The Tao of Vagary (Text Version)
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Watch her hand
resist the formation of a fist:
When I cried, she’d flick her fingernails
on countertops in
My second baby was a joy. My first baby was a stranger. I’d dreamt of her weeks before, the usual things: oblivious eyes beaming gummy teeth but when she came out I didn’t know her.
It made no sense to me, but then my mother died months before. We spent weeks burning her offerings. All day folding paper mansions overripe pears biceped bodyguards good but not-too-good Mahjong players and an entire cow. I was given the sole task of designing her servant girl and not the mansion like I wanted. So, at the last minute behind the bonfire under her paper skirt, I glued on a penis and grinned at the sky.
And so they cut you out.
And so a cinnamon scar frowns in the mirror but smiles when I look down.
And so babbling on the floor with crushed pears in your hands I let the snails fill your ears. in whorls.
I lost contact with my father when he left for the Philippines on business. No calls, no answers. Māmā says that all things come from the earth including phone wires, failing when they root themselves with the arrogance of trees. She said it like a joke, though in the morning I caught her barefoot in the dust yelling “We’ve all tried that! It never works!”
That day, she nailed the shutters closed. In the kitchen: the scrape of a lighter; eardrum papercut. She told me one day I’d drop it and set the house on fire. It would sear the walls, but only on the inside.
I thought his head would be the size of your belly
You thought I’d just give birth to a head?
He’d never think that highly of himself.
Because he’s a boy and that’s better?
Because I learned my lesson raising you.
I’m not going to the temple, the smoke burns my eyes
That is how we talk to dead people
To share your baby brother
Wouldn’t they know already?
Yes, but it’s good to be polite
Well we shouldn’t anymore
I completely agree
Can I eat those pears?
No, but thank you for asking
—My god your son’s head is enormous.
—like a lightbulb!
—He can’t even sit up.
Can you please—
—Large soft spots too, that’s good. Means a big brain will follow.
Big head and big brain are very different things.
—Meimei, where is your daughter?
In the living room eavesdropping.
Every day I visit the radio station, hammering morse code, calling
their father dogfighting on the Philippine sea.
After hours of meeting the blank stare
of static I remember
he never went to war.
So I come home
to simplify myself. I light my pipe and burn
the fractals off my bronchi.
My son laughs hysterically
on the couch with my daughter in the living room:
enormous head in her lap, smiling dumbly.
She stares at me, finger
on his soft spot pressing
My mother, gone coding.
a pear stolen from the temple.
In the distance, men stamp bets by the racetrack.
I want to roll in their laps like die.
For the first time in a while, I peer
at the sun strangled in shutters the floors flocked
by snails the walls ringed with years of smoke
Hooves shake the cityscape shakes
the shutters, my fingers
at the rumbling walls.
“Watch my hand,”
coiling in formation—
I hurl a fist to the shutters.
Light sears the walls.
Tian-Ai’s “The Tao of Vagary” appears in Flock 23: Kith & Kin.