By: Catherine Grace Seaver
Agnes Scott College, Decatur GA, USA
I don’t get sunburnt, no matter how long I’m outside.
Maybe some people just can’t burn,
but I think my ancestors must have
befriended the sun thousands of years ago
and she gave us the gift of brown skin
so that she could shine as bright as she wanted
and we would only get darker,
while the people who invaded our land
Letting you read my poetry is
8th grade hallway
Giving away the last piece
Squished and fingerprinted
Letting it hit your tongue and dissolve
Chew and churn
Smack your lips to my hurts
Pop my words
Bite marks in a thin sheet
It began, I think, with the fruit trees. The ones planted by my father, holes dug by hand, in a last attempt to woo my mother into marrying him. At least, that’s the way he always told the story. She had flirted the edges of his world for years. A flower child turned arborist, whose family came from the same Steel Belt that had treated my father so kindly, his money held no interest to her. But my father planted her a dowry that she could not refuse. It was grown just off the back of the house in long and tilting rows. At the front there are plum trees, five of them, the European kind that grow into dark, palm-sized ovals – puncture the skin with your thumb, though, and you’ll find the flesh is yellow and sweet, sticking to your lips like sap. Next to them, finishing the first row, are the July Peaches: two trees that still have a slight lean to them, bending away from each other. My mother called them the “bickering brothers” competing to see who could ripen first. On some especially competitive years, the July Peaches were really June peaches, weighing heavy branches with golden circles just as the cicadas began shedding their skins.
The second row, my mother’s favorite, is entirely made up of figs. They are Brown Turkey Figs, the kind that give not one, but two crops a season. The trees produced so many of the dark, seeded, fruits we could not keep them all. After hauling several baskets to the local grocery eager to take her donations, my mother usually resorted to drying them. Filling the oven with trays of sliced figs, sprinkled with salt and basil. She dropped the shiny, hardened slivers into glass jars, lining the back wall of the pantry to be eaten all winter. Just as the fig trees were my mother’s favorite, I think she was their favorite as well.
The year she left us, there were no figs. I still tended the trees, then, hoping that she would realize her mistake and be all the more grateful we had kept up her orchard upon returning. When the first and second fig harvest times past with not a single fruit, I remember searching under the leaves and along the ground testing the temperature of the soil. As dramatic as it sounds, I believe they were mourning her departure. As if they knew the hands that pruned their branches belonged to someone else. As if, like me, they were just as angry she did not pull them up from the root to take with her.
Behind the figs, my father had planted three pear trees, Sunrise Pears, the kind that bloom red along the bottom when ripe. My mother dubbed these her “blushing ladies,” saying they were flattered by the sun’s affection. They are the sweet kind, sweeter than the hard, woody pears you’ll find in a produce aisle. Perfect for jam, or compote, or to be eaten on the walk between the tree and the house leaving sticky fingerprints over the screen door. Next to them were the persimmons. Wanting the thick, almost apricot-like flavor that my mother once mentioned, my father borrowed his brother’s truck and drove nine hours to Indiana to buy the two seedlings, just sprouting out of the plastic buckets. They grow taller than the pears now – though the fruits are small. The secret to persimmons that no one bothers to tell you is that you have to wait until they are overripe. So soft to the touch that your fingers bite easily into the orange flesh. That’s when they’re at their sweetest.
Behind the third row stretching out one tree extra in each direction were the mulberry trees. Protector trees, they’re called. Not fit for eating, my mother told me, just good enough to keep the squirrels and birds satisfied: a peace offering. Although, I found the tart bite of a still green mulberry devilishly delicious. Especially as a child, it was almost like stealing, like taking something that belonged to the beasts and not to the house. A fruit that was not my mother’s. I would shake the low branches, dropping the berries down into my gathered shirt, keeping my pilfered harvest in a plastic tupperware box under the sink.
There would be other plants later; like strawberries that grow beside the front porch, a bed of zinnias and dahlias and forget-me-nots along the driveway, a knot of blackberries out against the property line, wildflowers (dandelions and buttercups specifically), all across the front lawn that I never bother to weed. But at the beginning, it was just the trees. Back then they were wispy and leaning against the rake poles, tied together with shoelaces. It would be almost half a decade before the little limbs grew heavy with fruit, but it was enough for my mother. The promise of an orchard to tend and of life to grow at her fingertips. I don’t know if she even thought about whether or not she loved my father. I don’t know if she would have cared even if she did think of it. She loved the trees, the freedom from her family, the way the front hedges hid the white farmhouse (and all that grew behind it) from view. It was her own secret Eden – my father just came as part of the deal.
I often think that she had me as a way of returning the favor of the trees, like payment, an evening of the scales. Or, on the days in which my anger (if you can really call it anger) is especially biting, I wonder if I was simply a way to entertain my father so she could live her life as separately as the four acres would allow. My father wanted a family, and my mother wanted to be left alone. I was planted in winter, grown in the spring, at the same time as the rest of fruit, but pulled from my mother’s womb a whole week late, overripe, already having missed the last of the persimmon harvest. From the beginning, I interrupted her schedule. I’m not sure she ever forgave me for that.
