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Rice Milk and Ginseng

By Elyse Nah

Age Group: High School

i am four and cannot sleep,

sticky with sweat 

in the shadowy dim

of Incheon at 2 am.

across the way, lights flicker 

from the hairdresser in front,

the cicadas, thousands,

clicking, buzzing, chirping.


i lift my flower-patterned pajamas

to cool my skin,

the air thick and humid,

even with the rickety old fan

whirring in the corner. 


i stare at the low ceiling,

a mosquito whines, and

my grandmother snores softly next to me. 


at last i shake her awake

and her eyes flutter open,

as if she hadn’t been asleep at all. 


suah?

her voice is weary, soft. 


i can’t sleep, i say,

whine about the bugs and the heat. 


she turns slowly on her side,

gently places her hands, 

worn and papery,

on my chubby cheeks. 

i giggle, and she whispers,

not tired at all? 


i put my own teeny hands

to her face, round, warm

and smelling of rice milk soap,

trace the little creases of her eyes,

and she smiles. 

not one bit, i say. 


she yawns, 

pulls my shirt back down,

the quilt up to my waist. 

you’ll get a tummy ache, she tells me.

then, would you like me to sing the song?


i nod, 

and she sings in whispers, 

a mother,

in the shade of the island,

gathers oysters,

her little child left alone

to watch the house. 

the child yawns,

 tucks her little head in 

the crook of  her arm,

and drifts off 

to the sweet ocean lullaby.   

her voice fades into the cicadas 

and hot night air.


after this 

come her stories,

of brave little girls,

leaping into seas to save blind fathers,

of willowy fairies, all gossamer and silk,

painting the sunset every evening,

of great, mighty tigers,

scared of wrinkled dried persimmons, 

of bridges of inky black magpies,

uniting lovers in a starry sky. 


then she whispers, 

suah-ya, saranghae.

i love you suah,

and i know the stories are over. 

manee manee.

so very much. 


snuggling close

i breathe in her smell,

like nuts, sweet warmth, and ginseng. 


we fall asleep,

in a nest that is

our cheeks pressed together,

her soft gray curls

tickling my ear,

her thin beige nightshirt,

the worn patchwork quilt,

and the mat of bamboo and yellow straw

beneath us.

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