You are you-but-not-you—and you haven’t been for a long time. You are not sure how long, nor how long it’s been. Your eyes hurt to open, you struggle to see. The water is cold, but you can’t feel the water against your skin. You don’t remember where the water came from, how you got into the water. You remember a fathering hold, hefting your weight. You can almost see them, stout and dark with a lit cigarette bobbing between his lips. You can almost feel his grunt and muscles straining to carry you into a dim room. He folds his arms watching you, bloodshot eyes softening as the water rolls across your body. You sit. You sit and wait to drown, but it never happens. You hear him stop the water, you hear him sigh.
You hear the man sigh and mumble on about how he needs to get Azul again. He mumbles, ashen throat choking on ‘again.’ You can taste his worry in your mouth, under your skin and you shudder.
Your skin feels heavy, like soaked clothes that won’t come off. Your skin is bluer, hairier, your brownness peaks through the blue fuzz. Have you always been this way?
You drain the water. You wrap a towel around your flat breasts.
You have hips now. Did you always have those, legs and bones and hips? Have you always had a dick, has it always hung from you like this, limp and uncertain against thinned foreboding thighs?
You can’t remember. You shape the words to ask Azul. He is here now. You know his texture, his texture rummages through you. He would know your body better than anyone… He has seen you, bared and sobbing and wet like a babe. It is how you met—you a bullied thing stripped naked and held hostage by water-gun strapped kids and Azul the pudgy runt who shoved the kids away and charmed them into giving you clothes and hugs.
The words are stuck in your turning stomach. And you reach to sooth the words out.
You pause. You see a thing in the mirror.
It stares with dark, animal wonder. It has eyes that don’t make sense here on this plain in such a human-like face. It runs a hand across your chapped lips, it kisses the fingers. It has sharp cheeks, high cheeks. You remember a woman, a sister, your kin saying your mother had cheeks like that. Your mother had high cheeks and peppery skin and the sun in her smile, the kin said. It has garbled radio chatter under its skin—an auric transmission whining under the blue flesh. It sinks hands into limp, knotted hair. It looks away. It seems ashamed, skittish.
And you hear Azul. You know Azul. The you-but-not-you knows the shape of his lips as they wrap words into sound. The you-but-not-you knows the way the voice curls in his thick throat.
‘You alright?’ he asks. He wants to come in. You can feel him, his forehead pressed to the door, his hands arching around the wobbling doorknob. He wants to respect your privacy, your shy body. He is tender that way.
You pull the towel from your body. You don’t know why. It is an animal urge, you think. Something primal wanting to be naked and bared and—desirable? You put your finger to your lips. You want to be desired by Azul. Wanted in a way that reminds you of those stories about your mother and the mauled-man—breathless souls aligned by animal spirit and the great fate. Something like that. Something stammering and mystic like that. You don’t understand what this means, the welling in your belly. ‘You can come in. I know you want to.’
Azul laughs, a boyish nervous sound, one that is hot like fever in his throat. You taste the sound. It tastes like cinnamon and sweat.
He comes inside. You crawl into the still wet tub.
Something in the room stalls. You stall. Azul stalls. The air beckons for you two to breathe deep—but you both struggle.
Azul is looking at you as if he has never met you—wide-eyed, roaming, frightened. And you are scared, and you try to fold yourself into a skeletal ball. You have become foreign and unknown to Azul too. And Azul stumbles to say something, anything. You want to say sorry. You tongue around your dry mouth for the word.
‘You…must be from another planet…’Azul manages to say. You look up to him, pleading. You think you must be—you do not feel you are from here. You are from somewhere far. You feel far, far away, deep in the vast, where the stars sink and burst and renew. You wonder if you could stop your heart. ‘Because you are out of this world.’
His voice tickles your ears. The lilt is soothing, light. You open yourself to the sound. You unknot your body.
And you think you are laughing, a hoarse forgotten sound that cracks in your chest. You are not sure why it is so funny to you—but it warms your cold skin, Azul warms your skin. You can’t remember when you laughed last. You feel like this body has never laughed before. You think this body is obsolete but trying to restart, recalibrate.
When you calm down, when the strange seizing laughter stops, you see Azul smiling a big smile, his round cheeks radiating warmth. And you understand what it means for someone to have sunshine in their smile. Little sunbeams, brightening his brown eyes. You want him to come closer, so you can capture it and keep it.
He puffs out his chest like all the boys do when they feel accomplished, when they feel pride. He kicks off his shoes and socks. He moves into the tub with you. His growing arms swell around you. He does it like it is an instinct, like he knows you need to be folded to his body. You press your face into his clothed breasts. You close your eyes. You feel his heart in your head, you let it thunder inside you. You can’t comprehend what it is telling you, but it is a big and open sound. And Azul is big and open, so big and open you almost feel lost.
‘You…are though…’ Azul breathes into your skin, his cinnamon breath ghosting at your neck. ‘Like…you’re from…somewhere I can’t name. Like I know this ‘cause I dreamed you before. I dream you a lot.’
‘You dream…of me?’ you dig deeper, you can taste his boyness—the cinnamon slips into a timid musk, wet tree-bark and apple balm.
