“Rebuke the Ghosts” by Y.S. Lee

Y.S. Lee


My grandmother’s soap opera was set in Manchu 
times, when men with fierce eyeliner skirmished 
with swords while, indoors, porcelain-pale women 
spoke tremulous vows.
If prodded, she would translate major plot points 
from Mandarin to Teochew but fell silent when asked 
why, how. She walked on white runners with velcro tabs, 
each shuffling step
a countdown to the unfailing lament about her sour 
feet. She couldn’t abide milk, coffee, beef, morsels raw
or rich—though once felt too queasy for anything but
deep-fried squab.
She spoke three languages, probably more, but balked
at English—its cacophonies the white noise beyond her
threshold. Lunch began when she was ready; she hadn’t
rushed since 1941,
the year she was twenty, when the Japanese army strolled
down Malaya’s spine. Whole towns fled to the jungle, pushing
laden bicycles, shouldering sacks of rice, gold earrings
hemmed into shirts.
On their return, they scraped shit off kitchen floors, 
knocked last crumbs of glass from their own 
window frames, swept looted attics for any remnants
of their lives.
The house was haunted thereafter. She descended 
first each morning, to rebuke the ghosts. 
With the spirits in submission, she was free to
build a fire,
simmer grain into porridge. In the long seasons without, 
she boiled bamboo shoots, changing the water three times 
to leach their poison. She and her sister never stepped
outdoors, wore boy’s 
clothing so the washing line didn’t advertise their presence
to soldiers. By the time an indifferent peace was declared 
she was an encumbrance: twenty-five yet unmarried, 
her parents anxious.
When the matchmaker presented her future husband with
two photos, he shrugged. Whichever. The randomness 
of four children, her final decades in a city with the wrong 
trees, mountains, light.

from Rattle #79, Spring 2023


Y.S. Lee: “I write because it requires me to pay attention. (Otherwise, my whole life could trickle by and I might never notice.) It’s a way to map connections between what I observe, what I think I know, and what I remember.” (web)

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