by Barrie Jean Borich
At summer’s end, the thread all gray and grimy, the scissors making its way there, I oftentimes wondered what it must be like to be me. The bathwater slightly bubbly, the string wet and clammy, the string never quite coming clean.
This is the same charm that hung on my neck in that photograph of me. In that photograph, big sister is only three. Mother says that she will take it back to the village where she bought it and have the Buddha dipped in gold now, now that she has the money.
There’s one banana tree that bleeds red when you cut into it, its sap all viscous and runny. She had long, long hair, and that’s how he caught her, caught her by her flowing hair. See: the leaves, bristling in the dusk breeze: that’s how her hair moved when he did it. And so, you tread softly, you tread softly there by that banana tree: the one anomaly that grows red in a field of perfectly green trees.
Each day, I watched the letter carrier ride away. He rode away with my love letters, which never came. The owl circled the house all day.
I didn’t know then, when I was so young, that I should not cut it, that to cut the string would be a very bad thing.
To fly across the world: that’s spooky talk, as are ghosts, as is the past, as is the way the weather turned on the day of mourning. And so, they might believe that to come here from the outside country is either a very hard or simple thing, but to come here from the outside country is nevertheless an unnatural thing. To fly across the world is spooky talk, as is leaving, as is saying I will see you again. My aunt lifts the talisman to her forehead, to mine, and lets it fall over my head. It’s connected to a string, a bright white string.
The owl means there will be death, my uncle says. He aims his slingshot, does not say what he does to the bird, and that is all there is to say about that.
In the schoolyard, the children asking about it and saying, you must be very poor to have jewelry that’s only string.
I want to know what suffering is for: it’s to make things lovely, I think, because that’s the way the river looks right now, all lit up with candles and banana boats and flowers and incense smoke. My suffering takes on the shape of a floating vessel; a snakefish knifes along underneath.
And do you see how even the chickens will not go there? So many little shoots of things and grubs of things and still. The chickens will not go.
If you point to heaven, it begins. To disappear. See: noonday now, and the mushrooms all mulch.
Before leaving, he said that I should never cut my hair so that is why I cut it when he disappeared. That is why, in my passport photograph, I have that look about me that made mother ask if I had seen a ghost, if I needed to go to temple. That is why, when grandmother sees me again, my hair is so short; it’s so short because I cut it; I cut it to get back at him. I wondered what it was like to be me, to stop holding. All summer, the long locks falling on the floor. The curl held taut, the scissors making its way there.
I approached the monk rather timidly; I was always shy about getting anything.That’s the place where, before dying, grandmother fell. The silt all red, the mushrooms all drooped down. Even the chickens will not.
The banana flower all engorged. A deep maroon. Little bananas waiting to push through.
I wanted to know what it must be like to be me: these people here who all knew me as a baby. In the photograph, I am six months old. To be suddenly grown, to be a being that is no longer held, and that is why my aunt places the string about me.
All night, the owl, and the letters never came. In the lotus pond, a single stem snapped: its pink flower like a maiden bent over to drown.
My grandmother chewed and chewed the red moch, the beetle nut and limestone paste that turned her white teeth black, her lips all the color of poppies. When she laughed, her spittle bled red.
The monk tied the white yarn around my wrist; I watched the monks eat, waited patiently for my turn after that; the noodles and the rice and the various desserts brought to the temple by everyone for everyone.
The birds of paradise: bird upon bird upon bird upon bird like a little ladder for the spirits to climb. Into the little spirit house there is where the little lives go. Except for the little boy who still cries. We have heard him cry, and that is why we light the incense.
She will get it dipped in gold now that she has the money, because that is what you do with your talismans once you have the money; but I would rather that it remained the way that it was when I wore it. All the children in the schoolyard asking: it’s a whistle, I’d say and blow on it.
The legend goes that there’s a big fish, a fish that’s like a snake. It’s a water dragon that lives in the big river. The legend goes that it only shows itself, randomly, once a year. After that, it goes back into hiding. But, my mother says, but a long time ago, she says. A long time ago, you could see it everyday. Grandmother used to see it all the time, but now, now, my mother says, now people don’t believe anymore, so now it has gone away.
Red spots in the red silt where the moch mushrooms grow. A spraying of spittle.
I can’t help but think that something in the essay’s gone missing: something in the essay’s gone away.
Mother: a banana blossom; my baby fists: a clutch of banana sprays.
I go for my mother’s food first, always, as everyone else’s mother’s food’s a bit gross. Except for the sweet rice cooked with banana and coconut milk in a banana leaf; that dessert was always my favorite.
No one should ever, my mother tells me, should ever wash your under things. I wash mine in the remains of my bathwater, my panties never quite coming clean.
Don’t let the broom sweep past your feet. That means an old man will marry you. I move my feet away tenderly.
In the photograph, I am less than a year old; in the photograph, big sister is three; this is the photograph that mother pays for at a department store in the outside country to send home; this is the photograph father keeps in his wallet; this is the photograph that makes me wonder what it is to be me.
The love letters never came; at night, I thought of the owl, whether or not its body was in a grave.
My uncle takes the frog away; he throws it into a river, a pond, a puddle. He goes high into the mountain, low into the valley, on his motorcycle even to another village, but no matter how far he releases the frog, the frog is waiting for him in the bath basin when he returns. It’s all smug and snug against the rim of the basin and stares at us. It must be dead kin, mother says. And so, we let the frog stay; it stays with us for days and days.
Something held before it’s given away.
When a neck is slit, the blood doesn’t trickle, but rather it sprays. That is how the ground here got that way. The pig all distressed, the pig head all dressed to celebrate. Our safe passage home, the unencumbered journey that praying gave.
The frog eventually went away, my uncle says. It went away on the morning of our leaving.
On my birth certificate, it says that I was born in the year of the big snake, the dragon, while the moon was waxen. And someday, I too will show myself less and less, wane before going away.
Stephen Eichhorn, Palms I., 2008
Jenny Boully is the author of not merely because of the unknown that was stalking towards them (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2011), The Book of Beginnings and Endings (Sarabande, 2007), [one love affair]* (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2006), The Body: An Essay (Essay Press, 2007 and Slope Editions, 2002), and the chapbook Moveable Types (Noemi Press, 2007). Her work has been anthologized in The Next American Essay, The Best American Poetry, Language for a New Century, and Great American Prose Poems. She earned her Ph.D. in English Literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and holds graduate degrees in creative writing from the University of Notre Dame and Hollins University. Born in Thailand and reared in Texas, she teaches poetry and nonfiction and currently directs the MFA Program in Nonfiction at Columbia College in Chicago.
Stephen Eichhorn is a Chicago artist who creates delicate hand-cut paper collages from photos of foliage—palm fronds, grasses, leaves and flowers. www.stepheneichhorn.com