May-lee Chai

bones, oracle


at the end of the world the Chinese dead return.  the railroad
workers rise from their unmarked graves where they fell and died
were buried burned hanged dragged hidden blown to bits the ties
of the trans pacific rise one by one unzipping across the nation
releasing the dead from their bone boxes in storage in the cold
basements forgotten   they meet their old friends raise their hands
bow at the waist Ah Fung! Neih hou ma. Hou hou. Sikh jou faan
meihyah   their laughter like thunder  the reflex to talk about food
even after all these centuries dead their flesh fermented into soil but
the desire the hunger eternal

the men who dug the hard earth into caves beneath the vineyards
where they planted the grape vines tying the tendrils tenderly
enticing the green upwards plucked the perfect purple pearls
to be pressed into liquid distilled into wine for someone else’s wedding
always someone else’s wedding

the men who dug the aqueducts the irrigation canals handled
the arsenic tucked into the cherry the almond the apricot orchards
the pitted fruit not for their hungry mouths

the women sold by fathers uncles strangers  buried unmarked
their syphilitic bones crooked now straighten  rise  they walk from
the earth  their bound feet blossoming their toes unfurl  like crocuses
their rotten weeping vaginas heal pus free their laughter like silver
bells in the wind

they gather on the coast on the last day the land healing concrete
crusting over asphalt melting away buildings fading viscous
shimmering in the air then disappeared  the redwoods thundering
upwards the sequoias shading the ground as the earth opens
releasing the dead the oracle of their bones becoming

the Chinese walk to the Pacific Ocean and step into the surf
it is the end of the world and guided by hunger eternal
they are returning home at last



May-lee Chai is the author of 11 books of fiction, nonfiction, and translation, including her 2022 short story collection, Tomorrow in Shanghai; Useful Phrases for Immigrants, recipient of the American Book Award; and her family memoir, The Girl from Purple Mountain. She teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at San Francisco State University. Her writing has been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, named a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book, and recipient of an honorable mention from the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights Book Awards.