"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.