Loop of Jade

When the television has stayed on too long, the channels
ended, and all the downstairs lights switched off but one,
sometimes, rarely, my mother will begin to talk, without
prelude or warning, about her growing up. Then her words
feel pulled up from a dark and unreflective well – willed and
not willed. It isn’t that this tacit contract is not tinged by
our same daily fumblings, but when the men are asleep, I
think she believes it’s someone else’s turn to listen.

Once she spoke of her horror, as a very small child, of the
communal kitchen in their low-rise tenement – half-outdoors
in that muggy climate, it ran across the whole row, a corridor
or terrace; this space, aside from housing a blackened, static
wok the size of a Western baby’s bath, was also a latrine. Of
squatting barefoot over the cracked tile trench and trying
not to breathe. How despite themselves her eyes would follow
to the nearby drain, as it sprouted – here she giggles, shivers
– the glistening bodies

of cockroaches, like obscene sucked sweets. I see them, the
colour of rust or shit, hitching up from the crusted grille on
agile legs;

things scuttling from some dank, subterranean chamber of
the head.

*

Another time she tells of being made, in the bucket room,
at the place she always calls a school, to wash her hair with
a green detergent meant for scouring floors,

shaken from a cardboard tube. Unconscious fingers reach
towards her scalp. I do not look for the candied rose-petal
patches – there as long as I remember – as of mange or burns,
that tell why, before leaving her room, she will so carefully
layer and arrange her lovely black hair.

*

She tells these and other stories with a pause-pocked, melodic,
strangely dated hesitancy. What I mean by this is, whenever
I hear it, that halting intonation takes me back to the years
when we first moved here. In those days, in her early forties,
in a new country, she spoke more slowly than now, and with
a subtle, near-constant nasal hum, more of a nnnnnng – so
natural to Cantonese –

but which filled the gaps between her otherwise fluent English
like the Thereminy strings in a Mandarin film score. As she
chatted with the mothers of new friends, tentatively made
and dropped-off to play, it seemed to me that every minute
or so – I could feel it building – she would stick mid-note:
raised hand stilled, chin tilted in the doorway, a wound-down
marionette I willed and willed to start up its song again. A
tic the local children mocked me for – that nnnnnnnnnnng
in the playground –

as I tried not to be ashamed.

*

It thuds into my chest, this pendent
ring of milky jade –
I wear it strung on an old watch chain –

meant for a baby’s bracelet. Into its
smooth circlet
I can – just – fit a quincunx of five

fingertips. Cool on my palm it rests –
the sinople eye
on a butterfly’s wing. When I was born

she took it across to Wong Tai Sin,
my mother’s mother,
to have it blessed. I saw that place –

its joss-stick incensed mist, the fortunecasting
herd,
their fluttering, tree-tied pleas – only later

as a tourist. As for the jade, I never wore
or even saw it
then. The logic runs like this: if baby

falls, the loop of stone – a sacrifice –
will shatter
in her place. Painfully knelt on the altar

step, did the old woman shake out a sheath
of red-tipped
sticks, and pick one, to entreat my fate?

And if I break it now – will I be saved?


from Loop of Jade (Chatto & WIndus, 2015) © Sarah Howe 2015, used by permission of the author and the publisher

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1Pronouns are for Slackers

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2On a line by Xu Lizhi

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