an unsent letter

in a burst of metal you burned too soon –
it was only last month that we sat
at the edge of the pond,
dust on our palms and peach juice still sticky
on our lips and fingers.

tiny palaces had lined our street,
and we found solidity in structure:
low sloped ceilings,
stone pillars,
perfect squares and perfect circles,
wooden staircases whose steps
led to safe spaces floating between
the roof’s dark tiles.

as we dreamed of the temple of heaven
lying radiant among the golden clouds,
your face was suffused with dying light.
butterflies followed us incessantly then.
they brushed over our heads
as we flipped through our books.

i was a coward.
afraid of change,
i didn’t want to leave
those bright dusty days,
our pond and our peaches,
our books and our butterflies,
so you volunteered to go instead.

(my biggest regret –
i should have screamed then,
clung to your arm
so that you stayed.
screaming later didn’t bring you back.)

at the train station,
gunfire left you
in flames.

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#1: silence

on a late june evening, the seven of us were lying on the pier with our legs dangling over the edge. i was at the end of the row, and as we giggled and squirmed i wondered if i’d fall into the lake. when i stretched them far enough my toes could skim the surface of the water. the lake mirrored the sky’s brilliant blue-gold fire, and the hills across from us were outlined in pink. for a few precious minutes silence descended upon our group. that brief moment seemed to expand to infinity; the entire universe was before us, deep and contemplative and enormous, and it gleamed with the sun’s last light.

thoughts on translation

It started when I wrote an essay explaining the phrase 阳光灿烂, which is one of my favorites in Chinese. It’s difficult to describe just how beautiful I find 阳光灿烂: the literal English translation is ‘brilliant sunlight,’ but when the four characters (yáng guāng càn làn) filter through my teeth the way light filters through leaves, when I see the sun at the front, the mountains, the fires that rage in between, and the smoke that shrouds flowers on the mountainside as they burst into flame, I know that ‘brilliant’ is only an adequate translation, nothing more. There are nuances to the phrase that exist only on paper, in the original language; English loses the neat precision and perfect square aesthetic of the four characters.

Later, I read an article in which the author, who’s from Mainland China, describes her deliberate erasure of Chinese in order to fully embrace English. I’m still unsettled when I think about it now. Politics aside, Chinese is an elegant and ancient thing, crafted with artistry in mind. A mere two to four characters can hold boatloads of wisdom and meaning. How can anyone choose to forget this language for English? To be fair, English is just as fascinating and complex, if not even more so, since we can continually add words from different languages to our vocabulary and create exceptions to any rule we have. But wouldn’t it be better to know both languages intimately? There was a quote I came across that went along the lines of, “Everything I know about language is everything I know about life.”* So the more you forget, the less language you know, and your world just – shrinks.

I mean, I know where the author’s coming from. Whenever I visited China when I was younger, even if it was only for a few weeks, my conversational English always deteriorated. I could still write in English quite well, since I kept (and still keep) notebooks wherever I went, but I’d forgotten “how to English” and became proportionally better at speaking (and reading and typing) Chinese. It’s so easy to focus on mastering one language and forgetting others through disuse. But I think it’s important to know more than one language, particularly if your first is English. In this globalized era, everyone knows English. And that can be awesome and convenient, but I’m afraid that if we’re all monolinguals, we’ll miss much of what’s going on in the rest of the world.

There’s another kind of translation that I keep thinking about, lately – the translation of thoughts into words. For me, at least, there’s disconnect between what I think, what I want to say, and what I actually end up saying. This disconnect got Darcy in trouble with Elizabeth, and he had to fix it with a written letter. And this makes sense, since writing gives you time to contemplate, to take back mistakes. I can articulate my thoughts on paper so much more eloquently and fully than I can ever speak them, and it can be frustrating, especially when I meet people for the first time and I struggle to talk to them. It’s like my mouth opens and words nonsensically and uncontrollably tumble out of my mouth. But what happens when the writing stops? If I stop keeping a journal, if I don’t document my thought processes in written form, do those thoughts cease to exist? What if in the future, my notebooks are posthumously published? People will judge me based on what I’ve written, even if it was originally in private – think not just of Kafka, Plath, and Nin, but also of Shostakovich, Warhol, and Napoleon, among so many other figures in our history. Notebooks provide insight, but only if you write in them. Didion, in The Year of Magical Thinking, is able to revisit both her life and that of her husband’s through the extensive records they’d both kept – notebooks and index cards, paper scraps and Word documents. My fear of forgetting is one reason why I keep writing. I don’t want to lose my grasp on Chinese, and I don’t want to lose my thoughts. To lose those things is to lose parts of myself.

