- For a long time, all the first names
It was mpunga
today and rice tomorrow.
Pepani when I stepped
on my sister’s toe.
Tidzipita! and everyone
ran to the car.
There is a sound you have
to hear to know.
Ah-ah. It signals
ordinary astonishment, like
You boiled milk in the tea kettle?
or Wasn’t she just here?
At least the way we mean it.
But you are hearing it wrong,
like you say to the doctor
when the tongue depressor appears.
That’s not it.
- I didn’t know what a tamarind was.
Something exotic, maybe, from Mexico.
Ten years ago, someone handed me a bag.
Mmtch. I thought. That’s bwemba.
I told him, it’s delicious but it cuts
the roof of your mouth.
A year ago, a coworker asked how we say it in Chichewa,
and I couldn’t remember. I had to call my dad.
Today my mother raised her head,
rescued from her delirium for the afternoon.
She examined her bare feet with indignation¬
and asked for her patapata.
You are hearing it wrong.
Just shy of France Ave. and Normandale Blvd.,
where the road bisects the marsh,
I’m driving home with groceries.
Up from the grey blanket of night,
a deer shudders into view, lunging
of the headlamps,
sinew and muscle sliding beneath skin,
a powerful frame, jagged with fear.
For a single moment she is caught
in the high beams of the car beside me,
a dancer in attitude, every limb stretched to fullness.
One foot half way to the brakes,
a sharp pull of air into the lungs,
but there is no time.
The neighboring car drives through her.
Young and underweight, her body lifts into a somersault,
She lands somewhere down in the moss and dark waters.
My heart arrests and my breathing is flawed.
I stop in my lane and the offending car pulls off the road.
We are stilled,
uncertain what to do.
But behind us, the pale smudge of headlights
clarify, and close the distance.
The road is narrow. We have to move.
There was no blood,
no sound above the song playing on my radio.
And we have to move.
There is a time of dusk,
of cricket song and shadow,
when the eye cannot focus.
Even bold things, the uncompromised
line of the rooftop, the unambiguous height
of the flag pole, muddle and fade.
I sit on the hospital bed beside you and stare
at yet another painting of grey sailboats on a pale blue lake.
The nurse takes your blood pressure for the afternoon.
Last year, we walked one block down from the house
and turned back because you were tired.
You found delight in an albino squirrel on the neighbor’s lawn.
I knew you were right when you said,
All my grand tours are behind me now.
But, if you could travel to one more place, I asked,
where would you go?
I was thinking Ireland, together this time,
breathing in the Atlantic Ocean from the cliffs of County Mayo.
Fuck it. I would put it on a credit card, tickets
for you and me and my sister. We could fly there next month.
Still studying the squirrel, you patted my hand.
In this room, I regale you with dreams
of a train ride through the green solitude of Alaska,
a crowded ferry from southern France to the dust and ochre of Tangier.
I lose out again to the pattern in your socks. Pulling
lotion from my purse, I smooth it over your fingers,
and into the warmth of your palms.
Although the aspen stretches every leaf to catch the morning light
and the cardinal lifts from the telephone wire like a living flame,
I come home to the yellow, uncurtained windows of your house
and the charcoal of pines fusing into the night.
on an unseasonably warm night in the Minnesota fall,
my sister smokes a cigarillo and tells me
it reminds her of the one time she knew exactly what felt like to be
happy. She was visiting a friend in Palo Alto and
they left a bar. The night was warm, like this night.
Caught in the wind, leaves
bounced across the sidewalk,
and spun up into the sky.
The storefronts were dark.
The street was quiet.
She stood with her arms stretched tip to tip,
head fallen back to see satellites and the pale florescent glow of the city.
Unencumbered by worry,
with no one to disappoint,
she encountered joy.
Last night, at one in the morning, my mother broke her bedside lamp.
For weeks she had refused to step under the shower,
pushing, fussing, forcing water out onto the bathroom tile.
Water phobia, we were told. Common with dementia.
While my father eased her beneath the covers,
I hurried for the broom,
and my sister gathered together the shade and stem.
Paused beside the pillow, she said,
Dad, there’s blood dripping from her ear.
As children, our parents referred to us as you girls.
You girls need to do your homework.
You girls are going to Ntcheu to see your grandmother.
You girls can each have one piece of cake.
This was our fourth visit to the E.R. in three months,
so routine we sent my father back to bed.
It’s only an ear infection, the doctor assured us.
And it’s better ruptured.
She must have been in terrible pain.
Perched on the bottom step,
bare arms wrapped around bare knees, I listen
to my sister and unravel what I already know.
That we grew from one house.
That she raced beside me.
That we always lived apart, somehow.
Yet we are here again, together
in our parents’ house.
I stayed in Palo Alto once, at a friend’s apartment.
In the morning, I drove up to Ocean Beach with a camera and a book.
Hopping the railing on Point Lobos Avenue,
I wandered down into the ruins of the Sutro Baths.
Across the hillside,
a hundred calla lilies bloomed.
Sheltered amid lichen and concrete,
they kept their beautiful watch over pilings and the sea.
Did I know that I was happy?
I suppose I did, but
happiness was familiar to me.
I thought that I could count on it.
Katherine Jumbe: "I live in Los Angeles and work in the nonprofit sector, helping low-income high school students prepare for and apply to college. I hold a B.A. in English from Carleton College and an M.A. in education from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor."