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Sayang


Once, Papa bent over my childhood bed,
his hands blooming a lake
the width of a girl’s cheek warmed by summer.
I was hospital-blue & the soft membrane

between his knuckles were speckled with pinpricks
of white without them moving, this once. The quiet
inside them as they opened & shut, iterations
of every miracle possible before dusk. Now

Papa’s voice, soft as if someone, somewhere, was asleep.
I’m sorry, he said. You don’t understand.
It’s like something takes over me. It’s true.
It’s true I learned the English word for strike firsthand

& the backs of his palms were damp again.

+

Sayang (noun): dear, love
The bicycle tongues a plump hill, warmed by the weight of some daughter-shaped
thing fresh from her father’s steadying clutch. Months from rasped knee & shriek,
decades still from becoming the echo of a single turn in deep sleep, there is a man at
the bottom of this slope, at the end of my shadow. There is the field behind him,
steeped with indigo-red fever. There are his arms holding the sky apart. He’s grinning
because there’s no reason not to⎯because my life stretches before me & he’s in it.

+

Once, Papa killed the world’s smallest bird, which is why
Mama used to say a fuse was just the threat of too much light.
We have to keep it, he said, because it’s hurt.
For two scant days it lay in a fish tank cross haired

with thin wire, echo to the guppies, terrapin, & turtle
once adored & now somewhere after bone,
somewhere without eyes. Their brief bodies, each a gasp
& then gone. & as if it knew the dangers of hard love

the sparrow shredded hours for a sky just out of reach,
so afraid of becoming a name it was ready to die for it.
The shriek of an animal deboning itself for flight.
The shrill of living close enough to air to vanish.

I remember living inside that sound.

+

Sayang (verb): adore, love
Sheathing cards in a battered suitcase for discovery in hostels of faraway cities, each
aerogramme bleeding COME BACK SOON PAPA in clumsy script, breaking our
throats on Michael Jackson’s highest notes, belting my arms to a shrinking mango
tree, its scent thickening every room into plantation, despite the thin cane & its
sudden thrash, despite the bolted gate at midnight, despite Mama’s soundless night
weeping, despite the shape of a grandmother hunched over me as a raised hand makes
thunder again.

+

Once, a ravenous thing sheared itself into
the shape of a boy. Hunger despite broth steaming in
white-and-blue porcelain, clasped like a newborn
between two palms. He ducks for one moment beyond

his mother’s noodle store & customer swelter, tips
the bowl’s mouth to his lips in brief prayer
audible only to someone he has never touched.
He swears to become a boat bearing more than water

& to be a boat that always bears. & so becomes a man
who understands love only in measures of vessels,
nursing his children on the sweetest morsels of any meal
ferried back & forth kitchen islands:

you can have it. No, you. No, you.

+

Sayang (phrase): [it’s] a pity
I wished myself into any season beyond the airport terminal & then watched my
father dissolve into just that. His hands, chilled by my hospital-stale cheek, muzzled
decades in a single wave⎯then returned once more to the suitcase filled with proof of
an old life. Again. His whole body, deft enough to rise into air, paused briefly at a
gate made of light. I didn’t know whether to say goodbye or beg to be the telephone’s
warble instead so I said, thank you

+

Once, a girl’s blue shadow stretched through light years
of night terrors, thrummed into the shape of her father’s arm
still tucked beneath her skull, slivered an arrow as she jolted awake—
Papa? & his echo, It’s just a nightmare. Come back

to sleep, into the dream with her father overlooking
a bed large enough for two children not yet caught in
the undertow of leaving. Four rabbit-soft breaths breaking
the stillness of a flat where no one he knew before

has been. Having already teethed a long bridge
to dry his limbs on the other side, bellied flags the colour
of a body emptying itself, he swears his young will never
need to swim. He swears on his only life that

everything they need is right where they stand.

 

 

 

 

Phoning Home to Tell My Grandmother I Survived a Hate Crime


Ahma,亲爱的 / 您好吗? / my beloved / my life’s great joy / yes, something happened
/ of course you can tell / by my voice / who was it that said / the body is the sound / a
wound makes / that we were born / a prelude to cleave / Ahma / did you hear it / a
white woman / mistaking me for dog / feeling behind my teeth / for our country /
discovering only / my mother tongue / blooding deep water / some thief’s trick /
cheap as yellow / skin spits warning / a war cry / I remember / 亲爱的 / back then /
how you robed / yourself in tall grass / & earthed your flesh / how your waiting /
shrunk soldiers’ bayonets / into a single hairpin / muzzling the sun’s eye / how you
watched them / ride the earth / all monsoon season / & thought / even light begins / &
ends somewhere / what more a nation / what more a citizen / I am not / a citizen / I
thought / of you, Ahma / as she warmed / her grandfather’s fists / on Mama’s face / in
mine / planted her feet where / another golden daughter / could someday rise / called
herself a fierce / & terrible god / & she was/is a god / of this city, this land / where our
colour / is browning meat / new leather / good leash / Ahma / 别哭了 / my love I
know / all that water / & my name through it / is the sound of / breathing in reverse /
the audacity of being here / the audacity of being / here / you taught me / the
mandarin word / to bear, 忍 / is written knife / over heart / & the sound of a wound /
ends at the close / of my life

Natalie Wee is the author of Our Bodies & Other Fine Machines (Words Dance Publishing, 2016). Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, The Adroit Journal, Drunken Boat, Maisonneuve, and more. She has been nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology and a Pushcart Prize. Born in Singapore to Malaysian parents, she now resides in Toronto.

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