Third Place: Grace Tan

Wetland Country

Home was where steam, divorced from the stove,
melted back into the clouds floating above
Grandma’s jowls, the bubbling creek
of her voice flowing to the corners of the kitchen.

Kampong chicken and curry whistles in the pot as
cockroach legs smatter
in the corner, clicking protest,
my naked fist delivering a smoky quartz spine
through cream webbing sticky within.

The last chemical impulse rams
through the collapsed passageway
and the body skitters in the dustpan,
a tickling from the afterlife.

Home was where my feet learned to not interrupt
the romance kindling between the kitchen ants and the dining room ants;
where my sweaty hands, stabbing into a bucket sweet with rawness,
learn to pick through the rice grain by grain to sort out the maggots;

This is what I left after eighteen summers —

I left with its sea salt warmth pooling like melted wax in my lungs,
its laden mango kiss still in my throat,
tangling my tongue when I try to speak my new language,
    home holds on to me,
even after I left it with only the dream of a porcelain, flushing toilet to call my own.

Do you know, love, that all I wanted was a real bed, real walls, real floors,
to have solid wood cushioning my toes —
I wanted to hear my skin tap love on its lacquered surface,
a stage I would dance upon, above the mold and wet
that still feels like it is seeping into my flesh.
I wanted to forget the touch of flooded monsoon dirt crying for its sins.

Do you know that I once washed my feet in the toilet,
as if I could flush away the memory of shattered insects in my dustbin
or expel the manure and gutter salt left in my chest?
            — I watched the water swirl around again and again,
                        a watery clock spinning until

                        I can call my past the past,
                        remember what home once was,
            and tell you now that

Had I looked back when I walked through that metal gate,
             airport security flapping a damp sheet of a hand as if
             it would windmill us through faster,
I would have seen my mother’s tears melting into the sweat on her neck,
a wet kiss from the depths of my country’s marshlands.

It has been 23 years since I left Malaysia, and
it is not until the beep of your grandfather’s heart monitor hums constant
that I am going back now.