In school, we recently covered a unit over translated poetry. We read different versions each of Rumi’s poetry (in snippets) and Borges’s “Historia de la noche,” then discussed what was more important in interpretation – accuracy or poetics. When you translate, what do you abandon and what do you preserve? How well do you need to know the language you work with? (Nabokov knew English and Russian with equal fluency, and he translated his own work, thus retaining the original intent of his writing. The same goes for Samuel Beckett with English and French. So I wonder what I miss when I read the English version of Camus’s The Stranger, Rilke’s poetry, or Ocampo’s short stories – anything written and translated by two different people.) For our assignment, we had to translate a poem from a language in which we’re at least familiar. I chose a poem by 骆绮兰, a female poet from eighteen-century China. This particular piece happens to come from a set of eight, called《纪梦诗八首》 (“Record of Dreams, Eight Poems”), so you can probably tell why I was attracted to it.

I haven’t formally studied Chinese for a year now, so it felt nice to return to it. This translation’s not perfect, of course, but I like to think it’s fairly accurate. I loved the imagery she evokes here; in preserving that, I ended up with a more literal interpretation. I hope you like it!

dream3luoqilan

*I just Googled this quote to verify the source, but all I got were Tumblr posts for some reason?? If any of you recognize this quote, please comment below or message me!

dream (7)

“Why are we here?” I ask.

Johanna and I sit beneath a large oak tree growing on top of a giant wooden pole. The pole, a papery white birch trunk, measures fifteen feet in diameter and rises seven miles above the ocean. From where we are the waves look grey and flat, as if we could press leaves on them.

“Why wouldn’t you want to be here? This place is awesome.”

Heavy green-gray clouds envelop us, and my stomach churns. “Everything looks wrong,” I reply. “We shouldn’t be able to see the ocean this high up.”

“That doesn’t matter. This is so much better than Oakland, anyway.”

I remember this dream. We’d lounged in the sun on the edge of the pier and watched pedestrians chat in the open-air restaurant or build sandcastles by the beach. The dream had been cheerful, warm, lovely, and sun-drenched – the complete opposite of this dreary isolation.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Oakland was beautiful.”

Johanna scoffs. “Really? I couldn’t stand the heat and the sweaty tourists. It was disgusting!”

“Better than now.” I rub my hands together and shudder. “I’m freezing.”

As we speak, the ocean seems to shimmer. One moment water surrounds us, and I’m convinced we could dip our hands into the sea just by reaching over. When I blink, however, the ocean turns into grass. Hills roll into view as raindrops fall softly from the sky.

“I recognize this feeling.”

“What?”

“My classmates and I had to drive downtown to shoot a video project once, and we filmed in front of the capital. There were tons of people so we couldn’t get as close as we wanted, but then it started to rain. We barely noticed it at first, even as the area started to clear out, and suddenly it started pouring. Just before that, the rain was like this. Gentle, almost forgiving.” I frown. “Almost like a mother singing her child to sleep.”

“Weirdo.”

“Says the girl who prefers the middle of nowhere to California.”

“Whatever. But hey, does that mean it’s going to storm soon?”

“Maybe. Nothing else here is familiar, though, not even the hills. I just find the rainfall soothing.”

“You’d think everything in your dream is just a mashup of stuff you experienced while awake.”

“I doubt it. I’ve never seen Oakland in my entire life. Also, I would never imagine talking to my sister on the top of a humongous pole in the middle of the ocean. Why are we here, of all places?”

