As a young child, I carried many ants
on my arms
but he blew them off
in the hurricane of his voice.
He hacked away at the woods with his questions,
one tree at a time,
one dream at a time,
severing my heart from his
until the forest of my soul laid bare.
I grew up in the shadow of his cloud
never asking for more sunshine
than needed to stay put within the four walls
of family and expectations.
Can roots grow where there are none left?
Can they grow like philodendrons
from nothing but water
and promises to change?
Here, in the garden
with the running water
of the fountain.
The sun burns my eyes with hope and
I feel a tingling.
My nails grow long and spindly.
My body shrinks with wrinkles.
My voice cracks like the heron’s calls.
I see an old woman now,
with long, greying hair,
roots twisting and
touching the earth
that holds her father’s ashes.
Bid the clouds that muffle
our cries farewell,
for it is not too late yet.
There was a particular deodorant I used when I was a teenager going to junior high school in Katy, Texas—TEEN Spirit Stick in a floral scent. Orchard Blossom to be exact. Today when I smell the Lady Speed Stick version of the same scent (the TEEN Spirit Stick has since been discontinued), I’m transported back to the gym changing room at school.
I remember my terror of being the new kid at school, of being foreign, of being the outsider, and of being the girl who didn’t want straight hair for her school photo but managed to trip over a cord running to another girl’s straightening iron. The memory is fresh like a first disappointment. The other girls in the big bathroom twisting their little necks, scowling down at me and my thick, thick, brown hair. I remember hanging onto a basketball with a steel grip, wrestling for the ball, pulling it away from another girl who fought just as hard. I held on with a hold that spelled out fear and determination, that said: “Let me be. I’m just a girl wanting to belong. Let me in.”
After that, from the pleased looks on the faces of the adult coaches and the other students, I could tell that I’d gained some ground. It sickened me to know that I had to fight and claw my way to be accepted. That I had be challenged first, like I was guilty until proven innocent.
Most of the time, I felt like a nobody at school. A walking hollow of a kid. Not American, but not quite British. An imposter. A hybrid person. An anomaly that didn’t fit into the American dream’s puzzle of being a young American schoolgirl. I remember coming home one day and writing on the white board stuck to the fridge, “I’m losing my soul.” My mother frowned at me later, asking me to clarify what I meant. I couldn’t explain it till much later when I was in my twenties.
Sometimes I ate my packed lunch sitting on a closed toilet seat in the bathroom holding a book in one hand and a sandwich in the other. I was a shy, introverted kid who dreamed in video games, daydreams of being an artist, and fantasy novels where girls were strong and flew majestic flying ships. These things took me far, far away.
The smell of orchard blossom is a lesson in the meanness of strangers, in the value of solitude, and in the early crafting of an identity.
It’s March 2010 and I walk through the campus in the aftermath of the huge hailstorm. I smell a strong, pungent, and earthy smell. It takes me a moment to identify the source, but once I see the tall, eucalyptus trees shivering before me, I know it’s coming from them. The fact that there was that much fragrance—that much love—coming from destruction was surprising and enlightening. It was a relief to know that sometimes a little shaking could release something new. It was the first time I looked at the trees with a sense of wonder. I hadn’t realized their full beauty—their potential—until now.
Hello, I said.
I thanked the heavens for the joyous, freakishly strange occasion, the sky still gray and broken overhead. I stepped over broken bits of tree like I was stepping over a dead body: slowly and respectfully, trying not to stare too much, whispering words of mourning, words celebrating the life that was, the life that could still be felt. While standing on the white carpet blanketing the grassy oval in late summer, a strange, sudden chill shook my body and I knew that a memory had been born.
Before bed, I take a sniff of the eucalyptus oil I keep on my bedside table and shudder with the memory of the hailstorm. My body relaxes and I lay myself down like tree branches stretching in the air.
I heard the tiger at the door at the age of five. It sounds early but that’s how it happened. I was small, smaller than I can ever understand, and my mother who now stands nearly a full head shorter looked down at me. I had a high fever and she gripped my hand hard as she watched the sweat drip off my face. Her eyes darted from my face to my bedroom and back again. I didn’t have to say a word. She knew that I saw them in my bedroom. I would not take a step forward. They were there.
When you’re young, you’re taught that seeing is believing and my eyes saw them. The first tiger padded its way around the end of my bed, turning around at the corner and walking out of view behind a wall. The second and third followed. Their eyes glowed red like the bits of coal that I saw in the barbecue when Dad grilled sausages or skewered meats on the weekends. Red to me meant the devil. I guess I had learned that at Sunday school but I wasn’t entirely sure if they meant any harm. They certainly were intimidating but I knew that they were majestic and beautiful creatures as well, especially in the way they moved, their shoulder blades flexing up and down, undulating with every step. About a year or so later, I would discover the full extent of my double-jointedness and re-enact the stalks of prey I saw on Discovery Channel documentaries. Cheetahs, lions, tigers, all with those pointy bones jutting out of their lean bodies built for the kill.
When I saw the tigers in my room, I was incredibly afraid that they would deviate from their path but they never did. They always went around the bed and away towards the wall. My fear made me want to bury my face into my mother’s thighs and grab her clothes for comfort, but I could never look away. My eyes stayed open and watched every movement. It was like when I watched a horror or action movie and my parents would tell me to cover my eyes near the climax of the story when death was imminent and I’d watch through a slit in my fingers not wanting to miss a thing. I was in awe of the possibility of what a human could do, or what an animal could do. I wanted to find out how unreal reality could be, how painful, how beautiful. That’s how I felt when I saw the stripes, the fur, the big paws, and the eyes. I didn’t want to miss a thing. I was captivated. Their hypnotic movements and their graceful power entranced me. It wasn’t until years later when I’d wonder, why were there three tigers? Why did they visit me? Did they mean me harm? And the most interesting question of all, where did they come from?
Now at the age of twenty five, I have come across a review of a recently published memoir in a magazine. The author uses the phrase, “hear the tiger at the door”, and she uses it to signify the moment when a child realizes that one day their childhood will end, that it’s already ending, that all’s not completely right with the world. After reading that phrase, my thoughts jolted back to the several occasions I saw the tigers. Suddenly I am my five-year-old self again clutching my mother’s hand and staring ahead at the red eyes. How strange it would be if ‘hearing the tiger at the door’ for me is literally when I saw tigers at my door. The connection is uncanny. I can’t help but think that when I saw them I realized there were mystery and grief in the world, pain and loss, and that this was only the beginning of my understanding.
Ever since, I have been weirdly fascinated by tigers and I can’t help but attribute this instinctive desire to stick posters of tigers on my walls, tiger magnets on the fridge and buy tiger themed calendars, to those several nights in which I saw the big cats walking on the carpet I played on, walked on and laid on as a child. Perhaps, the very fabric of my reality, the threads of understanding that weave their way in and out through the years started being sown then. The bud of consciousness that came with witnessing these grand events was planted then and the realization that my five-year-old self did not know everything. I guess that’s what we call wisdom.