My mother and my grandmother returning
to China are ravenous, as if poised
on a threshold: October markets
glimpsed from the taxi entice them,
stalls with melons and persimmons, a Kodachrome
from childhood. They make a request
to stop at the stand selling hot milk in wooden bowls.
My grandmother sniffs air thick with coal smoke
for the scent of burnt sugar; she will follow her nose
into a labyrinthine hutong, forsaking us.
For my mother, it’s the dried watermelon seeds
she used to crack and eat compulsively, leaving a trail
in a dark wood. But nothing they buy on our way back
from the Temple of Heaven tastes as they remember it.
At the mouth of a lane snaking beyond
the concourse, a river of bicycles swallowed me.
I was lost among crowded stalls, the air
bruised with coal smoke, at some border between
despair and wanting to be lost.
I hadn’t yet eaten the seeds that would
keep me there, though the place
was what I hungered for: a forgotten past,
the same iron weights and measures,
old men in a willow’s filigreed shade
playing dominoes, their companions finches
and canaries in bamboo cages, tiny souls
flickering like taillights on the bicycles
I followed, hoping to be led back out into light and air.
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