by Fred D'Aguiar