Dream Daughter at the California Motel

Malvika Jolly

You remind us that the departed are never forgotten, 
the forgotten never long gone, not for very long anyway.

All returns to us at mealtimes. She visits the plum tree planted 
by the hand of her great-grandmother, reads her own name

etched in brass on the back of a wedding plate loaned across 
a great divide, stretches a linen sheet across the golden bed, damp,

washes her long hairs under the desert sun in a solution of iron 
and indigo seeds, hangs her bathing suits to bleach on the fishing line, 

loads the car with firewood and freshwater, brews hot coffee 
on the road in a percolator, infused with ginger root, summer rosemary, 

salt-crusts a lamb with a silver salt she scrapes off the Great Salt Flats, 
collects with a nickel into a jam jar, and tastes in the dark of her mouth

the mineral bed: the bitter origins of an ancient body, each grain 
a reminder of how thirst shapes a landscape, how even the earth 

can be brought to rapture; how all of human history, present 
and past, is demarcated by just two events: When the water came 

and When the water went away. And, ever since, poetry has emerged, 
like a prophet, or a divining rod, our chosen instrument for measuring 

the water’s unseen depths. Whether the people remained or were 
washed away, whether they still resemble the red clay of their cities, 

recall the mountain they had once called home lit up by a hundred, 
thousand fires, the trees around which they had tied their wishes, 

the shepherd, his pockets filled with spent sulphur matches, 
and the words to his strange song of catastrophe?

Will we remember the scarlet flowers which fell from the mountain
like a carpet, turnt blood-red our rooftops, the open heart of the valley,

and from which we would make a hot pink chutney, 
served in a silver cup, to right all wrongs? 

Or, before the déluge, how the god of one village would journey
to pay visit to the god of another, and this became the birthplace

of parades? How a wind picks up across the valley, and 
from its lungs, the scent of deodar trees, the memory of cedar—

like a shadow, or lament. How we knew then, without traveling 
past our own gates, which trees grew beyond our sight, casting 

their shadows on the mountain’s unseen face. Beyond clock-time 
or calendar-time, our lives then carried this fragrance, permeating

all things. A perfume called to mind whenever one encounters
a familiar thing in an unfamiliar way. Like the garden of white 

moti flowers planted out behind the California Motel, the small petals 
arranged so carefully in the cupped palm of the widowed mother, 

her sari of white chiffon, her bare feet in the dark, who recalled still
their special fragrance in Bihar, took daily measure of the distance 

dividing her longing and its likeness. How she washed her hands
before crushing the petals between her fingers, to share their fragrance

with a stranger, a prayer without words. Or the chai she made for us
that first night in a unknown place, served in two styrofoam cups, 

and which we drank together in the dark of the aromatic garden, 
savoring a bouquet of ginger, jaggery, then an unfamiliar taste—

mint leaves steeped in milk. In the long history of the world,
there are no true departures. We are all submerged in clay, 

inheritors of an overly-complicated religion, wandering,
with eyes closed, the salt flats of a dried, ancient sea. 

As we sleep, a fragrance wafts over the valley, of crushed mint, 
flowing through our porous bodies for only a half-second

like a current, anointing us all with a scent of the world born anew.
Look for your daughters here—in your lightning fields, 

in your citrus grove, on your mountaintops, in your deserted lands. 
She is eating a muskmelon with a stranger in the dark, she is parked 

on the side of the highway, drying red chilis on the hood of her car, 
she is traveling with a nine-inch knife for slicing heirloom tomatoes, 

she is finishing a plate of chilled mangoes cut by her mother’s hand
on the last day of the road trip, she is tasting the salt from your lip,

remembering the shattering of light and heat on the horizon. 
She is marveling at the simultaneity of the long clock 

of inheritance, all of us, sitting and snacking together, 
convened, at long last, in the garden.

Tell me, now, what transpired between us
in the years we were not separated by water?

___

*This poem owes a profound debt of gratitude to historian-sculptor Umberto Sartori, author of What We Could Read in a Rice Field, who shared with me his theory of the geological significance of the Beas Valley in the Himalayas as the origin point of humankind when we met by chance in Manali, and whose words put a fly in my ear.

Malvika Jolly (b. 1993, Rouen) is a writer and translator. Her poetry, essays, and criticism are featured or forthcoming in Chicago magazine, Frontier Poetry, Liminal Transit Review, The Margins, MIZNA, Poetry Online, Poetry Northwest, South Side Weekly, and Violet, Indigo, Blue, Etc. She curates the New Third World, a monthly poetry reading series inspired by the Non-Aligned Movement.

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