‘Yeah. Deep forever dreams. You’re always…on the other side of…some place. I can’t move towards you; my knees lock up. And it’s because you…I dunno you aren’t…you’re different. Like you were…caught between something, a gooey something.’ he tries to explain. ‘I dunno. Maybe I’m gooey.’
You tap out his heartbeat against his thigh. You hum. You don’t want to know. You hum. Your jaw aches with tastes and Azul’s tumbling feelings. You hum. You throw a scrawny leg over his hips. You listen to his breath hitch, his heart putter in his throat. You hum.
‘Why’re you nervous?” You ask.
He pushes you away, just a bit, just enough. Your jaw tightens, leg locking, baring down on his thigh. ‘We too old to be in the tub cuddling…but I like to with you? But like…other people don’t…like…other people just don’t…’
His eyes are distant, not looking at you. He has a wispy stubble on his plump chin. You want to kiss at his neck, bring him back to you, lock hands—something. Your lips and fingertips tingle. But your mouth can taste the ‘other people’. The ‘other people’ taste like pouring gasoline over living skin, a match, a fire, basking in charred bodies—you imagine the ‘other people’ set fires to undo the bodies that have escaped to become trees, that have become themselves reaching upward, sky-bound. The ‘other people’ can’t burn the sky down so they chew at the ground.
They chew at your toes, Azul’s fingers and tongue.
You open your mouth. There is a word that surfaces. The word echoes—stretching far back into your brain, clawing. You hear it over and over, embodied by giggling girls and budding boy-men as you run a thumb across Azul’s new chin fuzz as the summer sun blackens your body. You hear it over and over, strangled in a man’s throat, caught in his teeth and tongue, broiling black eyes watching you—just you—with your clumsy un-boy prim and priss walk. You hear it over and over, murmured through the wind current as you feel your uncle’s breath hitch as he tries not to sweet-eye men, as he tried not to love their broad shapes, their sleepy eyes.
‘They think we are faggots. The other people.’ you close your mouth. You clamp your mouth around the word ‘faggot.’ You gnash at its hard texture, grind your teeth across it. It draws blood. It climbs from your mouth, heats along your throat.
You unlock yourself from around Azul. You pull yourself up out of the tub, body clicking like a busted machine. Azul, clumsy and grappling, tries to reach at you, pull you back in. But you’ve made it across the tiny dim-lit room. You stuff yourself into the clothes. The pants itch, scratch against your exoskeleton. Your shirt hangs from your shoulders. Your clothes smell like peppermint and shea.
‘We should go. Before the uncle comes back,’ you say not looking at Azul. You say, not looking into the mirror. You say bunching your shoulders and slinking out the bathroom door.
You hear Azul sigh. You hear him curse. You can feel his movement, the way he stands, stretches, rubs at his chin. He is sticking his tongue out. He is clenching and unclenching his fingers, his whole body, his energy. His whole presence flexes and pulls and reaches outward. You slink deeper down the hall, across stained carpet and Meek the cat. You make it to the living room, stop, clench your toes along the rough and soft patches on the floor. In the fibers, you feel the people breathing downstairs slipping upward, reaching for you. The people downstairs have soft-spoken souls, lulling, speaking in a language that is sea-rippled.
You can’t remember feeling through the floors like this. You can’t remember your nerve endings clutching for the auric essence people exuded whether they knew or not. It feels natural to feel Azul, feel his breathing even now as he still lays in the tub, as he still tries to gather the words to say.
Stretching your focus, you can feel the storm brewing outside—a heaving humid thunderstorm. You can taste the old-thunder-maker clapping and his bird fluttered children dancing. And the old-thunder-maker smiles and stomps and the rain comes, and the thunder comes, and his children make light with their voices.
Meek breaks you from the stomp and clap and song.
She is a grey devilish beast that found her way into your uncle’s home one night during a blizzard. She is the only woman he ever loved—he has said so, kissing her dusty head, looking her in her blue eyes as she purred low in her chest. You liked her because she had secrets threaded in her fur, tiny nanites of ancient information. You could touch them but couldn’t read the sound signatures—they enticed you all the same, whispering and chanting.
She mewls running her face against your leg. You’re sure she is speaking to you. Her words are a feathery rumble.
‘I’ll miss you when you’re gone,’ she says. My heart jumps. I reach for her. She saunters away, mewling, back to an animal frequency you can’t pull meaning from.
Azul calls you. He is out the tub. He is out the bathroom. His footfalls disrupt you from the people downstairs. You struggle to understand that he is calling you by your name. You struggle to remember that this body has a name.
‘Glimmer…’ he calls me. Glimmer you feel like—light winking in the distance, an apparition in the dark, a faded outline. Your shoulders relax remembering this name. This thing that is you. You picked that name in the womb—the dark, star-netted birth place.
‘It’s okay.’ you say. ‘It’s not your fault.’
