With an ending line from “Raffleasia” by Stephanie Chang

When my father was young, unfazed
and shoveling bread down his throat

to catch the earliest train into London,
where no one held the doors open

for him, he slept with his dictionary
under the pillow. He called it dedication,

but I call it what it was: desperation
as if the vocabulary would osmose into

his mind during sleep. As if he had time
for sleeping—I know this, now. He still speaks

of the dictionary with reverence, handles it
with the utmost care. Touching

these pages, I feel the ghosts of needled fingers
worrying the words awake. I once called

this tome a family
heirloom. Heritage

births its own beasts. Bamboo beds
in the scorch of summer, mung bean husks

beaten into love. I ask myself why
anyone would surrender their mother

tongue, bury it under foreign sounds. These days
I am more afraid of questions than I am

of answers. I have learned to hinge my jaws open
on white, empty syllables, to hunger for gentleness—

for what. I do not stop fearing loss, not without
possession to speak of in the first place. The acrid

throb and thistle in my mouth: skirmish, body,
war. My father still dreams of a city kinder to him

than London ever was. He had always run for closing train doors.
I ask him if it’s too late to muscle from memory

kindness for the words no longer there
for me to hold. Sleep, he says,

sleep. Any language capable of killing
you has been dead for centuries.

Smile Ximai Jiang