Her plan, if keeping my father occupied with an infant really had been her plan, worked better than expected. I was colicky and underweight and in need of constant attention. In those first months, my father rarely left the house. He rocked me so frequently that both his wrists swelled with carpal tunnel. He took a leave of absence from managing the finances of the mill, disconnected the phone – back then it was as easy as pulling a wire from the wall–so that the ringing wouldn’t dare wake me. He locked us away in the top of the house, singing hymns and pacing through the halls all night so I would sleep, and slowly forgot about all that existed past our hedges. Some days, I am sure, he even forgot about my mother. You see, that’s the key to all of this. Even now, after all these years, I know that no party is blameless. But, it would be easier if I could pin it all on her. I could label her as flighty, as lacking maternal instinct, as possibly even sociopathic and be done with it all. I could pity my father and validate my anger, and get to work forgetting I ever had a mother. However, the strings of our lives are never so easily untangled. No, I see the fault knotted in all of us. In my mother’s inability to see beyond herself, in my father’s capacity to ignore everything that did not fit within his plan, and even my own unwavering need to be seen. We were all ruining each other, cutting off circulation. Can I truly blame her for leaving?
Now, the memories of her are sporadic flashes. All washed in that bright color and fuzzy edge of childhood sight. The sharp ache of the sting from the bees that hung around the blossoms like waiting suitors, the knock of my father’s boots across the wooden floor, and the smell of my mother’s hands all earthy and wet with the slightest hint of sweet. The way my mother’s hands smelled is what I remember most. Some days, when the longing is heavy inside me, overripe and oozing, I will go to the garden store. They know me there and let me wander through the mulch and planting soil aisles. Some days I cry, but most days not.
Still, I don’t know why it was the trees that got her, why she was so enwrapped by them. I have spent three decades trying to understand. She told me once that growing something made her feel a bit like God. There was a selfishness there, a desire to be the only one responsible for the production and upkeep of the trees. That should have been the first sign that my mother would eventually leave. The day she started feeling more like a gardener than a deity, she would have to move on. I just assumed that when she did, she would take us with her.
It took my father too many years to realize my mother didn’t really want to be a mother. Her trees were children enough, requiring her watchful, present eye and ready hands. They were ministered and tended to while I was left to just be. Sometimes I wonder why she didn’t have another baby. A brother, perhaps, someone to occupy my time and my father’s time, pulling the eyes away from her once I was old enough to no longer be an ever present distraction. I think he would have liked to have a son, my father. Maybe it was the thought of being pulled away from the garden that stopped her, of having to hold another suckling infant to her breast as she walked the rows, tugging out dandelions with her spare hand. Maybe it was the those weeks and months when a mother was necessary, when my father’s well-meaning but often unknowing demeanor wouldn’t be enough for a little human new to this earth. Whatever the reason, it was just me. Sprawled on the entry hall floor coloring sheets of computer paper as my father smoked his pipe on the front steps, watching the mail truck drive slow past the house. Just me and him, walking carefully behind my mother as she dropped a worm infested plum or a dead branch into one of our waiting buckets. Clicking her tongue against the roof of her mouth as if dissapointed by the tree’s inability to ward off all predators.
During the summer months, the entire back half of the house was off limits, the kitchen overtaken by canning and drying, the dining room a holding place for the baskets of harvest yet to be sorted for quality, and the back porch home to all the different things she needed for pruning, and plucking, and weeding, and watering. Sometimes, when she started baking, the front room became off limits as well. The top of the piano covered in tin foil bread trays and pie tins, things we would never eat and, just as they began to go stale, would eventually be delivered to neighbors and churches. My father and I wandered the top floor of the house, unsure of where to settle. We both learned to exist in the spaces she didn’t take up, silent in our efforts to disrupt her as little as possible. Perhaps, even then, we knew that was the key to keeping her happy. On the days my mother would load up the back of the minivan with crates of whatever she deemed ready for the farmer’s market, my father would occasionally sneak out into the yard. I never followed him for his quiet determination was alarming. But I would watch, face pressed to dormer window in the upstairs bathroom. He would walk in and out between the trees, sometimes pausing to run his hand along the rough-edged bark. Back then I thought he was admiring them, getting a closer look at the jewels my mother so closely guarded. Now though, I see the bitterness, the way it was rotting him from the inside. He hated the trees, the things that had brought my mother to him in the first place. How terrible it must have been, to know the only thing tethering his wife to her family, her home were a few rows of fruit trees. And how frightening to love her still. Because love her he did, I am sure of that. Even though some days I cannot even bring myself to love her, my father was as faithful as a dog, desperate to be fed from the hand that hit him. Skin and bones, showing up at her feet every evening, even when he knew there were no scraps to be had. I think he always expected her to come around. That she would walk through the door, handprints of dirt along her linen pants, look up at him, and realize that after nearly twenty years she was in love with him. Up until the end, when his mind slipped in and out between that hazy place of understanding, he loved her. Once, when I stopped by the home to visit, he thought I was her. He began crying so hard, I had to call one of the nurses in. It wasn’t until I made it back to my car, my throat wrapped in some invisible vice, that I realized I was crying too. I don’t think from sadness, but from the sheer weight of his own desire, and the way the words he shouted stuck to my skin. You’re home. You came home. I knew you would.
When she left, he broke wide. I saw the moment it happened, the way he fractured along all these fault lines.
On the day she left, her car and all the clothes from the guest room she had overtaken were gone, everything else left exactly as it had looked that morning. Well, there was a note written on the back of a shopping list and tacked to the fridge with a “Great Job!” sticker. I imagine her searching through the kitchen drawers to find tape, in a hurry to leave before my father and I returned home. She didn’t even know we kept the tape in the hall closet, she had never needed it before. I don’t know what that note said, he never let me read it. I’ve looked for it a few times since then, but never found it, not even when I was boxing up his bedroom. But there was a note, and her house key on the hall table, and that was it. He pulled the note free, hard enough to rip the sticker, leaving the left and top points of the star still clinging to the fridge. I followed him as he walked towards the backdoor, looking for her through the trees. She was not in the orchard, a stack of the mesh bags she used for harvesting lay piled at the base of one of the pear trees, fruit still hanging from the branches, ready to be picked. He left me there, feet slapping quick through the yard around the the driveway as if she might pull back in, a paper bag of groceries tucked under one arm, smiling. I waited, halfway between the trees and my father, suspended. The back door hung ajar. There was a slight breeze, not enough to shut it, just enough to push it ever so slowly, squeaking on its hinges. It sounded almost as if it was crying.