“Well, I can only remember whatever you remember, so I don’t know why you’re asking me. Besides, it’s probably just a random setting your mind generated. It’ll be perfect if it does storm, anyway. Then the waves will be high enough for us to swim in.”

“How long do you think that’ll take?”

“Maybe a week or a few days, if we’re lucky.”

“Will we dive off together?”

“Obviously. We always do.”

Beneath us, raindrops batter the waves as the ocean starts to roar. I already feel hopeful we’ll swim in the ocean after all, just the two of us, the way we never did when Johanna was alive and I was awake.

~

pair the story with this song.

a/n: i originally wrote this two years ago, but it felt strangely fitting for how i currently feel about our future right now – lost and apprehensive, but also hopeful. remember that you are amazing, that you are loved, and that you have the ability to act and the right to be yourself. i think that, no matter what happens from now on, we will be able to power through these troubling times for the sake of human dignity.

four moments

happy new year everyone! today is CITRUSY’s fourth birthday. to celebrate, here are four moments from 2016:

  1. i’m sitting on the plane in the seat next to the window seat. we are landing in massachusetts. in the window, white doll houses neatly line the impossibly blue water. i’m one verse away from crying as i read alice oswald’s memorial. on paper, men turn into metal and fall into the sea, voices permanently swallowed by war. beside me, the woman in the window seat is reading her own book. i’ll see her again in the airport bathroom half an hour later, then no more.
  1. “it was one of those headlines that was like, ‘US to colonize mars by 2020’ or something like that,” a young man says as he walks alone, talking wirelessly to someone on the phone. it is late into the evening, nearly nine o’clock. the sky fades fast from pink and blue to dark purple, and dusk falls in a veil of darkness over the street. heat radiates gently from the pavement.
  1. down at the wharf, everything is green and blue. a couple of girls lay in the grass, sleeping, while a man with his dog jogs by the water. i’m taking a photo of boats at the dock and texting it to my father, who loves anything ocean-related but couldn’t come here with us. a boy stands a few feet away, facing my direction. he has long limbs and light hair, and his hands cradle a huge camera lens. he points and shoots. i hear the shutter click as I turn and head back to where my mother is waiting for me.
  1. he’s soft and shapely, all soft smiles and soft eyes and soft voice, as if to mask the sharp intellect hidden between his teeth and tucked somewhere in his ribs. too soft for anyone to suspect – too kind, too loveable. his lips are always slightly upturned, ready to lift into a dopey smile when he sees you. his wit: cleverly quick but never scathing. when he laughs he keeps his mouth shut and lets his breath tremble instead. he is one of the people i admire most.

DREAM SEQUENCE

alternate title: “notes before christmas, 2016”

you might be wondering why i’ve posted not once, not twice, but four times on CITRUSY. amazing, isn’t it?

i’ve actually written quite a number of shorter works in the past few months (yay creative writing class), and i grouped a few of these into a “literary magazine” for the aforementioned class, though i like to think of it instead as a simple collection of thematically similar writing. i decided to post the rest of this collection onto CITRUSY before december ended (since half the pieces were pulled from this blog anyway). now that the last work, “where ghosts live”, is up, i want to re-introduce all the short stories and poems as one compilation. so, sorry for the sudden rush of posts! i just wanted everything here before 2016 was over. C:

DREAM SEQUENCE deals with the sensual, random surrealism of dreams. i’ve really enjoyed writing and assembling these works and seeing how they fit together. other things i love that are featured include architecture (city buildings and haunted houses alike), ghosts, and the sea. it’s not exactly cheerful, but i hope you have as much fun reading as i did while writing. (or rereading, if that’s the case.) have a lovely winter season!!

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where ghosts live

Lovely’s room, which was at the far end of the house, had the best light. The curtainless window stretched from floor to ceiling right in front of the bed, allowing sunshine to pour in uninhibited. Today, however, there was no sun. Snow fell instead, gentle but insistent, and the light that trickled through was dying. These days, a fire roared in the hearth to keep Lovely from getting chilled.

