Nancy Chen Long
Return to Terra Firma
With a self-made reflector,
I study the night sky, home in
on a retrograde family
of stars. I can’t escape
this whirligig dust cloud
where I spin. Every good-bye
challenges my memory.
When I remember hydrogen,
I chronicle the sisterhood
of stars—yellow dwarf, red giant,
when it comes to the elusive
brown dwarf, sphere unsure
of what it should be—
My sister phones, afraid she’s nothing
but a fizzled brown dwarf star failing
to light. Language can riddle
like a Rorschach test,
and words are all I have, so I remind her—
she can be no star—she lives under water.
“Then am I drowning?” she asks.
I twist but can’t see.
From where I’m perched, her light
is a vanishing point, always skirting
edgewise. To be sure, I must emerge
from the noctilucent clouds,
forsake that shroud that has sheltered me
since I was a child. I pitch myself headlong
into her ocean. Dog-paddling, I strain
against the salty water, grab a few glass floats
that I can later use to buoy her until she remembers:
She’s been swimming
her whole life. As I slosh toward her,
she pictures me less and less
sister, more and more mermaid, suspects
I was born with gifts unearned, sprung
from the womb an expert swimmer,
fully accessorized with eleven fins
and seven gills, an eerie command
of covalent bonds, and too much of a manatee’s
fondness for salt. “We foam from the same sea,”
she reasons. “Then why am I, too, not
It’s clear to anyone who sees—
I can barely tread water.
After three hundred days, tired of waiting
for me, my sister attempts a shortcut
of limbs, thrashing and flailing
to mimic what she believes to be
my superior swimming technique.
She’s invoking some lost law
of similitude: If it looks and quacks,
then it must be. The result is her mouth
filling with sea spray and seaweed
until all she can do is gurgle
“It’s impossible to dance in water…”
At last, I reach her. When she sees me,
having grown weak from so much mimicry,
she grabs my head to use as a flotation
device, proxies my body as a life
boat. I want to yell stop! but her foot
is on my throat. I try a heretofore unknown
form of body language—SOS! SOS!
my arms gesticulate. My gestures become
lost in translation. She thinks I’m cheering
her on, encouraging her to stand
on my face. Depleted of oxygen,
I capsize and am sucked into the tow
of an underwater eddy
that deposits me at the base of a
small wonder! My sister is already there,
having remembered that she’s the expert
swimmer, not me. She’s gleaning seaweed,
picking through the verdant slime entwined
in the nooks and crannies of granite. Spotting
me in the distance lumped along the shoreline,
she shouts “Here, I salvaged these for you!”
Her hand holds a pearl-swirled conch overflowing
with her harvest of seagrass. Soft-pedaled
by clouds, I’ve lived away from land too long.
When I attempt to stand, my knees buckle.
Fortified from a lifetime of swimming,
her legs propel her forward, and she rushes
over to catch me, hoists me onto
driftwood. We both admire its hard-earned
smoothness. How immutable it feels
against the flimsy of my skin. My sister brushes
and picks through my hair, weeding out barnacles
like a macaque tending to a long-lost tribe-mate.
The sun becomes a giant red balloon, waving
as it sails away. The ocean, too, is on the run.
All night, the shore holds us. In the cloudless sky,
the Seven Sisters shower their sapphired light.
My sister and I munch on drift seeds
and fruit—hog plum, sea almond, calabash—
dig our toes into the beady sand.
On the soles of our feet, little roots—
silvered, tendrilous—begin to sprout.