I turned ten in August, and the beehive had been knocked loose off the oak tree growing along the driveway in a particularly bad storm that ripped through the windgap our house was built in. With the hive destroyed, the bees swarmed. Covering an entire column of the back porch, the sound of them a constant low hum. They were there for three days, waiting, like me for my mother to return. But she did not, and on the fourth morning I woke to find them gone, all but one. The queen had gotten trapped in the kitchen window between the screen and the glass. I watched her struggle for a moment, the distant sound of my father’s footsteps hollow overhead, as she knocked herself again and again trying to escape. Eventually I opened the window, letting her out into the kitchen. She flew quick and anxious in a few circles around the room. “They’re gone”, I told her. She didn’t seem to understand. “They left you”, I repeated. Eventually she calmed, and I considered opening the backdoor to let her out. But the sound of the squeak would have brought my father downstairs. And I could barely stand to be around the new, half-empty version of him. The way his eyes were always searching, looking for clues she did not leave. So I let the bee stay, watching as she settled onto the white of the counter.
She moved along the slick surface until stopping at a small spot of something yellow. A drop of whatever preserve my mother had been working on the morning she finally decided the trees were not enough for her, that her life of growing and tending had become tedious. I couldn’t tell what it was from the color, so I carefully reached out my pinkie and swept up half the drop, leaving the rest for the bee. Touching it to my tongue, I immediately recognized the bright tang, the sweet of persimmon mixed with the tiniest bit of peach, and a few sprigs of rosemary: my father’s favorite. I opened up the cabinet just over head and found four of them that were no longer warm to the touch. I pulled out one, feeling the beveled edge of the jar with my fingers as I turned it, watching the thick liquid glint in the sun, like precious topaz or amber. The bee rubbed a foot through the drop on the counter; it was the last ounce of my mother. I heard a slam from upstairs. I imagined my father, still calling my mother on repeat with no answer, throwing the phone, the cord pulling it back like a tether after it hit the wall. From where I stood I could hear the heavy breaths of a sob. That sound had become familiar, yet something about it was still terrifying.
And in that moment, hearing the echoing sound of the grief that now sat in our house become a tangible fog that could be grasped and molded in my palm, the preserves were no longer beautiful. Instead, they were sickening and reminded me of pus, a symptom of a festering wound. I slammed the glass down hard against the counter, the shattering sound startling me. I watched, though, mesmerized, as the sweet liquid dripped down onto the floor, pooling on the counter, glistening amongst the shards of broken jar. It took me nearly a full minute to see the body. I eventually did, spotting the unnatural twist of a tiny leg. The bee had been there still when I threw the jar, and she lay, crushed, under one of the largest pieces of glass. A tiny body, the fuzz on her thorax slicked back with the preserve. Whenever I think about the bee – and she still creeps into my mind now – I am thankful that before my anger killed her, she got to taste the fruit.
Yawning—Stretching—standing proud for the day.
Warm sunlight trickles through the window
as condensation fogs the mirror.
Stepping out, a cloud of steam follows like a wedding dress.
They dry their feet on the rough mat,
run the towel to catch the drips that journey down their spine.
Walking to the mirror,
they use the towel to free their face from the glass cage.
Squared jaw, thick brows, the lips of ancient gods.
Following the mirror down with their eyes,
the body is blurred.
It is there, standing—real in every regard.
But no details shine through.
Does today bring a chest of supple mounds,
the nourishment of mankind?
Or would the day be one of endless fields,
sharp angles, and broad lines?
The fog melted down their neck.
Would their voice reach the submarine signals deep beneath the ocean blue?
Or would it fly high with the delicate birds in the clear blue sky?
Bringing their hand up to run through wet hair—
would it flow long, a twirl of braids and intricate patterns?
Or would it be twisted tight into a strong knot under their hat?
Maybe today they would exist in the blur.
The blur that permeated the image they faced.
Maybe their hair would flow long and their nails would shine bright–
their chest flat as a frozen lake, their voice a force that could make mountains tremble.
Maybe today they would be neither.
Maybe today they would be both.
And maybe that would be OK.
First appeared in an edition of MR. MA’AM Literary Journal at Emory University.
During my first summer in America at the age of 11, I was preoccupied. I spent my days trying to figure out ways to return to the friends whom I had left behind in a refugee camp in Thailand. I missed the summer fun of collecting any water we could find, splashing one another during the Water Festival holidays in my new home in Stone Mountain, Georgia. I sat around inside of the apartment, waiting for the monotonous summer days to pass as swiftly as possible. To avoid the emptiness in my life, I agreed to walk with my mother to Dollar Tree, a store that we had recently heard about. As we walked in the searing Georgia heat, she said, disappointed, “Yah-leh-ta-mu-ler-mu-mae-nya,” meaning that she preferred to “travel in front of the sun” to avoid the heat on her face. It bothered her that I woke up late that morning, that we were unable to beat the sunrise. I just hated the summer for arriving before I could make any new friends at school or in the neighborhood.
