After the Revolution
all my pallid Yah Yah owned
was a wide-brimmed sunhat
that her husband wove from reeds.
Pretend, he said.
You are a grand lady tending the palace garden.
The regime was relentless.
Her body became the brown-ochre of falling
One night in June
the Dapeng River swallowed her,
a single dark leaf
smuggled away on the Hong Kong current.
Strong hands from Guangzhou
pulled her ashore,
stole her a scarf
to cover her dusky skin.
In Lyall Bay
Yah Yah and her new son
the evangelical anglicised Ken,
hands me photos
a baby in buttercream yellow
blankets swaddled tighter than they ought to be.
Remember that feeling?
Deep pressure in your sternum
wrinkled brown hands wrap over and over,
a ballast tied down in a storm.
My agony was her autumn.
Hair dropping like acorns,
spine shrivelling, chest caving,
a rot that ate her
from the inside she would rasp
deciduous fingers against my face.
My darling, her touch whispered.
Tiān bú pà dì bú pà.
Fear neither heaven nor earth.
MY UKRAINIAN FRIEND
She turned her head
crowned with brazen plaits
to tell me a joke in chemistry class.
What’s the difference between a pot of yoghurt and a New Zealander?
The yoghurt has more culture.
But we did not spring fully-grown
from the loins of the Motherland!
We slept in Papatūānuku’s womb,
woke in darkness.
We tore the only world we knew in two,
made a prisoner of the sun and called it Day.
We slung hooks into the ocean and called it Land.
We cried over smallpox scars,
picked musket balls from our bones
and when they split the atom
felt skeletons stir.
We were nailed to the cross, and on the third day rose again
to wait in the check-out line at New World.
On Saturdays we eat panekeke
out of Chinese take-out boxes.
I hang a red cheongsam to dry
in icy Wellington wind.
So my mum does this thing called Mantra of the Moment which is all about focusing energy in a particular way to achieve a goal. She takes real joy in introducing complete strangers to the mantras at the most shoulder shudderingly inappropriate times. Oh, hello supermarket stranger! Did I overhear you saying that you’re seeing the bank manager about a home loan? Listen, I want you to meet Confidence Mantra: Think empowered, speak empowered, be empowered. It’s a form of neurosis that my grandmother says must not be indulged, but to be entirely truthful I find Safety Mantra excessively comforting. The Friday evening dusk on Tasman Street breeds shadows of rapists and robbers, and I’m telling you a firm I am safe I am safe I am safe I am safe is nearly as reassuring as pepper spray.
My friend Miguel teaches me Spanish while we make beds at the hotel. Buenos días señor, cómo estás? Pull the sheet away from the bed at a forty-five degree angle, keeping the material taut. Muy bueno, gracias señorita. Lift the mattress, push the sheet underneath, ensuring the corner fold runs perpendicular to the headboard. Mucho gusto a conocerlo. That is called a hospital tuck. We fold, flip, scrape, scrub, shove and polish for six hours a day and then I go home. When the house is empty my fingers twitch at dishes and dust floats behind my eyes, so I grab the mop and rake the ceilings ’til sundown. Buenas noches señorita.
The things I want desperately to remember include everything. But I especially desperately want to remember long commutes and the relentless tip tip tap of your index finger on my knee, sewing whatever rhythm marched through your head into my skin. I can’t remember what the name of that first restaurant was, I don’t recall where you lost your umbrella or the exact number of freckles on your nose. But in absent-minded moments I still find myself tip tip tapping on tables, my muscle memory surprised by the slow view out the window. I avoid trains, trams and buses because with no metronome everything seems off-beat.
Lily Ng is an accountant by day, cocktail enthusiast by night. A shamelessly skeptical twenty-year-old, scared of deep water and dying alone.