"Can You Speak English?"
by Natalie Wee
Because beached animals know sand
will smother any open mouth. Because
a body in motion knows the ground. We
alit shore clean of the sea we wove through.
We throated harsh American accents
& muzzled breathing, only to be offered
a name half-pronounced. Haunting,
they called me, instead of Huan Ting. A single
exhale dislocating phantom from girl. At the next
checkpoint, fluorescent menaces Mama's dark hair
with the violence of incoming headlights. She
fumbles, the stutter of birthing an unwanted
child to a pallid land that does not know it—each
precious syllable a stillborn. A precious age
bent before capricious white guards, praying
for a shadow that wouldn't break when held up
to where the sun sets. Even before the ocean's
edge, sediment was mama's first caesarian:
monuments planted by men who came, saw &
castaway. So she knifed a belly made for
kinder songs, sewed her tongue backwards.
Until she could not drink but held clay behind
teeth for daughters to build stairways out of.
Until they took to walking & forgot flight.
How a mother tongue becomes only that
which she guards alone. How its usurper, birthed
from an arrow-wound, invents absence via entry—
how this rotten tooth festers & demands
to be spat—how both a well-aimed question &
any instrument of torture require satisfaction
to cease their patient cutting. & now I wear my
mother's skull, sour the native tongue with swallow.
You, Haunting. Where are you from?
& salt propheting a graveyard of stones,
my pockets weighed with beach.