Walking on the road to Dollar Tree introduced us to the busy life of America. It involved so many cars. In the refugee camp, we had one small road of paved concrete. Cars did not arrive one after another. In the United States, neither my mother nor I knew how to cross the street. I saw the way that my mother navigated her life here. She ran at the traffic light intersection as soon as the walking signals came on, and all I could do was follow fanatically.
After crossing, we encountered our very first nail salon, which surprised my mother. She laughed looking at her hands–the cracks, wrinkles, and lines that mapped the contours of surviving a farmer’s life. From a young age, the life that she knew consisted of packing lunch and going to the rice farm before dawn. Nail enhancement was a weird, unnecessary concept. With those hands, she dragged me away from the wall of compelling advertisements that captivated my young eyes.
Our excursion in the heat made it feel good to walk into Dollar Tree’s two-door entrance and breathe its soothing, cool air. I liked how all of the items knew which section they belonged to. Everything had its own place. I stood in the aisle where the kitchen tools hung neatly in their own spots. Like them, I wanted to be found and placed where I would fit in. Big bottles of soda on the shelf brought back many etched memories of the small shops in the refugee camp. Each shop in the camp had a cooler filled with ice cubes and cans of soda. I learned to never walk to the cooler, knowing that there were never enough coins in my hand. Once, my mother gave me a cup of soda after she bought a bottle to offer to an important guest. To show appreciation to the people whom we respected, we offered them something more costly, like soda. It was fun for my siblings and me to watch the bubbles rise to the top of the bottle when my mother opened it. I thought about how lucky the kids in the United States must be, since they could see and taste the fizz much more often than I could. Things that were highly priced in a refugee camp only cost a dollar at Dollar Tree.
The very next day, after the first trip to Dollar Tree, my mother asked me to go out again. This time, we invited families in the neighborhood who were also Karen, an ethnic group from Burma. There was the man whom I called Uncle (Pah Tee) and his children. They never refused to come along with us on the walk. Since we were among the earliest refugee newcomers in the area, we did not know anyone who had a car. None of us really understood the new roads and streets, but we enjoyed being able to walk miles without seeing restricted signs like the ones back in the camp. When we all gathered to plan our trip on the street, everyone wanted go to Dollar Tree. No debating was involved. It was the closest store to our neighborhood and cheap enough that everyone could afford something.
Making our way to Dollar Tree as a group served as a time of sharing between the young and old. Pah Tee would mention how much he loved chicken; he cooked it for three months straight when he first arrived in the United States. Now, chicken no longer tasted as good as before, since he had been standing and working long hours at the chicken factory. The elders showed us their painful nails, blue from competing with the machines at the chicken factory. All summer long, their stories kept me busy, so I started worrying less about how lonely I was. All of us were trying to push through the land of unfamiliarity. Despite our dimmest phase of life, we were still walking on the busy street, being overly cautious and running at the crossroads to make it to Dollar Tree. When we got inside, it was a time of satisfaction. Pah Tee admitted that “America was truly the land of plenty.” On every trip to Dollar Tree, I always made sure to get my favorite snack: spicy Cheetos. Eating them made me happy. The spicy taste was the first thing that I found in the U.S. that was not foreign to me.
We visited Dollar Tree countless times that summer. After many trips, we noticed that the poster advertising flip flops had changed to one with falling snowflakes. By looking at the seasonal goods, we became aware of the special holidays that many Americans celebrated in the United States.
Without our realizing, years really had passed. We started going to stores that sold our cultural food and went to Dollar Tree less often. It became very easy to spot other Burmese on a street. Soon, our Karen neighbors could buy a car and move out of their apartments and into a house. We helped them carry their things out. Later came the day when my family also decided to move.
While my mom never entered the nail salon, Dollar Tree has become just another store. Walking on a street to Dollar Tree turned into staring at it through the window of my car. Each time I spot a Dollar Tree, my memories of navigating through the door of the unknown return. I feel a bit of heartache when I realize that happiness can only be found in Hot Cheetos once in a lifetime. I know now what I didn’t know then: that crossing traffic from the Dollar Tree to home was a one-way trip.
The sound of raindrops banging on my metal roof startles me. It seems like they are trying to get inside of my house for shelter like someone looking for a safe place to hide from a mad dog. I simply ignore them, and soon the pitter-patter sounds fade from my consciousness. The rainy season in Myanmar has always been like this. Some kids may sing, “Rain, rain, go away, come again another day…,” but I sing, “Rain, rain, come! As long as you don’t get inside my house…”
When it rains, I like to press my face against the cold window and look at the pond behind my house. The raindrops that fall into the pond look joyous, unlike the angry raindrops on my roof. From the frame of my window, I can see those playful little raindrops descending from a vast sky, mirthfully playing a ‘run and catch’ game with the lotus leaves.
In the pond, there is a particular leaf with a heart shape that is trying to catch those raindrops. It has a soft curve resembling a motherly smile. As each raindrop lands on its surface, it bounces back off, and the lotus leaf patiently bends her stem while touching the ripples as if giving a friendly kiss. The leaf rises. Those mischievous raindrops could not have imagined what a happy day it was for the lotus leaf.
The loud thunder shatters my serene moment.
I bend my head towards the sound, but the only thing I see is the white light tearing the sky apart with sudden speed. Are thunder and the lighting bullying the raindrops that tried to get inside my house? Poor raindrops!
In the evening, the rain starts drizzling, now sounding like, “plop, plop, plop…,” as it falls into the pond. “Croak…Croak…Croak…” I hear a frog adding to the chaos.
