The Forgetting of Water

Mai struggles to experience the place of words in her body. The slow patience of her tongue, of her lips. The care she gives to each letter, the way each letter shapes her mouth. Each word changes her. This foreign tongue she now speaks as if it were her mother tongue.

J’ai toujours aime l’eau passionnement.

Mai tortures words. Teases them with tender slips of her tongue. She only speaks around the edges of letters. Innocent, yet punished like trees after a torrential rain and windstorm. Ripped from their place of stillness.

Mai contemplates her wounds. Only damaged skin can seduce her body. Torn flesh.

Beneath her language another language haunts her. One more agile, one more ancient, one more elusive. She tells me that words from these places can barely be spoken. This is the language of our lungs, a breath that pries open our lips. Qu’ est-ce qu’une priere? Climbing mountains in Vietnam, Mai walked on the bones of her ancestors. With each footstep over the dry earth, the rocks, she felt her ancestors cry. Her ancestors repeatedly told Mai to be careful around those who claim to know the history of fire and yet remain unafraid of rain.

Mai and I crossed into each other’s languages. Obeying only those words that haunted us.

Tongue.

Finger.

Lips.

The brail of this loving. She only wished to dominate desire.

The tip of each finger as precise, as agile, as an eyelid.

Maia’s body waits for the sun to vanish behind the clouds. Her fingers childish and curious pulling blackberries from a bush. “All through the foothills of Vietnam,” she tells Doug, “there are people whose skin is made of rain. Some say such people are only the people of myth, of old stories dropped along the way, the wet underside of river rocks.” Her eyes witness the appearance of these words, her words, her breath, her dreaming. “These people say this as if myths were not true, as if the people of myths were not real. But I have met these people. I have touched the water of their skin. I have listened to their damp voices, their whispers, their murmuring sentences.”

Once upon a time, we are told a story of a day before the war ended. She says, “You see only her trace.” He says, “You have not forgotten enough.”

This woman remembered the fear more than the pain. And she remembered the blackberry bushes cutting into her ankles more than the pain that she knows she will never speak of.

She screamed at this pain, screamed against this pain, screamed into this pain to make it go away but it never went away. Ever. Even now. Even in this moment.

Her tongue, heavy, swollen with centuries of words, of wounds, of sacrificial petals from the Lotus flower, bled into her voice.

Imagine a butterfly being pinned to a board. That tiny cry of terror suffocated beneath glass.

Some man blindfolded this woman, then pushed her down into the mud. She did all she could to remember that day long ago, before those bombs began falling down on her village, before she and her people dug tunnels, before they learned this new way for breathing, before she broke her fingernails clawing at the dry dirt. She did all she could to remember that day she picked herself up out of the earth.

She imagined she was made of water.

Then someone with soft hands, a young girl perhaps, undressed this woman. The woman listened to the child’s soft crying as this child unbuttoned what remained of this woman’s blouse. The woman wanted to comfort the child, to whisper a prayer, a chant, but this woman can no longer speak. Her tongue has been burned by coals.

This woman moved her fingers to lightly touch this child’s hair to let the child know there is always hope, that trees reach up from the earth to touch the sky.

Naked.

The child’s touch abandoned this woman.

Callused hands grabbed the woman’s wrists, pulled them behind her back. Bound them with rope.

Nineteen years of innocence but now this woman’s fingers break. Now her wrists burn. Now her strong tongue touches the roof of her dry silent mouth.

Maybe so she will not forget, she falls asleep.

Mai contemplates her wounds. Only damaged skin can seduce her body. Torn flesh. She cuts straight lines across her wrists. She cuts as deep as she can so each cut will become a scar. Most memories remain silent. Siren songs to herself.

When she speaks of home, Maia tastes those fires on her tongue, and her words turn to ash.

She wept. On her knees. At the river.

The blood of Mai’s ancestors ran through her syllables. Her mother, when Mai was still an infant, warned Mai that if she ever bit into her tongue, she could poison herself with her past, the stories from before she was born. But Mai thought biting her tongue would release the stories of her ancestors into her body, into her desire. So she bit and bit until the blood from her bleeding appeared.

What You Eat II, acrylic on polyester, HaYoung Kim

What You Eat II, acrylic on polyester, HaYoung Kim

Her tongue, heavy, swollen with centuries of words, of wounds, of sacrificial petals from the Lotus flower, bled into her voice.

Mai speaks confusing tender words, prattles in tongues that war against each other—the home tongue of her grandmother bombed to pieces by this tongue she has adopted in exile.

Mutilated words made out of the bones of her ancestors fall from Mai’s lips.

Speaking in the tongue of her mother, Mai’s soft voice becomes the song of a sparrow lost among tree branches. Other women from those same hills in Binh Dinh spoke in the tender spirit of butterfly wings. Veiled whispers beneath quilts. The need to survive in quiet movements. The longing to continue their stories. Each story one of flight through the trees to the plains, to the rivers, to the oceans. In the loud streets of San Francisco, people ridicule her gentle voice, a voice that releases words with such care that the air remains still around her mouth. They say her savage mouth will never understand their language. Her teachers demand that she speak like a human. Children in her class place boats made out of newspapers on her tiny school desk. It is darker than any darkness when her family pushes their unsteady boat into the water. Inside this darkness, they fear lighting their bamboo lanterns, and when their eyes close to sleep, to dream, to collapse, they are haunted by a fear that they will live inside this darkness for the rest of their lives. This water, all this water, this ocean must end, but her family, so quiet, can no longer find their faith, only splinters in their fingers and persistent small pains in their strong feet. They want to disappear beyond the dark, fall off some unknown horizon. And they fear arriving as much as they fear drowning. They speak to each other through the songs of those nearly forgotten sparrows so their voices are not heard. Ever. They dream the only dream they can remember, a dream of becoming birds, spirit birds nearly invisible in the night sky, more dangerous than dreams. In some other world, where such birds cannot be heard, where birds are not listened to, an uncle, holding paper names tight in a small fist, waits on dry land.

Mai dreamt with her tongue.

Pomegranate seeds between her teeth.

Persimmon flesh between her fingers.

Between.

Her knees held tight.

Her thighs bruised and tired.

A stray thumb near her lips

Presses.

There is nothing in between.

A thumbprint.

In fire, words become cinders. They wait in the foothills in southern Vietnam for fertilizing rains. Mai waits with them. Waits. She longed to cry, but she lived in a body without water, without breath. She slept, slowly, as if she had never been born.

Shadows never leave scars no matter where they touch you. It is as if the shadow never touched your skin to begin with, as if the shadow were only an apparition.

 

(an excerpt from “Between Appear and Disappear)”


Stories Writing

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