His eyes are wet when you look back at him, puffy. He has been crying. You didn’t even notice. You were sunken into everything else, you couldn’t feel his hurt. It hits you, burns your face, stings your eyes. You are long armed and reaching for his knotted body. You taste the acrid guilt. He is smaller to you right now. You can bend him in your hands with a flex. You don’t. You blow air into your hands, you lift his shirt and press. His stomach has no hair and sinks under your touch. He gasps. He looks to your plundering hands. You are reaching for something in his body, that guilty taste, that lumpy soured thing. You feel it, taste it in your fingers. You tug.
The guilt-thing is a wet smelly ball in your hands. You squeeze and think of flowers and so flowers bloom. And you shove the flowers back into Azul before they wilt or turn to dust. You rename the flowers ‘love-dust’. And they are small things that need sunlight and a kiss twice a week. If they do not get proper attention they will curdle Azul’s stomach. You will make sure that never happens.
Azul is looking at you, eyes wide and open. He looks big again. He looks like he will puff out his chest and boast at any moment. He looks like a loving boy. ‘How’d you do that?’
You shrug. You smile. You grab his unscarred hands. ‘I dunno. I dunno a lot of things. I’m doing as the soul calls.’
He nods. He looks outside. He sees the rain and clatter and blue flashing. ‘We should…stay inside.’
‘It’s a passing storm. Give it three minutes,’ you tell him. You part his fingers, you look at him between them. His thick brows are furrowed. His mouth is a quizzical smile.
‘Oh yeah? You tuned into the weather channel all of a sudden? Got it on telepathic speed-dial?’ his tone has that funny lilt. The one with laughter chasing the edges.
‘You can see it. Look,’ you point towards the window. ‘See there, that shape—that’s the old-thunder-maker. Old-thunder-maker has weaker joints, so he is quick with his music and jeer. Watch…three minutes.’ you say to him watching the clouds swell and burst and swell and burst over the sleepy Virginia complex. There was white light peaking, sunlight pushing through the grey. The outside air tastes like pines and salted-candy. You shape the taste, it rolls across your tongue. There is a word—sweet. It all tasted sweet and it filled your belly.
Azul watches too. You don’t think he can see what you see. But he humors you, squinting and nodding and squeezing your hand.
The rain ends. The old-thunder-maker and his children have tucked their instruments and bodies into dispersing clouds. The sun-woman and her long yellow hair peaks like a birthed child. Azul lets out a breathless laugh.
‘Stop being right all the time, you amazing weirdo,’ he ruffles your hair. ‘You’re better than Fox news.’
You nod. You slip your feet into flip-flops. You tug him out the wooded door. You don’t lock it. You know you are supposed to, you know no nigga goes around not locking they doors, only white folks be like that—your uncle has told you smoking a pipe, smoke pluming, his grey eyes hazy. But you can’t fathom the impulse to keep the door unlocked. You think it is the way the air coils, winding in circles, unceremonious spinning. You think, the air has never had that texture before. You are sure that texture has a taste—and you lift your head—battery acid and sweat and metal.
You ignore how the metal taste clicks against your teeth. You ignore how it drives a sharp ache to your stomach.
You go. You go into the unknown known.
You let go of Azul’s hand and race him down the wooded stairs. The stairs creek under your weight, thunders under Azul’s. You splash through puddles and leap over mud. The scents and tastes are all turning to color—you are in a swimming colored haze. The reds become pink, the yellow a saccharine gold, the blue darkens and softens.
You’re sure your flip-flops are gone, and your bare feet is receiving messages from the dirt. You are in the dirt. You can feel your spirit is now communing with the root system of a disgruntled pine.
You are not running.
You are not breathing like humans do.
Your skin feels hard, flaky. You can see your fingertips reaching upward. You can see the sunlight breaking between the dark fringes of the disgruntled pine. You bend towards it. The you open your mouth, you try to catch the disgruntled pine’s words, wrap around it with your tongue, chew on its wooded wisdom.
Don’t go too far, little one. We can watch you here, in the blackened woods. But past us, past our great roots, you are unknown and will be rejected.
Azul bumps into you, knocks into your back. Your feet unhook from the ground, you disconnect from the root systems. Azul is panting and giggling. You giggle a little too, a whispery sound, a dizzying echo. You stare at the disgruntled pine. You think on this warning. You don’t understand it.
You live in a false-forest. It is common in Virginia to have apartments mounted beside towering trees and poison ivy and unruly earth and lazy creeks. The false-forest is a curt journey, spilling out into a highway or a suburb or a mall strip. Perhaps the disgruntled pine is warning of the busy cars that you can taste from here, that bristles your hair with their noise.
‘Hey, is there anybody in there?’ Azul sings, nudging your shoulder. He hands you your discarded flip-flops. You huff a laugh. You thank him. You tell him about the tree. He looks it up and down. ‘Looks like it’s an old wise thing. But old folks ain’t always right. Come on. Over yonder I see more sun light.’
He pushes you forward. You walk like you have ghosts in your joints, you walk like your body is unthreading the further you get from home. You are threads and a ticking heart. You push forward. You make it onto concrete. The sky sticks to you like honey outside of the false-forest. You think the sky is redder. You try to see the sun-woman’s peeking head. There is nothing familiar. It is like you entered a new realm.