When the rain comes to a stop, I go over to the pond. There is a crystal rain drop lying on a leaf, cozy like a baby held by its mother’s hands. The weight of the raindrop makes the fragile lotus leaf bend; she is trying her best to protect the raindrop from falling into the pond. The raindrop does not know how much trouble it has given her. The leaf never voices a single word. Rather, she watches over the raindrop with her caring smile. The raindrop has no worries. It trusts this place on which it landed, even though the leaf’s edge marks uncertainty.
When the breeze flicks the leaf, the raindrop starts wobbling. The leaf jiggles to keep the raindrop from falling, gently dancing like a mother does when singing a crying baby to sleep.
Oh Raindrop! Oh Raindrop!
As the leaf offers protection to the raindrop, my roof and windows protect me. From the rain, thunder, lightning, and cold, I am safe. I turn and look around my house, relieved to see that there are no punctured holes in my roof or windows. I turn my body back to the raindrop, saying, “What a lucky raindrop you are to fall onto this lotus leaf.” If the raindrop had fallen onto different leaves, or on the soil, it would have dissolved into them and become invisible. Unlike the soil and leaves, which absorb water, the lotus leaf resists water and allows the raindrop to hold its original shape: a mother’s blind love for her child’s imperfections.
Oh Raindrop! Oh Raindrop!
“Why did you drop from the sky, and gently lay yourself on the leaf? You sleep like you will be here forever.”
But, it doesn’t know. In a few seconds, the raindrop will have to be separated from the lotus leaf, like a mother has to leave her child one day. It is time for the little raindrop to experience how life can bring terrible things. I bend down and put my face to it, taking one last look before I tap the lotus leaf with my forefinger.
Oh Raindrop! Oh Raindrop!
As the little raindrop rolls off the palm of the leaf, I expect it to fall into the water immediately. Instead, the raindrop holds onto the edge– tenderly, as if begging the leaf not to let go. The lotus leaf holds on too. But what can they do? The force of life is stronger than their bond.
The leaf is a bit shaky from the weight of the hanging raindrop, like a sobbing mom cupping her face with both of her hands. Looking at them, I feel that holding onto each other is like walking on a slippery road, while letting go is like sliding on a slippery road. The lotus leaf tilts its stem towards the water and drops the raindrop into the pond with a ‘plop.’ A mother closing her eyes to let her teardrops roll away. The raindrop becomes a ripple. The raindrop is on its own, now.
The raindrop must flow with the current, become a lake, become a river, become an ocean, and go back to the sky.
Oh Raindrop… Oh Raindrop…
I miss my mom’s palms stroking my hair.
When we were growing up, we dug and filled a pond in the woods behind our house. In the summertime, after lunch on those hot Southern days, we pulled on our bathing suits and ran barefoot through clumps of poison ivy, moss, ferns, touch-me-nots, before throwing ourselves from the dry bank into the brown water. If we were quiet and still, we could watch shiny black water beetles scuttling across the water, stitching it together with their bodies. We moved again, splashing water up towards the sky to see how its droplets snatched fragments of afternoon sunlight. When our fingers and toes were soft, pruney from hours of play, we climbed out of the water and up to the house, letting the breeze dry our wet bodies. Changing out of our bathing suits and into our play clothes, we leapt off the back porch into a cargo net that our grandparents suspended between the house and two trees. We pretended that we were jumping out of airplanes until it got dark outside—when the lightning bugs came out, and the frogs started to hum, and Mama gave us glass jars so we could catch lightning bugs until our sweaty palms smelled sweet like their secretion. Then we went inside to eat dinner, and after that we sat on the back porch rocking back and forth in our chairs with a lamp shining from a nearby table. It was there that we breathed in the sweet scent of pine trees and flowers and grass, all mixed up with the smell of a crisp Appalachian chill. Mama and Daddy played bluegrass and folk songs on their guitar and mandolin, and we sang songs about Darcy Farrow, and picking apples, and coats of many colors. I miss those days. I miss the pond and the house and the music. Sometimes I forget that I’m grown up, that the pond dried up years ago, that my family sold the house. I think that I can go back there, to those long summer days when we were growing up. But then I remember. I have nothing but memories to take me home.
Bria published her poem “Say Something” in the spring 2017 issue of Voices & Visions. We are excited to share her visual performance below and feel that its attention to place aptly aligns with our fall theme, “Environments.”
When we were torn apart,
twins once conjoined,
a wall rose between us.
We spoke through messengers,
red telephones and cold warriors.
I’ve never been scared of what I’ve done before.
I’ve never been scared of what you’d do.
I lose thoughts to you every day.
We built this together, brick by brick.
We let our differences divide us,
and now lie in pieces,
in the middle of a staring contest
between nations, a test of wills.
If I destroy you, annihilate you,
I annihilate myself.
This has nothing to do with love.
This has everything to do with love.
So, another trip to Mississippi.
Let’s push past the flurry of award stares— because I’m really…
an extension of my Momma’s long standing family fame
and standing in the frame of her shadow does not hide me from these vaguely familiar faces
Who just know I owe them a hug
When nighttime hits
All these formalities fade fast
cause Mississippi nighttime frees up enough space in this increasingly small trailer
So I can saaaayy…
Something that I shouldn’t— something that shouldn’t come out my mouth
So “Kids go to bed!”
