Sister of My Spine, Wearing War Behind One Ear

Twin aunts

once known to me

only as calligraphy

on rose-printed paper

reach us.

 

For years, I traced

their voices, arranged

the lilt of their voice

on kitchen counters

next to unripe fruit

waiting.

 

Bloodlines rupture

the burden of history

and suddenly they are here

alive not phantoms

stretched lean by long

distance calls.

 

My aunts take sweets

one after the other. Daintily

raise teacups to their mouths

welcoming the coil of steam.

 

Twin aunts roll their sleeves up

turn up the flat belly of their arms

and ask me to witness:

 

dolphin skin.

small linking lakes

pale as amber.

 

I read signs in their burn scars

as clearly as tea leaves

in a bone china cup.

 

Tell me again the story of your escape

Tell me how you fled from mountains in flames.

 

“We were sixteen then.

Who would ever marry us

like this?”

 

Awkward laughter slips from their mouths.

I mirror back a leaf of a smile.

 

“I am sixteen, now.” My mouth, a navel.

 

“Look, how you’ve grown!

Do you remember your cousin?

Your khala’s daughter?”

The coy aunt tugs at the bold one’s elbow.

“Maybe you shouldn’t ask…”

 

 

Do you remember?

 

a neon sound

an accusation.

 

Now, I

the sorry storyteller

use the dull knife of Farsi

as precisely as a thumb.

 

The bomb blast.

The trilling in my ears.

The wall of the seamstress’ shop.

The burnt and torn flower print skirt.

The smooth ankle

the color of wheat.

 

Her toes painted red

polka dots made with a toothpick

dipped in white nail polish.

I hold both bottles, red

and white.

 

blow on her toes.

the tender touch to be sure it’s dry.

the smile of red on my fingertip.

 

“The pavement drank her whole!”

say the men who come for survivors.

For a few breaths, I am still lost.

Then their breath of anise,

then the deafening cheer

for the saved dukhtarak, little girl.

I am saved after falling into

a garbage can.

 

“No. I don’t remember.”

I say, instead, giving them

the bald of my eyes.

 

They give me more stories

warm naan and cool streams

mountains like mothers

to make amends for the war

clinging to the hem of their skirts.

 

Cool palms smooth my forehead

then they turn over my emptied cup

and read tea leaves.

I watch their hands flutter to their lips.

Uzbek and Farsi like snow

melting just at the rim of my cup.

 

Twin heads bent low

the lightning of their scalp

their black and red hennaed hair.

They read and weep

into my cup.

 

“We have come with empty hands.

We fled with only our lives.”


Zohra Saed is the co-editor of One Story, Thirty Stories: An Anthology of Contemporary Afghan American Literature (University of Arkansas Press), editor of Langston Hughes: Poems, Photos, and Notebooks from Turkestan (Lost & Found, The CUNY Poetics Documents Initiative); and poetry Woman. Hand/Pen. (Belladonna chaplet series). Her essays on the Central Asian diaspora have appeared in Eating Asian America (NYU Press) and The Asian American Literary Review. Her poetry has been published in numerous journals and translated into German, Arabic, and Portuguese.