You look back, but Azul pulls you forward.
The houses are tall and pristine. The cars are glossy. The grass is glossy. You fear touching either. The sidewalk pushes against your feet. There is a white woman and her child watching you and Azul. An old white man emerges from his house, glowering from his porch.
You don’t belong here. Azul doesn’t belong here. But Azul is smiling and tugging you along. He knows this amazing ice scream shop just past this concaving landscape. You follow his foot falls. You count your escalating breaths.
It is quiet. The silence stretches out, expands. You feel it pile into your shoulders, the unsettling hush.
You and Azul are just brushing fingers, humming low, lulling along the sidewalk—when the cop strolls up. He has sunglasses and thin lips. His badge gleams, blinding. His skin doesn’t look right, looks ghoulish.
You pause before him, body like a knot now.
Stunned like tiny animal.
Your heart moves from chest to throat. You are choking on your pulse. Azul grips your hand, pushes his body forward, puffs his chest out. The cop speaks, mouth opening around a rumbling language that doesn’t feel human. You don’t feel human—looking into the pitted shape that are the cop’s eyes.
The eyes were eating you alive.
Your joints lock tighter, you hear them clicking to a stop, you hear your own blood circling and curving and burning. You feel your eyes sting, you look up—
—beyond you is the moonlit sky—it watches with many eyes.
beyond you is the cradling-woman that holds the moon and
hums lullaby. beyond her is the man-woman-god that makes
the stars. and the man-woman-god looks at the stars and says
look. things are happening. look how the sky thread shines.
how tragic. how beautiful. may it become new. the man-
woman-god crushes a winking, blooming star-bud. they hand
the star bud to the cradling-woman. the cradling-woman folds
it into her mouth and hums—
And you witness this somehow. And you want to stay in the beyond, in the plunging dark. But you hear Azul.
You come back to see the cop, tall and slender and pale. You are gripping Azul’s sweating hand. You can feel the cop’s eyes, watching your grip, your clumsy desperate and amorous hold. You can’t make out the language of the onlookers who have shuddered onto their lawns to witness.
Azul, he is speaking too. His words tickle your ribs, opening up an airway, reminding you ‘you are still here, stay with me’ as the cop garbles and garbles and garbles.
‘Hey, we was just goin’ to the store, officer, taking a shortcut, just strolling. We…we won’t…we won’t tryna start nothin’’ Azul tries to charm, licking his dry lips. He has his crooked smile, the one that creased his plump cheeks, the one abuela’s coo about. But this is no abuela. This is not a gathering of Black and Dominican women that knew you by skinned knee and touch. These are not chortling black boys, tossing rocks and blowing kisses all at the same time, allured and terrified of Azul.
They are all white and unfamiliar, glaring like sun-spots.
It hurt your eyes and you whimper.
You jerk away.
And the cop moves, inching at his waist. And you see Azul’s arm outstretched, reaching, pleading. And you suck on your tongue. And you want so bad to kiss Azul for the first time, for the last time.
Azul’s chest is puffed out and his words are watery and sounded like a voice in a vacant church shouting—but all is got back was echo and echo and god winking in the mosaic sun.
‘Please, please,’ he says, guiding me behind him. He looks to the sure-gripped gun. He looks to me with big watery eyes.
The cop shot once, then twice—
And the bullet turns to fairy dust.
You are rocking back and forth, watching, nipping at your fingers. You see blue bits of animal language pulled from your friend’s chest as the wound opens further, chest cavity collapsing inward, blood blooming into light buds. The animal calls and you move forward. You step inside, invited by a shimmering star bud. You step inside of Azul’s soft boy breasts. You step inside the chatter, the galactic surge. The cop is gone, eaten by the ricocheting sound that turns into a black eyeless dog. And the dog faces you. You face him. And he snuffs and shakes and howls. And you fall deeper into Azul’s gaping body.
The red scented air crackles around you.
Your skin feels peeled apart.
And you hear the beyond again, you hear man-woman-god speak—
‘this is how all things begin. With blood and the nothing
and the end.’
Beasa Akuba Dukes is a twenty-seven year old, black nonbinary person. They graduated from Longwood University with a BA in English and from West Virginia Wesleyan College with an MFA in Creative Writing. They have published in PANK Magazine, GrubStreet, No Tokens, Foglifter Journal, PRISM International, Cosmonauts Avenue, Strange Horizons, SFWP Quarterly, and others. They focus-write and play around with gender, race, sexuality off-pulse spirit stuff, and the body to explore identity.
so go home / our bodies do not perform prodigies for a bastard / we do not fabricate guns to form teeth / so that it spills our tongues into / the future of a fine leper / at school / i teach my students how to hold a leaf / especially if it’s a dry one / at the mosque / i never in the first place prepared for a sujud / because our enemies do not always forget to perch / their arrows hold flowers that pin the neck with poisons / our bodies try to find beauty in a city of ugliness / we call it a research of water on a dry map / how a snail sails home with a broken carapace / i am no longer going to hold my breathe / for a fragrance the beauty of ash anymore / i know of a new ghost in the cemetery / who is audacious enough to embark on a beautiful / travelogue of wearing a new body / in a new skin / so go home / there’s reinforcement in recuperation.
you always wonder this wound now
forgive me first. i want to unmask the fire on
my forehead to kiss earth a holy dance.
a Gordon –
being safe is no longer a name a boy rakes.
the universe begins with darkness. i am not to blame.
my body is the genesis of a new universe.
i am the God: Let there be a noise at the backyard of
a garden. Let there be a flower with beautiful scents.
