[At dawn I will cross the stream, turning to catch one last glimpse of the riverbank—]
—Qu Yan, 涉江 [Crossing the River]
In high summer, the Malacca river dries
to expose its sharp underbelly. Above, the sun
streams through like salted egg-yolk
in dumplings the people offer to the water.
The river is an incisor: bisecting city
and village into a clean crescent, an open mouth
poised to swallow the other whole. The river
becomes mirror in triplicate, enfolding, unfurling.
The fishermen’s children play by the bank,
grown fat on rice-fed fish. Their laughter pours
across land, greedy fingers reaching into the river
to poach playful guppies from their mothers.
They dabble their feet in the water until their toes
become as white and bloated as blind worms,
creating lazy currents around the dirt
of my final resting place.
Closer to the city, dragonflies skim the surface
like flat stones, their wings reflecting the glint
of glass behemoths, obelisks to the sun. Tree roots
twine down into the river, drinking deep.
Summer develops into an incessant hum, the
background noise to tragedy. Heat clamps its
hands around us like a vice, squeezing the river
dry. Swathes of water shimmering in the air.
In the village, the first thing that goes is their voices,
like ivory fish bones sucked clean of flesh.
Then the nets, cast in again and again,
dragging up empty. Mothers wailing to the moon.
At dawn, the river had its teeth bared:
The dragonboats hid, for fear their wooden scales
would line the surface like fish-mail, lifeless,
skins stretched thin over a hollow drum.
As the river diminished, the waters parted.
My body spread out like a banquet, pockets full
of stones. But even the seaweed stoppering my heart
could not ease my anguish at their cries.
The city could not hear children starving: only
that their taps ran empty, the streets clogged
with cars on highways, roads that lead to
supermarket shelves emptied of water canisters.
Housewives complained of the exorbitant fish prices
in the wet market, noses flared
at the malnourished tilapia, glassy eyed kembung
lying limp on melting ice, unhearing.
A woman whispered to me her dreams of rain,
xylophone bones rattling a song of longing.
Like the river that night, I could only listen,
any reply drowned out by the unceasing cicadas.
When the rain came, sweet earth bloomed.
The river’s wound healed, swelling to meet
the first lightning strike in a kiss. Still buried
in the silt of the riverbed, I opened my mouth
to taste the first drop—as acrid as raw honey.
The king of the river, empurau, returned
with his retinue following behind. A restoration
of balance laid the scales flat. At last,
orchid roots recoiled from the damp,
relinquishing their hold on the living.