Ahmad awakes to darkness, doll in hand—
a ratty thing he sewed in secret, holds
to rock himself to sleep, his contraband
and only comfort, hidden in the folds
of threadbare clothes that barely stop the chill
from drafty factory floors. He prays for sleep
to come for him again. He lies there, still
and silent on his mat, the sweatshop deep
in the Jakartan slums. Two dozen children, all
his age or younger, resting in a pile,
some scant few hours before they’ll hear the call
to work again. Their overseers are vile
and vicious men in knockoff tracksuits, keen
to bark an insult, quick to ball a fist
and use it on the kids. Beneath the screen
that sets apart their makeshift bedroom, mist
begins to billow—then, a silhouette,
the shadow of a winged figure, looms
behind the fabric room divider. Sweat
condensing on his brow, Ahmad assumes
he’s dreaming still, and reaches for his thigh
with callused fingers, red from needle pricks,
to pinch himself. As hard as Ahmad tries,
the mist and figure stay. He stares, transfixed
and trembling as a woman passes through
the solid screen as if it weren’t there.
Her dress is white, her hair is golden hued,
and her sandaled feet are treading on thin air.
The others stir, but instinct keeps them quiet.
They watch the woman as she holds a sneaker,
one freshly stitched, and draws a slender digit
across the side and tongue, as if she’s eager
to understand it. They watch her touch the Swoosh
and spread her mighty, feathered wings—a gasp
escaping every throat, collective whoosh
of exhaled breath, astonished, and the rasp
of sliding straw as they back up their mats
in sudden fear. The woman hovers, holding
the shoe out to the children, as if to ask
Was this your doing? Silence. Then, a boldness
rising in him like a tide, Ahmad is
standing up to nod his head. The room
is trembling quiet, waiting for the goddess
to wreak her vengeance, visit them with doom.
Her face contorts, her sunset-salmon lips
are parting, but rather than a sneer, she grins
at him, her row of teeth like glowing chips
of moonstone. She tilts her head, inclines her chin
to indicate the other frightened children.
Their faces flinch in fear and in surprise,
but the goddess Nike yearns for competition.
She extends her arms, palms up, to bid them rise,
then pantomimes, with deftly curling fingers,
a footrace—this, they seem to comprehend.
Her golden gaze back to Ahmad, she lingers
to let her will be known—gather your friends.
They form a line and then, upon her mark,
they race across the floor, barefoot, their cries
of carefree laughter echoing in the dark,
and run for hours, heedless of the time.
She urges them—run faster!—with her gestures,
instilling them with limitless endurance
through her power, and, eager to impress her,
they sprint back and forth in merry reverence.
She allows them rest, collapsing in a sheer
and sweat-slick pile, exhausted and expended.
She finds a table, piled with sweatshop gear,
and, in a fit of anger, she upends it,
the sneakers spilling over in a tangle.
Ahmad, awake and energized, stays close,
his face euphoric, his doll held by the ankle,
and spits upon the heap of shoes and clothes.
Nike holds a torch she’s pulled from nowhere
and hands it to Ahmad, already lit.
He eyes the mound, the fire, knowing where
to put it—it’s written everywhere. Just do it.
[Editor’s Note: Publication of this poem was made possible by a gift from D. A. Straith during our annual Kickstarter.]