Let this body be more gorgeous.
Shitta Faruq Adémólá is a young Muslim Poet, budding French linguist, phone photographer, and fiction writer From Nigeria. He is the author of a forthcoming microchap All I Know Is I Am Going To Be Beautiful One Day (Ghost City Press, 2021), and a chapbook Night Club With Dogs (INKspired, 2021). His works have appeared or are forthcoming in Jalada Africa, Dream Glow, Serotonin, FERAL, Third Estate Art, Rigorous Magazine, Icefloe Press, and elsewhere. He is the winner of the Fitrah Review Poetry Prize, 2021; a joint winner in the Shuzia PenProtest Contest, 2020; a joint winner in the Shuzia redemption poetry contest 2021, and a joint winner in PIN 10-DAY Poetry challenge (November 2020). He is a Poetry editor at Litround, and tweets @shittafaruqade1.
Michelangelo Carves David into Medusa
Sanding down Medusa’s girldick, Michaelangelo
considers what serpent-hair should tuck against
her thigh, and splits the marble into three grass-snakes
he found nestled together that morning.
—Medusa: What cruelty || to be born from bone
beneath a man || molding me,
formed again from shedding stone.
From atop his ladder, Michaelangelo removes
her slingshot, laying it in the garden terrace,
and in its hollow he pours a trap of honey.
After lunch, a mass of insects floats in the resin.
—Medusa: How the amber set || sun-shone
in the joint of my amputated || sling…
what’s blooming || to be turned to bone.
At the river’s mouth, Michelangelo offers honeyed aphids
to the triplicate of grass-snakes, and again considers her
curling hair—is it monstrous? He asks,
sketching the serpents’ unbodied tongues.
—Medusa: Perseus || Goliath || unknown
twin to my be-||-heading,
formed again from shedding stone.
In the morgue, Michaelangelo studies cadavers—
measuring the ratios between shoulders and hips
and marking the acute deposits of fat. Is this
all there is which separates us?
—Medusa: And Adam’s rib || I took as my own
in the turning dawn || in the new Eve.
What beauty || to be born from bone.
At next morning’s mass, Michelangelo wilts in his pew,
his palms winedark, his heels flitting to psalms.
Each pillar becomes a palimpsest of her,
every hymnal mouths a warning.
—Medusa: I struggle to place || the stretching tones:
the lulling harp || the Lydian sea,
formed again from shedding stone.
No, she will not remember || the chisel and sloughing,
the paring of muscle || the extracted sling || Perseus’
pursuit || her hair in his fists || King Saul’s javelin stuck
in the wall; she was not there || she is nothing but stone.
—Medusa: No, I remember || Michaelangelo ||
I remember it all: the sin and the fall || the snake in the weeds
What cruelty || bore me from clay and rib-bone?
What formed me || Michaelangelo || what stone could hold me?
Ellie Howard is a nonbinary writer from Georgia—occupied Muscogee Creek territory. They were formerly the Editor-in-Chief for the Old Red Kimono and the Eclectic, and were also published in Lammergeier Magazine. They are serving an indefinite ban from editing Wikipedia pages for deleting deadnames from popular trans articles.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF HAIR
“That’s why her hair is so big. It’s full of secrets.” — Mean Girls (2004)
March 28, 2020
“You like cutting your hair1 on camera, don’t you,” a friend remarks.
I guess it appears that way.
A week ago the lockdown order came for Los Angeles,
and like everyone else, I had an emotional fit.
Suddenly the seven inches down the back of my neck felt like a burden,
like heavy, breathing animal
yoked against my will.
Let’s make a show of it, I thought. On Instagram Live,
I tie off the ends of my hair (drenched teal, showing their bleach)
and snip it off in one go.
My friends watching in the comments section
cheer at the swish of scissors.
A performance of gender.
1 Kami in Japanese means “god,”
but it is also a homonym for “hair.”
You could say a god who knows itself creates in its own self-image;
even the kanji for hair 髪 is self-reflexive,
itself comprised of the kanji for “long hair” and “full, abundant.”
Kami assumes the presence of itself,
April 4, 2019
I start watching Chinese period dramas to improve my Mandarin,
but more than the language I’m enamored by the long tresses of the pretty male leads.2
These pretty boys are called “xiao xian rou” —
little fresh meat in Mandarin.
I love it! Reverse objectification.
For any afab person, it must feel like a victory.
The older conservative men of China, long steeped in Maoist rhetoric, lament the pretty boy trend.
What happened to the muscular man, on whose broad shoulders this country was built,
whose physical labor makes the bedrock of our country’s production!
What happened to that Communist hero!
But what can their wailing do; the teenage girls love their tasty xiao xian rou.
