A tall man wipes ashes from his lips. “I’ll pay you,”
he says. “If you’re worthy.” From the lamp of his skull, a steeple
rises. Roaches seek warmth in the dead bells, while cherry
blossoms burst their green corsets. My mother at the end
of a 12-hour shift at the factory will heat rice and vegetable soup,
cooked last weekend and kept frozen to last her six working
days, to eat while watching reruns of The Good Wife.
She does not understand what Juliana Margulies is
saying. Sometimes she weeps because memory is long and
bendy, a red line that curves around the globe instead of
cutting through the center. It begins on a piece of rock
represented on the globe by a bump under the fingertip. A body
at the bottom of a well. Which is a good place – if
someone’s kid could lower a piece of mackerel down to you
in a pail, twice a day, cleaned of its bones. Strange how
expensive rice was then with so many bodies in
the river, puddles, trailing their red ribbons. When I told
my mother I was going to start organizing workers, she
slapped me with the same hand that used to soothe the long,
bumpy scar on my father’s chest. I have to make time to cry, and
eat. Fuck that kamikaze shit. It was not just from grief that
shocks of hair fell from my head to the kitchen floor. I wore
four-sizes-too-big-but-ironed jeans for the better part of high
school and threatened kids by thumbing a knife across
the skin of an orange because my parents believed even
an ordinary man of no particular feat or achievement could
be brought back to life when God wanted to prove
a point. In other words, there could be a universal language
in whose syntax fire is not a country. Sometimes, it’s like I’m almost
there. Some mornings, smoking, I lock eyes with the squirrel
perched, perfectly still, on the lip of the garbage bin. I
picture its soft, little lungs, flaring like a dahlia. It’s true, my
mother refused to howl like the dog they called her; my father once
glowed. Inside, there is a desk, and on it, a flower head made
of paper. It says Mom. It has six petals around it that
unfold, a list of possible destinies –
You take great care of me.
You cook for everyone.
You hear what I have to say.
You always cheer me up.
You love me.
You are the best.
– and a wire stem wrapped around the frame of a faded photograph:
a man with thinning hair and jutting cheekbones, his arm around
a girl, six or seven, in a traditional yellow kebaya. The drawn
curtains behind them admit no stones. Her eyes squint, she is
smiling. Mouth small. Red, like a liar’s word.
Cynthia Dewi Oka is the author of Salvage: Poems (Northwestern University Press, 2017) and Nomad of Salt and Hard Water (Thread Makes Blanket, 2016). Her work has appeared in ESPNW, Hyperallergic, Guernica, Scoundrel Time, Academy of American Poets, American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review, The Massachusetts Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, and elsewhere. She is a contributor to the anthologies Women of Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism (OR Books, 2018); Who Will Speak for America? (Temple University Press, 2018); and What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump (Northwestern University Press, 2019). With community partner Asian Arts Initiative, she created Sanctuary: A Migrant Poetry Workshop for immigrant poets in Philadelphia. She has received scholarships from VONA and the Vermont Studio Center, the Fifth Wednesday Journal Editor’s Prize in Poetry, and the Leeway Foundation’s Transformation Award. She holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and is originally from Bali, Indonesia.