Cause adults want to save You from gettn’ popped in the mouth
Cause its Mississippi Nighttime
And I just remembered I’m in the
Backroom Bunkbed Social Hour
Me against 3
Me against three
I redeem my special Mississippi moment by staring out the window instead of…
Staring into the dark
for their faces
Cause Somebody, somebodies are going to say:
“Bria you know you wouldn’t look so bad if…
You didn’t look like a Cow”
Now I would’ve retaliated quickly to choke out the
before it had a chance to overwhelm me but I was distracted by the unsettling sound
I’m not even fat… why would Mhmmmmmm
There it goes again
In a lighter tone
Is it my face? Mhhmmmmmmm… and again interrupting me
Maybe well Mhmmmmm
And I was the last to agree before we went to sleep
The canola fields were a haven. Like warm butter on toast, the yellow flowers spread brightly across the earth for as far as the eye could see. Luca liked to run among their tall stalks, creating waves of sunshine. The big house was ideally located right in front of the largest field the Harveys had to offer, so when Momma called for Luca to tidy his room, wash the dog, or have a shower, he would hide among the canola. He could hide for hours, content to lie back and gaze upwards, pondering the clouds that dotted the blue like cute cotton swabs in a school diorama. It would be a long time before Momma came toting a whip-like dishtowel, her tool of choice to get her son back in the house before the summer thunderstorms began.
“I’ll never ruin the fields,” Luca often said at dinnertime. To this, Momma and Poppa would shake their heads, a sad smile uncomfortably plastered on their faces because the future was inevitable; Luca had to follow in the footsteps of generations of Harvey men. For canola was no haven—it was survival. Deep down, the doe-eyed nine-year-old knew, but he remained adamant about refusing his fate. After all, who could say no to this boy—a vision of innocence with cherubic cheeks and wispy brown locks—but God Himself?
Sometimes Momma and Poppa would watch their son prance about the fields from the window above the kitchen sink.
“Walter, we’re going to have to put an end to this somehow,” Momma said one day as she passed a plate to her husband for drying. He took it, ran a dish towel across, and placed it in the cupboard above his head.
“It’s fine.” Poppa dried another plate. “You know, I’ll take him out with me tomorrow for the swathing. Lionel’s youngest, you know, Peter? He’s just one year older than our Luca and he’s got no problem. He’s practical, understands that canola’s a business and not a fucking Von Trapp pansy-fest.” Momma gritted her teeth; she didn’t like when Poppa swore, but she had learned not to say anything. After all, he was her husband.
“Alright. Here, take these knives. They’re the last of the dishes to be dried.” Momma wiped her soapy hands on her apron, her eyes always on Luca who was running swiftly through the canola, his brown head bobbing among the yellow. His eyes were wide and bright, his cheeks rosy with joyful adrenaline. Momma gripped the edge of the sink so hard her knuckles went white.
Poppa was sliding the knives into the drawer one by one and he didn’t stop or look up to answer. “Yeah?”
“We’re going to break his heart.”
The knives stopped and Poppa looked up, his watery blue eyes meeting his wife’s own anxious ones.
“That’s life, Susan.” And the knives picked up again.
Luca bounced like a hare through the sea of canola. He relished in the sensation of the stalks and flowers as he whipped by, feeling entirely in his element. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the real hares snuffling around and he could hear the whooshing wings of twittering birds passing above. There was something wonderfully invigorating about being the fields and, for a moment, Luca wished he could run forever, far away from Momma and Poppa and the swathing and the life of a Harvey.
A rut in the ground brought Luca to an abrupt stop. He tumbled face first into the dirt, bending some canola with him. His first instinct was to cry, to holler out for Momma who would come running with a wet cloth to clean the scratches, but he caught the words on his tongue. Luca didn’t want to give his parents any reason to forbid him from frolicking about the yellow. Already, he could hear Momma saying “It’s dangerous” with downturned eyes, and that would be that. Poppa would be ecstatic. Instead, Luca rolled over on his back and lay flat against the uneven ground so that he could look up at the bright blue sky framed by yellow above him. Beads of crimson blood formed along the scratches that now adorned the sides of his face, but Luca couldn’t have cared less. All he was feeling was the warmth of the Earth on his back and the sun on his face.
“Luca!” A little golden body flitted above the boy, who smiled easily.
“Hi Marigold,” he said. Luca slowly lifted up his small arm, letting his hand flop forward, his pinky finger extended. Marigold moved to sit on the small finger, her minuscule legs dangling as if perched on a branch. Luca was always amazed at the weightlessness of his fairy friend. “How are you today?” Luca brought his arm to rest on his stomach now, and Marigold lightly stepped off to take a seat.
“So fine, so fine! The sun is shining and the birds are chirping, so everyone is happy,” Marigold said in her sing-song voice. She paused before continuing, “Do you know when the swathing begins?” A cloud crossed over the sun.
Luca scooped Marigold into the palm of his hand and slowly sat up. His face was solemn.
“Tomorrow, I think. Poppa hasn’t said much about it, but I heard him talking on the phone to the others.”
“And there’s nothing you can do to stop it?”
“You know I can’t, Mari. He prides himself on our family’s history in canola. Though I mourn it, I am small.”
Marigold stood up and clenched her fists, her face scrunching up in frustration. “But think of the animals, the earthworms, the canola spirits! We are all smaller, but we breathe and exist, so why should we be sacrificed to your giants?”
Luca sighed. He loved Marigold, but their conversations always ended this way: hopeless. He was hopeless in thinking he could properly explain the situation to the fairy, and she was hopeless in thinking that he could stop Poppa and the others. As usual, all Luca could reply with was a meek, “I’m sorry.”
Marigold grumbled. “This isn’t fair. They act as if we are a fairytale, mere figments of imagination.”
But you are, Luca wanted to reply. Instead, he changed the subject and the two began discussing the sky.
