There was no woman who did not ask my mother—
Chị không sợ Bé Mai quá dữ hả?
—if she wasn’t afraid I was too mean a child.
I was reading Magic Tree House. My uncle insisted
we save money to slim down my face, my nose.
I was seven. I wore basketball shorts and refused
all the hair beneath my ears. I was so mean
I stared down a glass bottle swirling
with a concoction of household cleaners,
a young alchemist searching for transformation.
In our chapparal summers, my mother killed
rattlesnakes with her broomstick,
grilled ribs sweet with nước mắm ngọt,
fixed our leaking pipes, kept our checkbooks balanced.
She taught me to drive when my father was too scared
to watch me take the wheel. In June,
we laid out the altar for my father’s father.
I grieved a man I know only through his gravestone,
mythologized in family lore as the only man
who longed for granddaughters.
I grieved my lost boyhood.
I set the table every year for his death,
learn him through a history of plunder.
On ngày cúng, I am the daughter, the girl, the only one
praying out of desperation instead of duty.
I have no choice over what I eat, so
I hoard a small collection of lemon slices.
The hailstorm started while I was picking oranges.
Today, the governor repealed his stay-at-home order
while LA’s crematorium chimneys sputtered.
I sheltered and listened to the clamoring rage above,
twisted my wrists back and forth ’til I heard
the steady drip of citrus, breathed in the same scent
of my grandmother’s love. I’ve smelled
her presence here, the watchful eye of a woman
whose doorstep was once barricaded with death.
What she knows about the piles, she sings
back to me in our tradition of ancestral instruction.
My grandmother knew French,
then became a mother, says my father.
She spoke and then she didn’t.
He hopes I, too, will do the same.
When the hailstorm came, I sang
the same song that came on when I cut
my hair short for the first time in ten years:
Our people, baby, die and live again.
If my grandmother knew my girlness would sour
would she still have sliced me oranges?
Does she know now her mistake
or her pride?
My mother never worried about me,
my shoulders hardened with a son’s labor,
my hands calloused by the friction
of every unborn possibility:
If she’s so mean,
no one will ever hurt her.
Đỗ Nguyên Mai is a Vietnamese poet and educator from Santa Clarita, California. They are the author of Ghosts Still Walking (Platypus Press, 2016) and Battlefield Blooming (Sahtu Press, 2019). They are the recipient of the 2019 Locked Horn Press Publication Prize and are an American Political Science Association Diversity Fellow. In 2020, they also received a Pushcart Prize nomination and received support from the AAPI Civic Engagement Fund for their literary work. Đỗ is currently a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Riverside, whose research focuses on Southeast Asian refugee communities and the American deportation regime. • Photo by the author