Orange Snow

In a small town in Russia
the snow has turned orange.
It smells of rotting feet.
People are warned not to touch it.
Cattle are kept from grazing in it.

Growing up in America I was “that Russian girl.”
Not allowed to touch the other girls’ Barbies,
I made mine into circus freaks,
drew beards on their faces with indelible ink,

cut up the teenage cousin’s paper dolls.
Cousin Lil–the one who fit right in–
becoming class cheerleader,
winning the comic-book drawing contests
without even buying the special gadget for tracing.

I too wrote letters to Mickey Mouse.
“Hey, there! Hi, there! Ho, there!
You’re as welcome as can be.”
Except that I wasn’t.

And I wasn’t Russian either,
as my parents would often remind me,
so I memorized long poems about frozen angels
and the red-white-red flag of Latvia,
folded by my grandfather to fit the top shelf of his closet,
among the pipe tobacco and extra suspenders.

Distinctions too fine for our neighbors,
who knew only the Soviet Union.
On TV, Khrushchev pounded his shoe on the table
while my father labored late nights in the basement,
raising the heavy concrete blocks that became
the fall-out shelter filled with cans of corn.

Not Russian.
Not the enemy.
Yet the mothers did not ask me over
for slices of honeydew melon
sprinkled with salt.

And my grandmother hid in her room,
studying old-country ways
to prevent polio.
“Don’t drink after running,”
she warned me.
So I would wait with a parched throat.

That was in summer.
In winter I watched for snow,
let it fall on my face,
licked it from the branches
with my tongue.