Apology from a Muslim Orphan

I know you know
how to shame into obedience
the long chain tethering lawnmower
to fence. And in your garden
are no chrysanthemums, no hem
of lace from the headscarf
I loose for him at my choosing.
Around my throat still twines a thin line
from when, in another life, I was
guillotined. I know you know
how to slap a child across the face
with a sandal.
Forgive me. I love when he tells me to be
the water you siphon into the roots
of your trees. In that life,
I was your enemy and silverleaf.  
In this one, the child you struck was me.

More by Tarfia Faizullah

The Interviewer Acknowledges Grief

Sister, I waste time. I play
              and replay the voices of these
hurt women flowering

             like marigolds or thistles.
Something lost, forgotten—
             that picture of you, violin

sewn fast to your shoulder,
             bow in one hand poised
eternal. Again, the power's

             gone out—tell me, what is
it to say I miss you? Because
             you won't grow breasts, never

feel desire rippling across you
             like bolts of silk these many
lithe men unshelf daily

             for my choosing. Because you
can't reassure me I have
             the right to ask anything

of women whose bodies won't
              ever again be their own. You
can't blot away this utter, sooted

              darkness. You don't hesitate
when another birangona asks you,
              Do you have any siblings?

For decades, you've been
              so small: a child tapping
on opaque windows. Now,

              through the veranda's black
iron bars, I see you, dark
              silhouette hurrying past,

a bagged red box dangling
              from one slender arm—gift
for a lover or mother. Again,

               the generator shudders me back
into light. Isn't this, Sister,
               what I always said I wanted?

Your Own Palm

O, my daughter, once I was a poor boy
folding peppers into my sarong 
to walk three miles to sell, but what
can you tell me of sorrow, 
or of the courage it takes to buy
a clock instead of a palmful 
of rice to go with the goat 
we can’t afford to slaughter?
Look at the lines Allah etched
on your own palm: you have
a big brain and a good heart, 
still, you don’t use either enough! 
Once, I walked through a war 
beside my brother parallel 
to a gray river. Why do you care
about the few damp bills
I didn’t give to our mother?
Or the clock I bought to take apart? Well, 
I left that country with a palmful 
of seeds I’ve thrown across
this dry, hard Texas. Allah
has blessed me with this vine
that coils upward. I care
so little for what others say, ask 
your mother. That nose ring
doesn’t suit you, by the way. 
Once, you were small enough 
to cradle. There was a coil 
in that clock made of metal . . . O, 
that something so small can matter . . . 
                        No daughter, I 
don’t need a glass of water. Look, 
this will grow into maatir neeche aloo. 
In the spring, you see, its purple leaves
will be the size of your own palm. 
In the village, there is a saying: 
“Dhuniya dhari, kochu pathar paani.”
I don’t know where the clock is 
or how much it’s worth! There was 
not enough for kerosene . . . why 
do you always ask what can’t be answered?
 

100 Bells

My sister died. He raped me. They beat me. I fell
to the floor. I didn’t. I knew children,
their smallness. Her corpse. My fingernails.
The softness of my belly, how it could
double over. It was puckered, like children,
ugly when we cry. My sister died
and was revived. Her brain burst
into blood. Father was driving. He fell
asleep. They beat me. I didn’t flinch. I did.
It was the only dance I knew.
It was the kathak. My ankles sang
with 100 bells. The stranger
raped me on the fitted sheet.
I didn’t scream. I did not know
better. I knew better. I did not
live. My father said, I will go to jail
tonight because I will kill you. I said,
She died. It was the kathakali. Only men
were allowed to dance it. I threw
a chair at my mother. I ran from her.
The kitchen. The flyswatter was
a whip. The flyswatter was a flyswatter.
I was thrown into a fire ant bed. I wanted to be
a man. It was summer in Texas and dry.
I burned. It was a snake dance.
He said, Now I’ve seen a Muslim girl
naked. I held him to my chest. I held her
because I didn’t know it would be
the last time. I threw no
punches. I threw a glass box into a wall.
Somebody is always singing. Songs
were not allowed. Mother said,
Dance and the bells will sing with you.
I slithered. Glass beneath my feet. I
locked the door. I did not die. I did
not die. I shaved my head. Until the horns
I knew were there were visible.
Until the doorknob went silent.

Related Poems

Force Visibility

Everywhere we went, I went
in pigtails
no one could see—

ribbon curled
by a scissor’s sharp edge,
the bumping our cars

undertook when hitting
those strips
along the interstate

meant to shake us
awake. Everywhere we went
horses bucking

their riders off,
holstered pistols
or two Frenchies

dancing in black and white
in a torn-apart
living room,

on the big screen
our polite cow faces
lit softly

by New Wave Cinema
I will never
get into. The soft whir

of CONTINUOUS STRIP IMAGERY.
What is fascism?

A student asked me

and can you believe
I couldn’t remember
the definition?

The sonnet,
I said.
I could’ve said this:

our sanctioned twoness.
My COVERT pigtails.
Driving to the cinema

you were yelling
This is not
yelling
you corrected

in the car, a tiny
amphitheater. I will
resolve this
I thought

and through that
RESOLUTION, I will be
a stronger compatriot.

This is fascism.
Dinner party
by dinner party,

waltz by waltz,
weddings ringed
by admirers, by old

couples who will rise
to touch each other
publicly.

In INTERTHEATER TRAFFIC
you were yelling
and beside us, briefly

a sheriff’s retrofitted bus.
Full or empty
was impossible to see.