Poppa was on the phone again, finalizing tomorrow’s swathing so Momma could sit peacefully on the front porch and keep an eye on Luca. He was no longer bobbing around like a gazelle in the canola; in all likelihood, he was now lying flat on the ground staring up at the blue sky. He did this sometimes when he got tired. Momma couldn’t understand how her nine-year-old son could find enjoyment in doing absolutely nothing, but then she didn’t really understand anything her son did. Everything he took pleasure in was so contrary to the rest of the Harveys. Once, Momma had dared ask what he thought about when he looked up at the sky.
“I don’t just look up at the sky, Momma. That’s boring,” Luca had replied as he dipped his grilled cheese in ketchup.
“Okay, then what do you do if you’re not looking up at the sky?”
“Well, I discuss things.” This answer took Momma by surprise and also made her a little nervous because she didn’t know anybody who frequented the fields except for the Harveys themselves. And they preferred to avoid her oddball son. Luca went on, seeing the look of confusion on Momma’s face: “…About the world. About the canola. About life. With Marigold.”
Momma took a sip of her coffee. In the back of her mind, she wished she’d made it Irish. “Who’s Marigold?”
“She’s a canola fairy.”
“A canola fairy?” So it was an imaginary friend.
In between bites of grilled cheese, Luca explained. “Yes, she protects the things that live in the canola fields, like the spirits and the animals. It’s a hard job, ’specially when you’ve got Poppa and his friends going through and harvesting everything.”
“So what does Marigold look like?” She was humouring him now.
Luca smiled, pleased that someone was interested in a part of his life for once. “She’s beautiful, Momma. She’s tiny and gold, and her wings are like the sun’s rays. She wears little dresses that the canola spirits make for her. I think you would like her.”
Momma couldn’t help but smile back at Luca, though it was tinged with something akin to sadness, for canola was no haven, it was survival, and the future was inevitable.
The next day was the swathing, so Poppa got Luca up early and Momma was already busy in the kitchen. She had prepared a thick stack of pancakes and fresh berries, hot coffee for her husband, and a milky hot chocolate for her son. The swathing required lots of energy.
Poppa took two large strawberries and a swig of his coffee. “So,” he said with his mouth full, “big day, huh Luca?”
Luca merely grunted in response as he pushed a soggy portion of pancake around his plate, which was bogged down with maple syrup.
“You reply to me, son,” Poppa ordered. Momma froze at the griddle. This is not a good way to start such a day.
Luca looked up and stared his father straight in the eye, where there was fire. “Yes, it is a big day.”
“Son, this is your future and you must embrace it like I did, and my father before me. This is our role in the world, and we must fulfill it. So today’s the day you join me for once. Peter’s there with his poppa, and you’re gonna be there with yours. So it’s going to be a good time.” The way Poppa phrased it, there really was no choice in the matter; this was clear to both Momma and Luca.
“Yes, right, I’m going to embrace my role in the world and destroy something beautiful. After all, that’s what we do best, isn’t it?” Luca stood up, chair grating against the floor tiles, and stormed out of the kitchen. He marched to the entranceway, fetched his coat and thick boots, and slammed the door open.
He yelled, “So what are we waiting for? Let’s get on with it, if you’re so keen.” Within seconds, Poppa was up and standing and at the door with his son. The fire still flamed in his eyes, but there was a confusion, perhaps even a hesitation. Luca was past outright refusal, but that was all Poppa knew of his son’s nature: refusal and stubbornness. When that was all gone, what was he left with except for a nine-year-old he didn’t know at all?
But now was certainly not the time to contemplate Luca. Now was the time to teach Luca the ways of the Harveys and, by extension, Poppa had some hope that Luca would come to understand what it was to be a Harvey instead of some canola-loving pansy.
Momma watched from the kitchen window as her boys went out to meet with the others, including Lionel and Peter. She watched them until they disappeared from her sight, but she knew what they were doing. They were getting the swathers, probably explaining the important parts of the machines to Luca, and maybe a bit to Peter in case he hadn’t remembered everything. They were getting gloves, the maps of the fields, and planning out who would go where and what would be cut. Then Luca would join Poppa in one of the swathers, Peter in another with Lionel, and the rest would hop in, well, the rest.
Actually, she could hear them now, the swathers. They rumbled by and traversed the canola fields, splitting up and heading to their designated sections. Luca and Poppa took the section directly in front of their house. When she saw this, Momma turned away and got her knitting. She didn’t want to see Poppa growling at Luca and as much as she disagreed with her son’s antics, she didn’t need to see him as he cut down his favourite place or his imaginary friend.
She didn’t need to see it because she heard it. The wails were loud and heart wrenching, as a mother might scream for a lost child, and they sliced through the shrill tone of the swathers, the thick trunks of the trees that lay at the edge of the Harvey property, and they most definitely infiltrated the walls of the big house. Momma’s ears bled as she felt the sound of her son’s loss as deeply as if it were her own. Regret filled her; guilt shrouded her; grief clung like burrs.
Luca’s innocence was broken, and it was murderous.
First, let me clarify the term. Stop thinking about that long-gone pop singer group. If you happen to know Chinese, I dare you not to omit the “Zi” in this word, which would completely transform to mean someone from that long-gone pop singer group. The “Spicy Girl,” as given in Google Translate for the Chinese term 辣妹子(La Mei Zi), is one stereotype that has to do with food in China. A young woman awarded with this title is usually considered beautiful, brave, feisty, and has an appreciation for spicy food due to her upbringing in the provinces of Sichuan, Hunan, and Chongqing. An English equivalent for this expression might be “a tough cookie,” though much lower in sweetness level.