I grow my hair out, because I, too, sometimes get swept up in feudal era fantasies:
I fashion myself Ming Dynasty prince.
I, too, want the ladies to swoon when I pass. But
to my disappointment, long hair on me just reads
2 Hair is political, as anyone will tell you.
In pre-Qing China, your hair was considered to be part of the body
that was given to you by your parents, and altering it in any way
was a mark of ultimate disrespect. So men wore their hair long
just like the women, and long
before Western standards invaded the picture,
this, too, was considered masculine.
I love to imagine the union between man and woman in those days:
long black curtains of hair
mixing and intersecting, swirled together on the bed,
until you didn’t know whose hair ended
and whose began.
Like the bent arms of a galaxy.
June 7, 2018
I guess I don’t have a lot of respect
for my family
to be doing this hair-cutting business
over and over again.
I want to make a short film about being non-binary,
so I set up my camera in the bathroom3 and get to work once again,
bringing blades close against the throat
of the gendered body my mother gave me.
The film I call “TRI•FEC•TA,” a wry reference to scoring all three nodes of gender
in my singular lifetime, (surely a cause for celebration!)
and two years from now, I will show it to one of my non-binary friends,
who will off-handedly comment on my proclivity for cutting my hair on camera, making witnesses
of the world.
I self-destruct just to reconstruct.
The video shows me in front of my bathroom mirror, taking scissors,
then electric clippers,
to violate my womanly facade — at that time, a beautiful shade of nut brown.
The text appears patiently over the screen:
“i must’ve swallowed my boy twin in the womb
between us engendered the gradient abyss
i’ve killed him twice now
once in birth
and once in my head
i try reaching him through the only way i know how
(you’re watching me do it in reverse)”
3 “Queer culture is cutting your own hair in the bathroom,”
I once read in a tweet.
I could never find that tweet again, but I have a sneaking suspicion
that queer culture is just
the things we queer folks do over and over again
to an unnamed god.
June 5, 1998
For every little queer American kid,
Mulan was a rite of passage.
I secretly love that we are all united by a movie that sprang out of Chinese
if only because in present day, in all my queerness, Chinese culture
does not love me back.
Shang is bisexual! everyone crows, and every trans masc I’ve known
seems to have first seen themself reflected in Mulan.4
Who among us queers hasn’t sung along to That Song in tears,
knowing the outside
didn’t match the inside.
Everyone remembers the hair-cutting scene,
Mulan under black of night, alone, silent.
Orchestral music rising behind her.
Then the blade sings:
it cuts loose the dead, burdensome animal.
It doesn’t matter that Mulan disrespected tradition; she showed us her insides.
She knew herself.
4 I always hated that Mulan went back to her girl life.
For some reason I could never fully verbalize, I’d always wanted her
to stay boy, to stay Ping, shoulder-length hair tied into austere knot,
but without the secret. Everyone would know what she really carried on her chest, between her legs,
and be okay with it anyway.
To me, the transformation in the first half
was the real magic.
I should’ve known at the time
what trouble this desire would bring.
Two years before I was born, Judith Butler publishes Gender Trouble.
(Take a shot for any time a trans or non-binary person invokes the name Butler,
our collective informal gospel.)
This is, of course, the landmark book in which Butler terms all gender as a performance,
“a kind of imitation for which there is no original.”
In other words, a replication of falsehoods,
a snake that consumes its own rattled tail.
This would categorize heteronormativity as some kind of ersatz ritual:
actions that shed meaning
by each successive turn.
I’ve never known a god so destructive;
only ghosts and demons,
letting their psyches raze through our fantasies of love.5
If I make my body the site of reconstruction,
erecting temples here in mine own name,
can I, too, create myself in mine own image?
It’s no surprise Butler also came out as non-binary.
When you excavate gender only to discover all its diminishing returns
you really just want to find a way out.
5 Lady Rokujo, splitting through dreams,
with her long,
Chinese history, I like to facetiously summarize, is a story
about our people committing atrocities against ourselves.
Of course, this is not the whole picture:
what complicates matters is the many various ethnic groups that make up the category
In 1644, the Han-ruled Ming Dynasty falls to the Manchu, a tribe from Northeastern China,
and a year later, to prove their loyalty to the new Qing dynasty,
Han men were ordered to shave the front of their heads
and braid the rest of their hair into a “queue” per the traditional Manchu style,
lest they be executed
This, of course, chafed against the deeply held Confucian beliefs that cutting one’s hair
was an act of dishonor against one’s parents, so many men grew out their hair
as an act of rebellion.
Entire massacres were conducted against these agitators.
One report claims the entire city of Jiading was nearly wiped out.
It would surprise many to learn
those who carried out these killings
were Han themselves, loyal
to an order
that could only speak in blood.
Hair, as anyone will tell you, is political.
Hair means nothing and yet everything at once.
Hair sprouts fully-formed, Athena-like, from our heads — divinity6 already borne.
6 We do and don’t have a gender-neutral pronoun in Mandarin.
Do, because all mentions of he/she/it are pronounced “ta.”