“Good morning,” Ethan said, setting down Lovely’s customary breakfast tray next to the bed. Lovely’s eyes were closed, and Ethan carefully brushed his limp bangs from his forehead. The bedridden boy’s skin was cool to the touch and almost translucent – pale blue veins could be seen running just beneath his fingertips while bleached-bone antlers protruded from his silver hair. Ethan loved those antlers. They grew outwards like the branches of a tree, and Ethan liked to imagine them wreathed in garlands of flowers. Maybe I can make some when spring comes, he thought.

Ethan couldn’t remember when he’d moved into the house. It was a grand old thing reminiscent of a castle, set deep into the hillside and surrounded by residual trees from the forest’s edge. It had stone walls and huge floor-to-ceiling windows in all the rooms, though most of these were permanently covered by curtains. (He had vainly tried, one bright summer afternoon ages ago, to remove those heavy drapes. They refused to budge. After extensive exploration of all the rooms, he found only one with bare windows. The first Lovely moved in a week later.) Ethan felt like he’d always lived in the house, the intricate layouts of both the dark hallways and winding garden paths ingrained in his memory since day one.

Lovely lived in the house as well, but he spent most of the day sleeping, so Ethan passed the time by taking long walks through the forest. The world was still here, save for the light crunch of leaves beneath Ethan’s shoes. It reminded him of a poem, something simple yet stirring. Something about the woods, dark and deep. He couldn’t recite exact lines, though. It felt like certain hours dropped from his day and created gaps in his memory while his ability to recall details dwindled, too. One moment he’d be at the house, in Lovely’s room; a minute later, he’d find himself in the middle of the woods, following a path he knew intimately for unknown reasons.

 

“Ethan.”

He looked down. A boy’s face, ghostly and wide-eyed and brown-haired, stared up at him from the snow. The tip of what looked like bone protruded a few inches in the ice above the boy’s head, close to Ethan’s foot. Ethan forced himself to stare back at him.

“Why aren’t you at the house, Elliot?” he asked, keeping his voice level. He stooped down to brush flecks of ice from Elliot’s cheeks, then spent the next few minutes digging out the rest of his body. Ethan was familiar with this routine. His fingers gripped the fabric of Elliot’s jacket, which was nearly frozen solid, and he cursed himself for not bringing gloves. He forgot them every time.

Elliot tried to wipe at his mouth with one shaking hand. “Ethan, I’ve come – to make – atonement,” he managed to say. “None of this is – I’m sorry. I abandoned you.”

This, too, Ethan had heard before. He had never understood what Elliot meant, but by now it didn’t matter. Elliot was merely delirious from the cold. He took the shivering boy’s hand and began leading him back towards the house. “You mean, I’ve come to get you out of the snow,” he replied, not looking back at Elliot’s face. Their fingers intertwined, and Ethan relished the way Elliot’s grip tightened. “It’s freezing! How did you end up here?” Elliot didn’t respond, but Ethan hadn’t expected an answer, anyway. He focused instead on what to do next.

The first time he found Elliot in the snow, he’d deliberately avoided taking him to Lovely’s room even though it was the warmest in the house and Elliot was half-frozen. At the time, he treated Lovely’s living space as something sacred. But when Ethan checked on Elliot that night, his hair had already turned silver. Lovely’s bed was vacant; all that was left was a pair of white antlers.

(Now Ethan had a full closet of antlers. They gleamed in the dark and looked beautiful in the spring, when he strung flowers over each branch.)

Since then, Ethan had learned the pattern. Elliot – or at least, ghosts who looked and acted and spoke almost exactly like Elliot – would find him. They’d argue with him and try to convince him he was dreaming.

“It’s my fault. I created you and this house and – all of this! I still don’t know why, but you got stuck here. I’m sorry, Ethan.” Each Elliot would cover his face with his hands. “Your body’s nearly gone. I wish I had stayed with you, back then.”

But why would Ethan believe them? The house was all solid wood and stone. He knew each step in the staircase and every ridge in the wall. One time, he’d stuck his hand close to the fire in the hearth – just to prove Elliot wrong – and nearly burned himself for it. The proof for reality was definitely there.

