Vivian Zhu

American Ashes

Ba, I confess: I burned your convenience store
to the ground last Wednesday.

I’ll explain it to you, I promise, but I’ll have to start
from the beginning: I’ve always preferred California

coastlines to grandmother’s home overseas. I like hazy trips
to Hefei as long as I can trail off deeper & deeper

until Ma loses sight of me. I like to dream about the lives
of people I’ve never spoken to & the way adults always look

like something’s consuming them: Ma’s eyes aflame
when she came to this country. Her favorite proverb:

Heaven has a road / but no one walks it
Hell has no gate / but men will dig to get there.

I like to think of it like this: No one is truly gone,
though most refuse to be forgotten.

Ba, do you remember? Last week, Ma ate imported chestnuts
while you quarreled over memories. Reverse iterations of acid rain.

Rain devolved into cumulus clouds. In this country, your history
is capital to be conserved, compounded. During poker, Ma lay claim

to the day she met you by the harbor, when rice paddy fields
bled into December lotus. Ba, I can’t believe you chuckled

& analogized your flight across the Pacific to sorbet skies, citrus
sunrise. Honey with an aftertaste of hope. I think it would be nice

to burn those memories into Polaroids, CDs,
everything but ashes. Ma’s slit-eyed smiles

preserved in film, if only to prove that yes,
yes—you were happy once, before

the lotus flowers bloomed, before the rice paddies flooded,
before your flight across the world. Before April, when Ma died

for the first time, marooned in your apartment
as wài gōng cremated her mother & scattered the ashes

without her. Loneliness hurt less than your hands
burning life back into her breastbone.

When she opened her eyes, it was as if the seconds
between her first death & second life had melted into singularity.

Ba, in spite of everything, we never managed
to make her angry. Later, when you burned her father’s photos,

slashed the monochrome portrait of your wedding day, erased
the harbor, the catfish, the lily pads & deep fried lotus roots

for dinner, we sated our sorrows with hot oil
& Hoisin sauce salvaged from your convenience store’s shelves.

Ba, this is what you traded her for: a rope to liberty
tied around Ma’s neck, her dreams swallowed

by the absence of your motherland. I swear, I’ll never forget
the way her feet dangled. Can you? Look, Ba—can you

smell the smoke? Do you remember
its taste? When was the last time you said I’m sorry

for the cinders, the loneliness, our legacy—
Why couldn’t you be honest, at least? I want to forget

your face, purpling. Vestiges of anger as veins
bulging in your neck when you spat: I came here

for you. I’m walking away from the wreckage, cleansing
the road to home with blood. Plaster & preservatives

smolder behind me. There’s no digging our way
out of this one, Ba. & yet: your body hunched over ashes,

her body in your hands. All our years
spread thin between us, from sea to shining sea.

divider

 

Summer soliloquy for the girl who keeps on giving

me second chances even though God knows
          I don’t deserve any
more and yet here, again, I dare
          to hope. I never knew the right words
to describe desire, if the vowels to want
          could circulate in anything
other than an economy,
          capital as conversation. How we conserved
& compounded time because interest
          rarely lingered longer than the first date.
Back then, when you pulled my economics textbook
          across the table, bit a mark
-et between my teeth, I’d only known teeth
          as canines, sinful like the plastic film
from my vampire costume in fifth grade. Halloween
          again & I learn another lesson in transaction. We’re sitting
knee-to-knee in the backseat of my pink Toyota,
          bulleting the yards
into years, your face fractured, sugar
          crystalled in the glare of the rearview.
I can’t remember
          what costume you wore, only that you loved
King-sized Kit-Kats, the kind I broke
          between your teeth that night, the wafer melting
into syrup against our tongues. So this is what
          it feels like to be born mouthless. Every sound
sucked into silence. My voice
          tread into air. Our bodies a creation myth
in the making.

divider

 

victory lapse

striped flag around your shoulders, eyes whet
with empty triumph. & this era of wanting:

how wài gōng taught you to stare the sea straight
down its solemn depths, to cleave chlorine

& pinwheel past red-blue flags, flip turn.
your lips part to cradle an ocean’s tongue

reclaim the scent of wài gōng’s sweat
on your skin. try to swallow the sea between you

& the man who fought to keep your head
above the water. remember how to occupy

& be occupied. to lend a name to a body
without want for it back: a loan without a lease

a dog without a leash. wài gōng cut you loose
from his scarlet flag but still hoped

for a return form signed promptly: sincerely
your granddaughter
, written in the tongue

you had meant to keep, attached to a medal
you had meant to repay. somewhere in southern china

wài gōng sold his breath for silver coins, second
chances. somewhere in suburban chicago

you teeth gold between your lips, stand
on a podium built by the blood of those before you

& drown in your grandfather’s absence.

divider

 


Vivian Zhu is a teen writer from Adlai E. Stevenson High School. Her work has been recognized by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and is published in CHEAP POP, Aster Lit, and Eunoia Review. Chances are, she's currently procrastinating on calculus problem sets by watching an unhealthy amount of spoken word.