islands

24/01/2012
macau©papa osmubal

macau©papa osmubal

islands
sarah howe

At the boarding school we used to chant them
Ping Chau, Cheung Chau, Lantau, Lamma …
I rolled their sounds around my mouth
till they were strange again, like savouring
those New Year candies – small translucent moons
waning on the tongue. Wrapped in packages
from home that never came. This was called
‘geography,’ for knowing where we are and names
of fixed and distant things. The words came back to me
like dreams – sometimes only that insistent rhythm –
the rocking of the rope-prowed ferry, every minute
further from Macau, that isle of lotuses, my feet
slipping on the wet, wood deck, stretching up to feel
the terseness in the air, to catch the islands
swim like mist on the horizon. Passing fish huts perched
like spindly seabirds, foaming lacework
whispering into nothing on the rocks.
My heart was drowning – the long anticipated sight
of home. In the early years, we slept
three small girls to each shelf of the beds
like pagodas at the temple, someone said.
Each night lifting the stout, sculpted planks
one at a time off the iron frame, hands grasped tight.
Without a word, we let each end thud
heavy on the ground, as though pounding
sweet bean into paste. The lice went running.
We squashed them with our sandaled feet but many
got away. We lay beneath that charcoal blanket
too heavy for the torpid summers; colour
of the August harbour in the rains.
We lay together breathing in that odour.
Sea-drizzle. Diesel. Damp, black hair.

In October, typhoon season dwindles:
washed-out stars suspended in the puddles
were our faces floating by, white bellies of dead fish.
That year, before Mid-Autumn came we learned
to write 月. Haltingly, I penned the crescent
strokes of combinations from the board. It seemed
a ladder to the heavens, leading up and off
the yellowed page. The faded grid of squares grew
fainter. The desk beneath my hand was pocked
and battered like the surface of the moon. That
afternoon was following Chang’e. Her story.
One day, through curiosity, she swallowed down
a bright pill hidden in a box – Houyi’s elixir of
immortality. As he watched in horror, she floated
off into the thinning blue. Her long sleeves trailed
like cloud around a mountaintop, the moon
at first a pill, and then a swelling pearl, in the dark
mouth of the sky. He could not bear to shoot her
down with his celestial bow. She lives there, cold
and lonely now. You can see her if you look.

I often did. Waiting for the shadowed moon to rise
into the windowframe, a pale, dependable friend.
It took my mother many months to eat the gifts
of mooncakes; four cloud-encrusted islands drifting
in their silver tin. She would take a slice
each afternoon with cups of rice wine heated
in a beaten kitchen pan. An autumn treat
accompanied by cooling evenings, too rich
for more habitual food. She cut into the patterned
casing. Full moon, half moon, quarter moon.
I loved the unexpected orb inside: a solid golden
yolk set in a glistening firmament of lotus paste.
They glowed like tiny suns trapped in lanterns
at the festival, speared on slim red candles.
The charring wicks were cedars twisted in the wind.
I had a paper globe. Its redness smouldered
like a burnt-out star. Other children had the shapes
of animals, crimson cellophane on wired frames –
the undulating waves of dragons, sharp-beaked
cranes, all in profile like the oval forms of fish.
In the blackness of Victoria park their skin
was gleaming gelatine, the hatching chrysalides
of ghostly moths; a single, silver sequin
marked each winking, convex eye. The ruby
stain of lamplight over water. Fishlines trailed
from them, metallic ribbons, some fluttered off
like slanting rain to settle in the shrivelled grass.
The procession trod them in the moonlit dust.

The first thing I remember is the sickly
pungency of camphor. My mother hired me
a bedspace in the thin-partitioned tenement
we shared with other families, one of many.
It was summer. Sweltering in the box-space of her
plastered room, its single grime-barred window, heat
poured over us in humid troughs like the bilge
of a tropical sea. She lay on the floor, stiffly,
in the keel-shadow of the bed. I fanned her,
cross-legged, from the doorway. There was no other place.
The elastic in my underwear had gone. The swishing
fan was mouthing something in the dark; its silent arc
the wafting arms of underwater weeds. Her glistening
face was deep into the light-poured, drowning world
of sleep. I was four perhaps, or three. Small enough
to fit into the open wooden storage-chest
out in the hallway, freighted with that resinous
scent of aromatic lumber clinging to the moth-
proofed, folded winter clothes of the family
who held the let. It made a child-sized bed.
My dreams were diving through the fish-eye
glow of four electric candle-bulbs; their redness
hesitating on the finely spiralled filaments
the sidelights of a far-off ship. Or the microscopic
coal-flecks of the barely smoking joss sticks, sweet
to pacify the spirit tenants of their ancestral shrine.
The crinkled polaroids half-settled in the sand.
Their hungering voices; I slept inside my treasure chest
baby Moses flowing through the watermeadows.
She was always taking in abandoned things.
I think she saw her sadnesses reflected in them.
Once it was a stray puppy. She gave him to me.
But the next day, fawning, absently, gifted him
to strangers. Some years later, in her violent anger
I learned it was the same with me –
a Guangdong cobbler’s foundling daughter. She
said she saved me from the refuse heap, from
being eaten by the dogs with other scraps.
Too many mouths to feed. I never wondered
about these unknown siblings. Or my father’s
blackened hands, turning the warm hide
of a fraying shoe beneath his hammer.
Or my real mother. Unreachable across
the water, as planets circling in the night.


notes:
Ping Chau, Cheung Chau, Lantau, Lamma – four outlying islands of Hong Kong.
月 – yuè – is the simplest Chinese word for moon.


from Horizon Review


24/05/2009

Sarah Howe was born in Hong Kong in 1983 to an English father and Chinese mother. Having studied English at Cambridge and Harvard, she is currently writing a doctorate on Renaissance poetry and the visual imagination. As a painter, she was the Student Artist in Residence at Christ’s College, Cambridge in 2004–5. Her criticism has appeared in numerous journals and she won the inaugural London Review of Books Young Reviewers Competition for her writing on contemporary poetry. Several of her poems are forthcoming in Shearsman and Stand.


from Horizon Review