Translatio

My mother’s letters are lost to me.
I cannot read
the language they are written in.

My mother tries to teach me, long ago,
turning our scarred kitchen table first into a desk,
then into a jail.
“Look here,” she says, “See how the word for heart
is at the heart
of the word for love?
See how the word for large
looks like a person
with their arms stretched out wide?”

Our lessons will end soon after that.
They do not last long enough
for me to learn
the word for shame.

“Chinese is too difficult,” I’d say
even as I learned to conjugate
Greek verbs in seven tenses,
Greek verbs in four moods,
and all the uses of the Latin ablative.
Oh yes, I took Latin, too.

I’ve read Homer and Cicero,
Aristophanes, Thucydides,
Virgil, Ovid, Plato,
in the original,
as we say.
What use is this origin
to me?
I cannot read even my grandfather’s name in Chinese.

This is what empire does:
it makes you give up your self,
it makes you give yourself up
willingly.

My mother’s letters are not lost.
They stand like soldiers in neat, chronological rows
within a shoebox that sighs
whenever I open its lid.
I imagine them rustling,
whispering
whenever I am not there,
furling and unfurling along creased edges worn thin.

My mother’s handwriting is as elegant as a river’s current.
The smooth slanted strokes of her characters wave
like a flag, like a fan.
Someone else might read this landscape and hear
my mother’s voice,
my mother’s laugh.

But for me these pages speak nothing,
their meaning is too sacred for my eyes.
They lie breathless beneath my fingertips,
like tired cranes waiting to be folded and set free.

My mother’s letters are not lost,
except
that they are lost
to
me.

Sharon Hsu

Sharon Hsu writes speculative fiction, poetry, and criticism. Her work has previously appeared in Uncanny, Tor.com, and Augur Magazine. In addition to being a staunch Hufflepuff, ex-academic, and voracious reader, Sharon co-hosts and co-produces As My Wimsey Takes Me, a podcast about the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries by Dorothy L. Sayers. Find links to her work at sharonyhsu.com and everyday musings on Twitter @pensyf.

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