February 28, 1999

Three months before my birth,

my grandfathers stand beside each other

for a photograph: some city,

China. Center foreground, white

margin cutting their ankles,

date stamped on the right corner

in rose ink. My grandfathers: laoye

on the left in a button-down, the soft

goldfish gums of his smile.

Yeye’s hair still black, coat hanging

to his knees. Do you know

what this is before? Crescent tiles

like small whirlpools, soft falls

of leather shoes. There is a crowd

behind my grandfathers, and beyond, white

building supported by construction crane.

Pine branches arabesque like dancers.

And the crowd. Their backs all turned.

What do they look at, for? There

is a fountain in the photograph’s center

that spouts behind yeye’s head and falls

into cascades. The sky dismal

like a white blanket, red pagoda on a hill.

There are many red pagodas

in this world. Do you know

what this is before? Two years before

laoye dies of pancreas cancer, a decade

before yeye’s mind recedes. Three months

before my birth. My grandmothers

are in the past somewhere, out of sight,

but laolao wears a white wrap

around her head and smiles, the roses

on her sweater red like pagodas.

Maybe it’s just an arch.

They could be in a city, any city.

Do crowds swell here? Do vendors

stand here? It must be

early winter. How does water sound

in the crack of cold air? Once, I read

a plaque translation before a stone

fountain: Please keep off of The Grass!

But it was a fountain so of course

there was no grass. I listened to water

splatter against stone. What kind of city

in this photograph? I called the translation

imperfect. I said I wanted to meet them. I did

my best to lift the second of this photograph.

Something still fogs the viewing.

I said it was time. I said it was not time.

Katherine Liu lives near Chicago and attends Stevenson High School. She edits poetry for TRACK//FOUR, and her writing appears in BOAAT, Red Paint Hill, and Alexandria Quarterly.