these are only rumors of suffering
Drowsy memories of memories. Early mornings in my grandmother’s house; sunlight stippled on waving palm. The street vendor’s vowels coasting like drones in the air. Baloooooooot! A certain corner on 34th Street that smells densely of sweat and flowers and suddenly, without warning, the tropics. The Philippines. Sri Lanka. Whole countries pushing up through concrete and standing water.
This is how I construct my history.
My father likes to tell stories at certain lulls in dinner parties when the wine is just grading into whiskey and his smile looks raw and overscrubbed, like the floor after a spill. He speaks of his father and his calm silences, how sometimes you would have to wait 20 minutes for a one-word response. How fond he was of certain sweets. Stray dogs.
He never speaks of his brother, the one I have never seen in person or in photographs, the one who was murdered under mysterious circumstances, left bleeding in the Colombo dust. Death crossing oceans—the great colonizer. My great-uncle on my mother’s side beheaded by the Japanese while my grandmother nursed her oldest son in the jungles of Mindanao. A small body among roving leaves moving faster than the planes, the heavy treads. She hid in an abandoned farmhouse for months while my grandfather (a tax collector) brought them food, secretly.
High-school textbooks said that the soldiers were fond of cutting babies out of pregnant women’s wombs. My classmates wrinkled their noses as they scribbled in their notebooks. My aunt’s husband, the ex-priest, tells me, casually (hand wrapped around a damp rag as he dries a plate), that his mother forded a river to get away from the soldiers, who stuck cattle prods in her mouth, on her belly. So every day is a good day! My own stomach is twisting in knots because of garlic and altitude. My mouth is dry as I smile, ceramic.
I cannot imagine any of this.
It is December 31 and hot on the steps of my grandfather’s mountain bukid in Bohol. I avert my eyes because I never thought I had an ancestral anything, and the knowledge is making my eyes burn the way my feet do in their new sandals. Our guide, a third or fourth cousin of mine, points out green growing things, which are neatly translated for me. My uncle tells me, a hundred years ago, your grandfather was one of those boys on the side of the road. I am ashamed that he feels the need to tell me this. I stare at a carabao pulling a rake through the paddy, just like the statue on my childhood shelf. They’ve been here for generations and generations. It’s amazing how time doesn’t change up here. I think about how thanks to ancestry.com my girlfriend can trace her lineage back to William the Conquerer, but here I am gazing at rice shoots and contemplating rain, no closer to knowing the ones who came before me because their names were either burned during the war or else thought not worthy of recording.
Your grandfather owned his first pair of shoes when he was 14 and slept with them on because he was so happy.
I think of my parents. My father a curly-haired child in a one-room schoolhouse. My mother making Molotov cocktails on a university campus, soldiers at the gates. My father confused by pancakes and maple syrup (he thought they were rotis). My mother on a plane, coconut trees twisting in a kaleidoscope. My father inscribing his name carefully in the swirling Sinhalese characters he once knew how to read. My mother now next to me, older than her pictures, shielding her eyes under a sunhat, counting out bills—they’re family. The sunlight slipping across my feet, joining the other ghosts that once tripped across this grass.
Amazing how things change, right?
When I look up over the mountains, I see coconut trees spread like webbing over the ground, the ocean a shimmering suggestion in the distance. I think if I were to jump, all that foliage would spring up to meet me, dense and verdant as a memory.
The astrologer told my father that before he turned 25 he would almost meet his death, and that if he lived, he would marry a foreigner. Ten years later, my father fell from a guava tree in Peredeniya trying to snag a prize fruit for a friend of his. He was so skinny that he thought that the branch could take his weight. But he knew—this is the way he tells it—after going that extra inch that this, this was it. There was no going back. I have dreams of that moment—of a knowledge of upcoming gravity, a phantom impact. In certain pictures, I look exactly like him. The bony product of all that violence, survived.
Do you plan to go back? a stranger on the train back to Providence asks me. Go where? I ask, stupidly. Back, he says, waving his hands vaguely. There. Tumbling islands into peninsulas, east into south, family into family. The ocean roiling over the absence where I must—according to this man—rightfully, permanently, belong. I say, no, probably not, in the harsh crushed-ice consonant sounds that move too fast for my father to follow, triggering a guilt that I don’t fully understand. My alien tongue flapping in my alien mouth.
All languages, other than this, are lost to me.
Other strange facts: I have a birthmark the shape of a teardrop on my stomach, exactly within swimsuit sight range. On my upper arm, I have another birthmark, dagger-shaped and hazy, as if smudged by a pencil eraser. One night, my girlfriend, face against my stomach, exclaimed (one hand on belly, one hand on arm): Look! You have an island and an archipelago! Her fingers pale against my ribs.
When the tsunami hit Sri Lanka, I was 10 years old and wide awake, twisting like a pupil in my blue twin sheets. A night terror, verified by morning. The ocean swelling like a tongue. Christmas decorations staining the wall. Years later I can come up with no explanation for this, except that perhaps I am not so far away from these lands and skies and seas as I think.