nomad legend: Midwife
I am what remains. Here,
on this crop of volcanic rock. At the knees of the temple
where for thousands of years we worshipped
as the moon began her slow retreat
in deference to the gong, the jubilee of roosters –
our women with lotus lily towers on their heads,
our men with bronze curved daggers at their waists.
I still hear their children and recognize
each hungry wail, each budding tenor.
My hands were the first they knew,
the heat from my body preceded their mothers’ milk.
I was the one who rinsed their coats of blood
and breathed the story of this island and its specific stars
into the plaintive Os of their mouths.
In time, they forgot the ocean and learned to trust
paddy, clay, the gods. I began to assume
in their eyes the same madness perceived by their elders.
A madness feared, because no woman should
scratch letters to the drowned with a shark tooth
in cream colored sand. No woman should hunt
fish from her bed of rock, bare-handed, and eat them raw.
No woman should claim the sea is her mother,
the sea snake her husband. No matter.
When the babies were ready to cleave
the shell of their mothers, it was me they summoned.
See now how the land empties. How skin and slender
bones wash to sea. For moons I watch from the temple’s roof
skirmishes between soldiers and vultures
over moonstone anklets, ruby studded rings and abalone
still clinging to blue, salted flesh. At the cusp of daylight,
I fill my eyes with wine and sheathe my body
in seawater. The currents pound my eardrums like our warriors’ fists,
tiny fish make meals out of my calves, and time is measured
by the goldening ends of sea grass. This is the only place
where I do not smell, taste or think in blood.
My body cleaves tunnels through the satin depths,
clean and weightless. Ether.
The old people used to say that water snakes guarded the rock
cradle of our temple, that in fact, the rock was
the temple of greater creatures that came before us.
Pillars, courtyards, pagodas of copra were constructed
to house not the gods, but humans after we shed our hooves and horns.
According to some, we were once winged.
The men laughed at this story as they fondled their bows.
The women rubbed sandalwood oil into each other’s smooth backs.
This is before tips of bayonets split our children down their lengths.
This is before bows and backs were snapped alike.
I know what they did not know because the sea is my mother,
the sea snake my husband. This is why I leave my heart in the water.
The longer I stay, the closer I draw to their secrets.
The more I resemble salt. Within me, bones begin
to loosen. The bloom of my lungs acquires an echo.
I come up less and less for air.
On the seventy seventh year of the midwife’s submersion, at the moon’s zenith, it is said that new bodies crawled out of the waves. Their teeth were adamantine and their skin sequined. They spoke to each other in sign, for they had not yet invented a language for soil. They were not men and women. They were multiple, each with their own distinctive architecture. They practiced the art of disappearing, walking children home and dancing at street corners. Their dances could not be imitated for they moved in ways unknown to our imagination. When they looked at you, you heard the sea mother. It is said that they had solved the alchemy of bone to water.
nomad legend: Moon’s benediction
bless the round belly, elephant tusk, sago
root straining dark moist earth, tongues
of aloe peeled open, their juice kneaded
into the crowns of old women, gypsum
powder, ash scrubbed into linen and skin
preparing them for touch, the flintlock
at rest with nomads and their fire
bless lightning, the unsung flute, proverbs
spelled in tobacco leaves, owl’s hoot
rippling east, its timbre grained in salt
from the palms of fishermen, a coastline
beaded in pearl, pith of a woman
listening for her name in the throng, iron
sphere, devil’s oar, snake’s teardrop.
Cynthia Dewi Oka lives in Vancouver. She writes of these poems:
“Although they are in English, they incorporate elements, landscapes, concepts and re-imagined myths embedded in my native language, Bahasa Indonesia, and experiences of historical and contemporary displacement.”