Along the line of stereotyping others with a taste of food, there are terms such as the “Old Fritters” (Lao You Tiao refers to slick and flaky characters), the “Rice Buckets” (Fan Tong means someone who knows nothing but to eat), the “Baby Cabbage” (Xiao Bai Cai, a general metaphor for a poor young girl), and many, many more. Being born on the South bank of the Yangtze River, I was expected to become someone who is tendervoiced, fairskinned, professional at embroidery, who enjoys the local cuisine of Huaiyang—slightly sweet and sour in taste but never, ever spicy. Among these traditions, only that of food persisted in my family; I was brought up in a household which never spiced up the dinner table. Thus, my first encounter with spicy food was twelve years later than a real “Spicy Girl,” who is raised in the mid-Southern part of the country, where the famous Sichuan cuisine originated.
At the age of twelve, I started my 6-year sojourn in the city of Nanjing—the closest metropolis where various food cultures gather—along with my challenges in the level of pungency I could take. It was my young and adventurous cousin-in-law who decided it would be a great idea to take me out for spicy hot pot; I took a naive bite and almost cried. It might be this instance which made her my closest extended family member. Back then, she was not yet my cousin-in-law, but merely a family friend who happened to attend a college in Nanjing. Born to Sichuan parents but raised around here, she has a spicy tongue that has been an open secret in our family; although I never truly realized it until that day in the crowded spicy hot pot place in the heart of Nanjing.
Her bowl of contents steamed up with a lens of what I used to call the color of Hell. Describe a shade of red that scares you: blood, flame, heat, Mars, or the backdrop of the Communist flag. She had no fears, and she even held the bowl up finish the scarlet broth.
“It was delicious,” she told me in the most earnest manner.
“…I guess?” I was jarred as I stared at her reddened lips.
Maybe it was a means of adaptation that made me practice eating spicy food while living with her, but honestly I forgot why it all started. Maybe I was a twelve-year-old “big girl” who was capable of making food decisions for herself, or maybe I just wanted to get away from my family—who, as people, were as plain as the food they ate. As a matter of fact, mammals are the only members of the animal kingdom who can taste spicy flavors, and humans are the only species to show appreciation for them. In other words, enjoying a spicy diet is a distinct privilege of being a multicellular organism on this earth, and that was what my twelve-year-old self had yearned for.
It takes time and effort to make a Spicy Girl out of oneself. But always remember that practice makes perfect. What trained me was the pickled chicken feet, called Pao Jiao Feng Zhua in Chinese, literally meaning chicken claws that are soaked in jalapeno jars, perceived by the Americans as a bizarre dish. The reasoning behind this choice was quite apparent back then; it was the cheapest and spiciest choice in the convenience stores. They were cheap because they were merely skin and bones, and all of its value went into the enduring, sharp spiciness that has soaked all the way to the core of the bone. It is such a delicate gourmet that every corner of your mouth cannot avoid interacting with it. What a practice of the mammal privilege it was! The juice of ten jalapenos at the same time!
That same year I went back home for the New Year feast. Everyone seemed to enjoy the massive table of dishes except for me. As I said, the food on the table that night was as plain as the taste I grew up with. Halfway into the feast, my cousin-in-law squinted at me with a mysterious smile. We soon excused ourselves on a long “bathroom break,” which turned out to be the deliberate hunting of street food.
The temperature of New Year’s Eve was never mild. Thin coats of snow attempted to cover the narrow streets, disturbed by the two trails of footprints we left. Facing these unusually dim roads, my cousin-in-law and I were surprised to come across an open restaurant. The chef was still in his oil-stained apron, sitting at a square shaped table with his family, clearly having the New Year’s feast of their own. Even so, he immediately spotted us and sat us down.
I can’t recall what we had that night, but it was probably spicy hot pot again. I do remember staring at the homemade pickled chicken feet on the chef’s family table, which he had noticed and kindly shared with me. That night I graduated from factory processed pickled chicken feet. These homemade ones were by far spicier and, for the first time, enjoyable. When we walked out of the little restaurant, the snow had stopped and the air became frostier than before. Thanks to the spicy food, I did not feel cold at all on the way back home. It is said that Chairman Mao would always carry a bundle of dried chili peppers with him on battle fields, which kept him warm and awake on the freezing winter days. Little did I know that my future self would be the same — I cannot live without spicy food now.
The next quests on my spicy food journey included Mapo tofu, spicy deep-fried chicken (La Zi Ji), shredded eggplant in garlic sauce (Yu Xiang Qie Zi), and a lot more Sichuan food. However, a Nanjing privilege for pungency lovers is a condiment called red oil (La You), which is a necessity on tables in all sizes of restaurants in the city. Eating out with my mom in Nanjing always requires two separate bowls, one for my non-spicy-eating mom and another for me, the artificial Spicy Girl. Every time I sat on a table with a red bowl in front of me and a white one across from me, I would taste a slight boldness and feeling of independence.
My mom still wonders about my favoring spicy food.
“I never brought you up this way!” She said as if I had become an alien, an alien from Sichuan.
“Well, life happens.” I shrugged and told the truth.
It is true that life is full of surprises and that they are, of course, never foreshadowed. I never expected to find myself in a place where spicy food was not as cherished as a spicy soul. This magical place, called Agnes Scott, hosts young women who are beautiful, brave, feisty and barely who eat anything spicy. Being in the South, a.k.a. The Spice Desert, I struggled to find home on my tongue. Nevertheless, not only would I never give up on my quest of trying spicy cuisine, I would also strive to become more diligent, more of a Scottie. After all, you don’t have to indulge in peppers to be a Spicy Girl from the inside; just like you don’t have to be sweet when you are “a tough cookie.”