But the devil is in the details of writing:
他 is assigned to he and 她 is assigned to her,
the difference split between them in their component parts:
他 contains the radical for “person,” and 她 contains the radical for “woman.”
This bifurcation has not always existed.
他 used to exist as the pronoun for everything and everyone,
encompassing all complicated existences,
but when Western influence came in the 20th century,
a differentiation for she arrived on the horizon.
(I don’t want to say everything is white people’s fault, but…)
Let’s go back to 他: man and woman combined as one,
beginning and ending on the same node of gender.
Some gender rebels have also suggested the neutral option 祂,
which has the radical for “god” —
like a divine presence
for the first time.
For a few weeks as a kid, I have long hair.
My mother always insisted on cutting my hair boy-short,
which I hated,
because everyone always mistook me for a boy,
but when my parents are gone for a month-long trip to Japan in the summer
of my sixth year, the hair pours
out of my head as if it knows itself to be sacred,
itself a perilous existence.
My grandmother braids it into pigtails one night
and I marvel at the beauty in the mirror: finally,
I know what it feels like to be a girl!7
For a few glorious weeks
I know what it feels like to be exactly what I am,
without having it taken or stolen with me,
and I know in all of my six years some semblance of peace.
Of course, when my parents return,
out come the shears.
7 I don’t think I ever really knew what it felt like to be a girl.
For starters, I was notorious for hating the stereotypically feminine things:
the color pink, playing house, dresses. For another,
I always played with the boys. You could chalk this up to simply being a tomboy.
After all, many tomboys grow up without all sorts of gender trouble
and settle comfortably into being cis women. Me, I knew there would be trouble
the day I took my first standardized test
and was met face-to-face with the gender question:
male or female?
I couldn’t fill out the female bubble.
My pencil moved towards “male” — did I feel more like boy instead?
No, that wasn’t quite right either. Stuck
between the two, I eventually had to settle for the female option.
I didn’t have time to dawdle about it; on with the test.
I didn’t even know there was another choice.
I love growing my hair out, to tell the truth.
My hair grows fast, ripping through the calendar year like a runner on their last breath
and so begin all my grand experiments:
bleaching, dying, shaving the sides.
My hair goes through five different colors before I’m done with it.
Even though I desire more and more masculinity,
I keep growing my hair out.
In a way, I say, this is rebellious, for me to embody the masculine ideal
from 500 years ago.
I’m fulfilling a dream for my six-year-old self, who could never have
such long hair!
But I am hiding something.
I am still living in the past.
More accurately, I can’t let go of woman I look like.8
When you’re afab, there are certain rewards you get when you walk through life
as a conventionally attractive and feminine woman.
For years, I’d used that woman as armor, to hide that more
I held inside.
She fought wars for me; how could I let her go?
But the more I rely on her, the more
she sinks her long nails into me, a vengeful ghost.
You must remember that Lady Rokujo, too, was a beautiful and lovely woman
long before she stalked Genji’s dreams out of rage.
Ghosts are so because they long outlive their usefulness;
they curdle amongst the living.
I have to live on, do you understand?
I have to find different words, different expressions,
different nodes of being,
for who I am.
The old gods can no longer serve.
I have to cut all of it away.
8 “I just want to be a feminine boy without being a boy,”
another afab non-binary friend relates to me, and I don’t know yet
how to reconcile this impossible yearn with the meaningful phrase, “you are beautiful as you are.”
I am forever stuck in the continuum, I guess:
boy versus girl, long hair versus short hair,
self-image versus imagined self.
Think of it this way: the word “non-binary”
tells you what I’m not, not what I am.
Which leaves me constantly redefining and renegotiating
my gender, which means I’m forever coming out to myself
as something new and something else,
none of which has extant words
but if I dive again and again into the fold
like some ritual that accumulates in meaning
by each successive turn,
reveals a being that
comes close to
March 28, 2020
Here I am in the bathroom again,
my phone broadcasting
my rebellion and insolence
to the world (or, at the very least, my 200 Instagram followers).
Would you go so far as to call this a political act? I don’t know.
Everyone wants to call my body a site of political debate:
whether I am or am not female (I’m not), whether I do or do not deserve rights (I do).
I’m simply tired.
I just want my inside to match my outside,
even if that is just for a moment
as I try to figure this weird gender thing out.
I know myself to be already divine.
I ready the blades in front of my reflection;
Mulan would be proud.
If it doesn’t happen on camera, in the era of social media, did it happen at all?
But it’s not the recording of it that’s important.
It’s not even about the audience.
I do like cutting my hair in front of the camera —
because of the finality of my decision.
Once I press record, I know I can’t back out.
If I look into the lens, there, in its pinprick,
it emerges — a way out.9
9 I had to let go, for the last time, that armor.
I let go.
