The elephants first surfaced,
swathed in a sea of silver stars –
an umbilical cord of silken saris; the traveller’s
rough nails snagged the weave, triangles
of gold appeared. He pulled again
scattering nutmeg, beaded bracelets, more,
the orient of a sailor's kitbag –
to treasure-house our shabby kitchen floor:
Mahmud leading the tired herd
homewards across a swelling river,
heads turned towards the rising sun –
Eastwards, the traveller said. His shiver,
unexpected, pulled me up sharp,
I looked at them. See how they skulk,
when faced the wrong way round, he said.
It’s Eastwards, Mecca, or watch them sulk.
And so they stayed, he saw to that
till his wife, dusting them the day he died,
turned them westwards, faces to the wall.
I stretched my arms to turn them, sighed –
heard his traveller’s voice, That’s it, that’s fine,
the ebony was cool to touch – the hands
I saw were his, not mine.