WORDS

KAREN CHEN

 

“Words” was a runner up in the 2016 Birdwhistle Prizes.
 
I bought every inch of Chinese I know with English.
l traded in my “hi” for Auntie’s “ni hao”
            hi is a used car with
            rust on the doors and dust in the engine
 
Auntie recorded every inch of Chinese I learned using markings on a
ruler
Chinese characters are whiplashes, standing up tall and
black and forming imprints on the page below.
I drew them on my arms, almost like an artist’s hand inspiring new
life because the
feel of the thick ink across my
skin
made me feel
and when my lips shriveled from absence of words I had
the ones at the crook of my elbow to guide
me
 
Auntie marks letters upon a ruler and lashes them across my palms where
the clean edges of characters feel sharper against my skin
 
Wo is “me” in Chinese is
the girl with black hair and letters strung on clotheslines running from
ear to ear in her head
            letters hang on the
            lines in her head for
            days
            she runs her fingers along the curve of a’s and the shape of the q
            she hears them as they crescendo and capsize,
                         ships in the rumbling storm pouring into the sea
 
Auntie who sells me Chinese picks out what she thinks are the
best letters from her own head
throws away clothespins and wrings the letters dry
and she hurls them at me,
knocking the English from me
            my first language
            even the incomprehensible can reorganize itself when I say it in English but now
            in my head English has shattered and the remnants of a’s and q’s are sprinkled
            on the floor of my mind
            where they stuff my nose shower my eyes fall
            through my throat into my lungs and
            it gets a little harder to breathe.
 
The inkwell splashes against my fingertips
Her mouth never stops moving. Her Chinese is an endless
trail that carves itself into me
 
She says speak, why don’t you say something but
I am the color of rust and I keep
coughing because all the letters of my name have disintegrated
inside me
 
We were in a car. Car is “che” in Chinese
she opened the door for me so politely
letting me go first, she told me without uncertainty
“don’t you like walking?”
The highway halted beside us
twenty miles worth of rulers away from home
 
“che” is the first part of my last name and
it begins Auntie’s last name too
and I wish it didn’t
 
I keep flipping through the pages of my English
books and I know all the letters
and all the stories of the main
characters,
but sometimes they get locked up somewhere on the
highway between my
lungs and throat
 
I used to read English and now I breathe and bleed Chinese
I used to have things to say out loud
I am my own Harry Potter with a lightning
scar upon my forehead
and where are my words
words
word
wor
wo

 

 

∘∘∘