Crab and Catfish
In the river
They live apart
Keeping a safe distance
for food, peace of mind
They crouch on top of each other
in separate containers
Waiting to be steamed, fried, sautéed
And everything changes
When hungover workers tumble their buckets
Down the street
The catfish slither and slide
Gasping belly dance on the concrete
The crabs move sideways
Crushed pincers raised
Like they owned the world
On death row
The sidewalk becomes a carnival--
dodge the slimy danger
Laughing kids kick and stamp
Frantic workers scoop
The owner swears at the top of his lungs
Outside the crowd my tears come
This is a kingdom where low creatures are killed daily
Like the moon circles the earth
Like hunters hunt, peasants plough
And trees fall for highways and cows
There’s no more reason to cry for the bottom feeders
Than for the little girl in a dingy bakery
Devouring noodles and wanting more
Soy sauce gleaming at her mouth like catfish whiskers
And her last glance into the window into my eyes
As her mother drags her to school
I cry because I’m not in the crowd
Don’t know how to kick, stomp or kill
A sentimental bitch
sick for my island
On the East China Sea
And here they come
The young catfish with ginger skin
Eye hangs on the cheek like a rosary bead
On its back rides the baby crab
Legs all gone except for the pincers
Crushed shell glowing with stubbornness
In the water, they hate each other’s guts
Now like the mandate of heaven and earth
They charge through the human wall
Toward Canal Street--what they believe
The direction of home
The crowd parts like water
In awe the city halts
The traffic, the trade, the laughing wall
Watching the lowest of the low
Plunge into the sea
And behind them—a bloody trail of faith
I’ve set out on the path
My sins, my faith
And your crumbling paradise
Every gift you gave
Take my life
If you have to
But give me a voice
That sings fire
Even though you’ve patched me up
Hundreds of folds
I still want to be a woman
Ten thousand times
This is a pair of hand-made shoes
Awkward and lovely like the maker behind the stand
Gold peonies bloom unabashed on red corduroy tops
White soles are made of layered cloth
Pasted on a door with flour
And let dry slowly in the sun
Stitches line dense and neat
like terra-cotta soldiers on battle grounds
This is a pair of shoes
I’ve been searching for years
The craft my grandma tried to pass on
Before I left home for good
Without trying them on, I know
They would comfort my calloused soles
Heal my fungus toes
Let me run like whirlwind
A sword drawn out of its sheath
And we start the bargain.
“Ten,” she says, “for the sake of destiny
That brought you to this desert town.”
“Five,” I say without thinking,
a trick from my American partner.
“Good joke, Big Sister,” she laughs,
deep creases trembling on her purple face.
I blush for no reason.
“Six then,” I say, avoiding her hands
that bring back the memory of Grandma,
her flickering shadow on the wall threading a needle.
“Come on, Sister, have some respect.”
“Ok, seven, can’t go up any more.
Respect has to be mutual, don’t you think?”
“Barely enough to pay for the materials, Sis,”
her voice low, wet like the drizzle.
“No mercy,” I repeat the mantra drilled into my brain.
“Peddlers are good at arousing sympathies.
That’s how they make a living.”
“Eight, then, the highest I can offer.
You peasants are getting greedier day by day.”
She raises her hands, ten knotted roots,
ten question marks drawn by children.
“Do you know how many nights I stay up
to stitch the soles? Do you see
my fingers? Do you see my eyes? See
my little brother waiting for a bowl
of noodles my shoes could buy?
His hunger does not lie.
My callous does not lie.
We do not lie.”
I’m not practicing the walk-away tactic
That works like magic.
I’m running from the mirror of her eyes.
“Stubborn girl, stubborn girl,”
I murmur to myself,
“It’s just a game, just a game.”
She chases, thrusts the shoes into my hands.
“You won, Miss. Take them for 9.
What’s nine yuan to you, a dollar twenty cents?
And what’s a yuan, less than a dime?
Would you even bother to pick it up from the street?”
I put away my victory in a trunk,
never give it a second thought
until I’m pulled out of the line
at Minneapolis custom, maggots fingers
prodding socks, underwear, wrapped gifts,
and there it is--my bargain
red and loud like thunderclaps:
“You saved a dime, Fool,
but lost your soul.”