We begin as two bodies tightened
into bruises on the bus stop’s bench.
My mother holds four American pennies
blackened by time, like worship.
She tightens her grip as if she’s going
to lose them.
Rust, the only darkness
this nation bears.
White, the only color
this nation bares.
Pennies clatter on the sidewalk
like teeth, like all the ways
we can’t contain this country.
My mother apologizes
to the driver, her small body drooping
into itself, a wrinkled peach pit.
His face whittled into the tip
of the pocketknife on his dashboard
If I were to run
my finger along the driver’s cheekbone
my hand would come back
stained with blood.
Every stoplight’s mouth weaponizes
in our wake.
What my mother means:
Forgive me / for wanting / something more
than survival / than America wringing
my body / out of its deep waters
like a fish / pressed onto the blistering shoreline /
separating the scales. America / swallowed
the pink flesh / inside because
immigrants can only be / sustenance. All that’s left
in me / mottled language / dirty brown / leftovers.
In Tamil, there is no word
for Sorry—repentance, a softened technology
of light shredded by the spoonful.
In Tamil, forgiveness
is a birthright inherited
like the first blooms of spring.
In Tamil, when my mother finds
her hands empty of change,
the rickshaw driver slides his thin
hands through her hair.
Naanga inga irokum.
It’s okay, sister—
it’s okay. We are here, he would say.
She used to drink this melody like milk.
English require beg. My mother repeats this
until we only know to stand
on our knees. Especially for us. She hits
her chest, palms her hijab. We have
this only. She pries my empty fist open.
Sometimes, I revise her words
into myth, oiled dark and wilting, pretend
I do not understand.
In my mother’s country,
Sati is when the woman burns herself
into memory during her husband’s
funeral, follows his spirit to heaven.
My mother burns herself
into survival for a country
that doesn’t love her back.
She gives herself to the white
half-light of the bus, to loose change
and cracked syllables, sharp Tamil
peeling into Sohee.
The driver rips the hijab from her head—
meaty, red hand reeking
of grease and sweat.
Pennies gone, bus seats slick
My mother whispering, So-leyh.
At night, I listen to my mother
language herself, echo
through the walls: So-wee. The word
slants: Sohr-dee. Her bed
rustling as she chases
days she can’t catch.
Mother and I Pray While Sleeping
Moons empty in the whisper
of space between us.
Mother’s ankles roll into
my calf, brimming with silver,
with sleep. The night is made
of photographs. We sleep over
the prayer rug, woven from
all the daughters that have
pressed their lips to it
and swallowed. Kitchen door
creaking, the door that never
stays closed, always making
a sound—in another world
we, too, speak, even if it is just
to Allah. Even when it is not
pretty. Even when men cover
our mouths with cardamom
and bruised fists.
I don’t know what
Mother’s voice sounds like.
I don’t know how the words
Mother’s voice sound in my own
mouth. Nobody has taught
us to open. Not even our
mothers. For now, I close
my eyes and dream of a begging
where all the words start
with I want.
Author photo by Shannon Finney