“But the seasons aren’t changing!” the latest Elliot insisted now. He stood by the couch. Ethan tugged at his hand, but the antlered boy didn’t sit. “Think about it. When was the last time it wasn’t winter? When was the last time there wasn’t snow?” His cheeks flushed red.

“I don’t keep track of those things,” Ethan said patiently. “I don’t particularly care for time.” And I’ve seen spring, too, he added silently, because Elliot was too confused right now to understand. Winter would end, as all seasons inevitably did, and spring would come. The sun would shine. Elliot would be Lovely, and petals would tumble into his hair when Ethan finished making his flower garlands. Maybe this time Elliot wouldn’t leave him. Ethan thought of the pair of detached antlers lying on a cold pillow upstairs, waiting for him to collect.

“I have a spare room,” he told Elliot. “There’s a fireplace, and I can grab some extra blankets. Why don’t you spend the night here?”

(more…)

dream (6): last night

you laughed.
i wanted to bottle the sound
to revisit on colder days.

color dripped from your irises
and down your cheeks,
staining my fingers blue.

déjà vu

There are people everywhere.

Crowds of pedestrians surround you and spill out into the street. They’re all dressed fashionably, either vividly colorful or blatantly monochromatic, and they seem to hurry from one destination to another. You try not to feel dowdy in your jeans and sneakers as a woman with dark red lips and towering high heels glides past you with the grace of a dancer. Stop being so self-conscious, you tell yourself. You should be used to this by now.

You’d dreamed of escaping to the city for ages. Mom had fed you countless horror stories about the Big Bad City (“A college freshman got pushed onto the subway tracks, you know! And another girl got stabbed in the neck in broad daylight!”) to try to dissuade you, but you didn’t take her cautionary tales seriously. Millions of people lived in the city, you’d reasoned, and why couldn’t you do the same?

Now that you’ve wandered onto an unfamiliar street, however, homesickness starts to creep in. Dimly, you remember a surreal summer evening, at the edge of dusk, when you and Penny had stood in the center of an empty road and felt day-old heat against your bare feet. (Penny had still been your best friend back then. Hooking her arm into yours, her eyes faded from blue and pink to purple to black as she watched the sky fall asleep. Your heart thrilled when she turned towards you and smiled. You had never loved anyone more.)

It’s impossible to go barefoot in the city, though. There seem to be teeth everywhere. Shards of glass line the gutter, and sharp pieces of metal glint in warning. Odors rise from mysterious brown puddles while piles of trash clutter the sidewalks. The thought of walking through all of that without wearing shoes makes you want to vomit.

“Watch where you’re standing!” someone shouts, elbowing past you. Jostled out of your reverie, you keep moving, blood pounding in your ears as you stare ahead and take care not to step on anything too revolting. Cigarette smoke curls high in the air and almost looks beautiful in the sunlight, but the stench reminds you of shriveled black lungs.

Despite the noxious fumes and the waste and the dirtiness, however, you love the city. You love the energy that thrums off the crowd with the regularity of a beating heart. You love how streets weave in and out of each other, how you can walk from the library to the market to the gardens in less than ten minutes and take the train for any distances greater than that. The city’s so different from home, where everything had felt languid and drowsy. Even after a year, you still marvel at the novelty.

Penny would have loved it here, too. You try not to think about her nowadays. You left home to move past your grief, after all. But the city constantly reminds you of her. You can imagine her sitting on the roof of your apartment at the crack of dawn, waiting for the city to wake up and come alive. She’s dancing effortlessly through swarms of people, her hums and laughter ringing above the noise. She’s leaning against you on the subway ride home from campus, breaking the general quiet with stories until it’s time to get off –

Penny’s not here.

Like the city, Penny could never stay still. She’d first disappeared from the school you both attended, moving on to university two years ahead of everyone else. Less than six months later, she vanished a second and final time on a plane that flew into the ocean.

You’d felt so lost at the time. Why did she leave home – without you? How could she leave you behind and not look back? And how could the world swallow her so cruelly? You fled to the city when home, the place the two of you had explored since you were four, became too unbearable to stay.