I cut my hair again, god gracing
the angeltips of my shoulders.
jonah wu is a queer, non-binary writer and filmmaker currently residing in Los Angeles, CA. Their work is usually a deep dive into their Chinese American upbringing and explores the intersection between mental illness, trauma, dreams, memory, and family history. Their writing has been published or is forthcoming in Longleaf Review, Jellyfish Review, The Aurora Journal, Sinister Wisdom, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, and others. You can follow them on Twitter or Instagram @rabblerouses.
amidst the thickets of reef lexicon
stems a portion of my sex, trapped with naming.
chased far beyond language, for wearing “Trans” in it’s completeness.
a leg that is no leg, burdening my weight
as if a breach on zephyr’s lawful caressing—
how the air keeps mistaking the workings of my fragile pronouns:
(she/they), till I’m sistered into the belief of genetic transplant,
where being boy is only a consciousness,
and girl — a verb I do not partake in.
but bear her inadequacy on each ties of my short flesh: proof I’m an uprising.
a handmade riot, cold-blooded at it.
skin-thorny by surprise or vex.
in the blank, I meet void with void
where emptiness sits sparsely like a plot of land.
a part of me keeps roaming between language & leash.
I— aftermath of the unloved.
I kneel into this trauma: a sarcophagus, sampled after appeal.
oblige me this feline request?
sometimes, I imagine how I’d show up on judgement day
neck deep in hellish “trans.“
Nnadi Samuel (he/him/his) holds a B.A in English & literature from the University of Benin. His works have been previously published/forthcoming in Suburban Review, Seventh Wave Magazine, North Dakota Quarterly, Quarterly West, Blood Orange Review, Fantasy Magazine, Uncanny Magazine, Contemporary Verse 2, Gutter Magazine, Agbowo, The Blue Route Magazine, The Cordite Poetry Review, Gordon Square Review, Rough Cut Press, Trampset, The Elephant Magazine, Birmingham Arts Journal, Liquid Imagination, & elsewhere. Winner of the Miracle Monocle Award for Ambitious Student Writers 2021(University of Louisville), Lakefly Poetry Contest 2021 (Wisconsin), and the Canadian Open Drawer contest 2020. He got an honorable mention for the 2021 Betty L. Yu and Jin C.Yu Creative Writing Prize (College Category). He is the author of Reopening of Wounds & Subject Lessons (forthcoming). He reads for U-Right Magazine. He tweets @Samuelsamba10.
Moss covers the stumps of trees in the woods
Fragmented rays of sun twinkle through leaves
The humidity swelled with the hums of cicadas
My skin, worn & brittle, peels in my sleeves
With every breath, drowning, yet,
Each step brings me closer to the clearing
The sun cracks my flesh, and I sweat out
Every thought I had about loving coyotes
The leaves turn from green to red to brown
Setting the hills on fire until their death
The sun sets, unsettling the night creatures
Owls chatter in the pines over my baked head
As the night becomes colder, the wind blows
Howling at the moon, piercing the crisp air
The love once here ran through the brushwood
Catching itself in the heavy thicket
The sun rises from frozen ground, shimmers
Like the dust of diamonds put on display
Breath that isn’t caught, fogs in to frost
I discover myself shedding my skin each day
A weak hello and a hard goodbye this time
And every so often, a look through the flames
Ruffled feathers floating to the wet ground
I’ve changed, but I’m still, roughly,
Matriarchs-To-Be In Mourning
driving around town with my best friend, showing each other the songs we love, the sounds that make the world sweeter. both of us sad, for different reasons, but similar enough to know each other’s pain. the aux comes loose, needing a jiggle, music becomes static and faded. the crackle of the sound waves reverberate inside of my ears and inside of my chest. i find the right angle and we resume singing, pausing once we hear a powwow drum, holler out the tune, and bellow our lele’s into the night air that races past us as we laugh our joy. just two rezzy, rugged girls who have lost love and some of their perspective, reminding each other of who we are, the heart and lifeblood of a whole nation; two bloodlines sharing space when our ancestors were sent here to die—do they smile now? are we their vision? i think so. i think we are exactly who they prayed for when they prayed for us.
Sedi Tlugv (ᏎᏗ ᏡᎬ), is a demisexual demigirl poet, musician, and language warrior. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation, where she works in language revitalization. Her writings have previously appeared in beestung. Find her language and music content at https://vm.tiktok.com/ZMJ57Tvx1.
In a Marriott Bed I try to Calculate the Constant Capital of my Pussy
The labor of use value: concrete. The labor of love: bounded. The labor of skill: adjudication. The labor of intellect: atomic. The labor of conception: deficit. The labor of reproduction: departure. The labor of compliance: imposter. The labor of tradition: premature. The labor of comfort: fragmented. The labor of god: negligible. The labor of innocence: deletion. The labor of daughters: threshold. The labor of expectation: lapsed. The labor of rehearsal: passage. The labor of spring: permission. The labor of summer: dilemma. The labor of soil: escape. The labor of midnight: background. The labor of negation: borrowed. The labor of gravity: feathered. The labor of omens: resignation. The labor of vision: facade. The labor of yes: the labor of yes: the yes of the labor of the yes, the yes
/for the nights alone
I feast upon the decadence of oysters & no
Stephanie Kaylor is a PhD student in the Department of Feminist Studies at UC Santa Barbara. They are Reviews Editor at Glass: A Journal of Poetry. She curates primary sources related to US criminality and organizing for the Sex Workers’ Archival Project.