Escape from the Chengsin Mission
Surely we got the memory gene from mother.
Remember how she put on Chinese robes in Pasadena,
then stripped them off and ran through sprinklers,
warbling hymns to her little sparrows?
She thought she was back in the Chengsin Chapel School
with her orphan girls, teaching them to pray.
Sparrows knelt before her, pecking sidewalk grit.
The police came running from their cars.
It’s the gaps that frighten me. The doctor said:
Crush ibuprofen in orange juice and drink the mix
twice a day. I’ve taped notes to every wall,
turned my house into a shaggy book.
Father couldn’t forget a thing. He gulped
tea mixed with chopped lamb and camel milk,
named all those gols and nors in the Gobi Desert,
then galloped off with saddle bags crammed with Bibles.
I’ll be back when you finish painting your ravens,
he’d say. His back is what I saw: khaki coat,
pith helmet, sunburned neck. Mongols
shredded his Bibles to insulate their winter boots.
Look at photos long enough and they mutter
secrets from the walls. Here we sit under the apple tree
for our last lunch. Father’s about to shove
his toast toward a one-legged cardinal, wave
his cigarette and cough: You can have it.
He never said another word. Squirrels
scattered husks of sunflower seeds on the table.
My yardboy chainsawed the rotten tree.
When did bulldozers gut Cathedral Woods
for Wal-Mart, doctors yank the feeding tube
from my yardboy’s mother? Time’s an odd relative.
I forget the dates, use the news to kindle fires.
See this crossword puzzle in the Sunday paper?
It could be a map of Chengsin’s crisscrossed streets.
Five Across points to our mission courtyard.
That black square is where I painted birds.
Three Down leads to the temple square
where mother stood on a donkey cart to preach
while I thumbed a book of herons
or swatted flies from the donkey’s rump.
Nearby, Boxers punched the sky and hooted
at mother’s bad Chinese. Every night
I heard them digging tunnels toward my bed.
Their siege starved us into rats.
Remember how father hid us both in coffins?
He told the mandarin he had to bury us
or wind would blow our smallpox around the city.
We rattled in an ox cart toward the gate.
Boxers beat the Great Wall’s stones with hoes
to scare our ghosts into the Mongolian night.
I could barely breathe the air from vents.
When father crow-barred off my coffin roof,
I saw the moon trembling like an eyelid
above a mountain, mother looking up
at stars to get her bearings, the ox sniffing
for the right route north to the desert of the Gobi.
The Man Who Never Said Much
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