You still miss her like a phantom limb, but the sadness is briefer now. She’s finally stopped haunting your dreams; you feel relief and a twinge of guilt when you wake up without tears drying against your cheeks. Maybe I can keep going without her, you dare to think that morning, and you feel a little less hollow.

Sometimes, though, you try to catch pieces of her from faces gleaming in the crowd. You see someone with her eyes, or her laughter, or her birthmark just above the jaw. It’s silly and impossible to find her, of course, but you do it anyway. You only give yourself a few seconds at a time – you’re not allowed to stop, to stare, to search.

Today, you lock eyes with her.

Your stomach does a flip. She’s standing on the other side of the crosswalk, waiting for the signal to change. You blink once, twice. She’s still there, and her gaze, appraising and familiar, is on you. You recognize the quirk of the lips, the sharp chin, and the dark eyes set against high cheekbones.

It can’t be Penny. She fell into the Atlantic years ago. But this lookalike crosses the street with the same confident step, her arms bare and her hands resting comfortably in the pockets of her track pants. Her hair’s pulled back into a russet-colored knot at the base of her neck, rather than cut into the straight, short bob you remember Penny wearing. The two of you continue to watch each other over the din of the crowd, her eyes never leaving yours as she draws near. She’s already breaking the rules you’d set for yourself when you first came to the city. No staring! you think frantically, but you can’t tear your eyes away.

The two of you are only a few feet away now. Now that you’re closer, you realize with a pang of bitter disappointment that the doppelganger’s eyes are green, not the warm brown you remember. Her cheeks are smooth and devoid of any birthmarks.

She’s really just a lookalike after all. You almost laugh. Leave it to the city to find Penny’s ghost.

Just as you glance away and pass her, she stops and seizes your arm. You jerk to a halt.
“Are you who I think you are?” she asks desperately. Your mouth opens, closes. “I’ve missed you,” she continues in a rush, stealing the words from your mouth. Her eyes shine. You swear they look brown at that moment.

“Penny.”

Your voice cracks on the second syllable. You can’t believe she’s actually there, standing with you in the middle of the sidewalk.

“Let’s talk,” she says, taking your hand. Everyone else seems to melt away. When she tentatively offers you the same smile from years ago, you can’t help but hope that this isn’t a dream after all.

joanna

You walk down a gently sloping hill towards a field. The sun turns dusty, waist-high grass into gold. Joanna’s singing is unpolished and lovely, leading you forward as if she’s taken you by the arm. Her songs are full of strings. You can’t separate harp from harpist – her voice swings and creaks, studded with notes plucked by deft fingers. Somewhere in the distance, an orchestra swells like the tide.

When you’d first heard her you were startled by how childlike Joanna had sounded, but you know better now. She may sing sweetly, and animals may populate her songs, but her voice belies her wisdom.

One moment you watch a bird fly across a breathy sky – the next, an angel flaps its wings. The universe looms, and you suddenly face the staggering weight of the stars. All the while, Joanna’s harp sings; her voice scratches out high notes.

She offers you one story, a second, a fifth. Hens and horses and lions flicker in and out, half-hidden in the grass and entranced by the light. You could never resist her poetry.

You let her lift you out of your loss and offer you hers in solidarity. Her verses struggle to contain the chaos of life and light and allusion within them, and the music expands to fill the gaping hole between your bones.

Each story bleeds into the next like water. The river she conjures runs against time’s gradient while Joanna’s voice surges and cracks with raw emotion. Ursula splashes her way into the night sky. Ocean waves yawn for a moment, and you glimpse the beautiful remains of a sunken city. You imagine sprawling buildings and solid stone ramparts, marble columns that withstood sea currents and bridges that held fast no matter how much they swung and creaked underwater.

Joanna’s music rings in your ears. It’s steeped in sunshine from above the water’s surface, but you know, deep down, that its light is meant to swallow grief.

Closing your eyes, you remember walking towards a field of dusty gold. As words fail you, a harp sings and creaks and pulls you close, wrapping you with warmth.

~
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