I climb down to the beach facing the Pacific. Torrents of rain
shirr the sand. On the other side, my grandmother sleeps
soundlessly in her bed. Her áo dài of the whitest silk.
My mother knew her mother died before the telephone rang
like bells announcing the last American helicopter leaving Sài Gòn.
Arrow shot back to its bow. Long-distance missile.
She’d leap into the sky to fly home if she could. Instead she works
overtime. Curls her hair with hot rollers. Rouges her cheeks
like Gong Li in Raise the Red Lantern. I’m her understudy. Hiding
in the doorway between her grief and mine, I apply her foundation
to my face. I conceal the parts of me she conceals, puckering my lips
as if to kiss a man that loves me I want to be loved.
I speak their bewitching names aloud. Twisted Rose. Fuchsia in Paris. Irreverence.
I choose the lipstick she’d least approve of. My mouth a pomegranate
split open. A grenade with loose pin. In the kitchen,
I wrap a white sheet around my waist and dance
for hours, mesmerized by my reflection in a charred skillet.
I laugh her laugh, the way my grandmother laughed
when she taught me to pray the Chú Ðại Bi, when I braided her hair
in unbearable heat, my tiny fingers weaving the silver strands
into a fishtail, French twist. Each knot a future she never named, buried
in the soil of her, where she locked away the image of her sons and daughters
locked away. I’m sorry, mother of my mother, immortal bodhisattva
with a thousand hands, chewing a fist of betel root, your teeth black as dawn.
No child in our family stays a child their mother can love.
From the Book All The Flowers Kneeling by Paul Tran. Copyright © 2022 by Paul Tran. Published by arrangement with Penguin Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.