Paalai Anju, by Shweta Narayan


I’ve keened, cracked dry
as riverbeds before rain, heart pressed
to cactus thorns till flowers bloomed bright
as the dancer’s painted hands, and you
called me exotic.

Who then stole this voice?


If I dig into dry earth, ember-studded, calling
the red-mouthed mother to swallow me,
if I climb nanofibers out past this sea of smoke,
fall thin-aired into orbit, if I walk out
over darkness and dancing stars, leaving
footprints in the waves, would you notice?


It’s a doll you’re laughing with, carved to what
I think you want. Me? I snuck out
years ago. This cracked land growing
spines and scorpions, this constant exile’s thirst,
I choose it 

over your beloved voice
casting me out.


This chill doesn’t fit empty wells, earth chapped
brittle as skin, tinder grass waiting
for its spark, masks and walls
and silences our ragged shields. When the desert
seared, wilted, spun smoke around my throat, I could search
for rains. Now I wonder if they’ll reach us
through the wounded air.


The horror of it is my luck: I get to struggle,
take in that next slow breath, slow to (slower) trick
the pain. I get to (limp) pull cactus spines
from my feet. I get to speak.
Those gnawed bones we passed, they were me
in other stories.

Shweta Narayan was born in India, and has lived in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands, Scotland, and California. They feel most at home in liminal places, but have been mostly dead for the last decade and wouldn’t mind hanging out in some other space now. Shweta’s short fiction and poetry have appeared in places like Lightspeed, Transcendent 3,, Climbing Lightly Through Forests, and Strange Horizons.

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