* * *
When we were pelicans we lived in the air
and the sea, dipping to catch fish
for each other. Flight was nothing special.
We cleaned our wings. Sometimes the catch
swam down and we dove with such force
that our bodies became blades through the water.
We did not hope for anything.
Our way of being in the world
was the only one we wanted. My feathers
moved well and precisely. I could not
sing. Each day my mouth held only what
I could eat. At night, the saltwater clung
to our chests like fur. We had no dreams.
When we were pelicans, we had no dreams.
* * *
Dad keeps trying to treat our parakeets like chickens
she announces one day at dinner, and he completely
and instantly agrees, having tried to feed them already
with great piles of rough corn, the heartiest of whole grains,
even though they only eat xiao mi, millet seed so named
after its smallness, the pellets the right size for their beaks.
Yesterday he fed them a scrap of raw dough that the village
chickens would have found delicious, peeled a pile
of apple skins for them, which they didn’t eat, so picky,
unlike the smart poultry from the farm which ensured
no meal was ever wasted, cleaned up the scraps and ate
bits of their own shells to keep their calcium up, knew how
to keep their bellies full and their eggs strong, no concept
of cannibalizing, just survival. He always remembers this,
the old tricks that keep life humming, that allow men
to return from the mountain, even terribly frostbitten.
Raw lamb, in this story, no clear reason besides that it kept
them going. As a boy, he ran his own experiments,
found a fist of garlic in his hunger, swallowed it, proud
of his own smartness at saving himself from the burning
until it returned, doubled down, in his stomach. I guess
he learned it like this, a lifetime of studying how to keep
the belly full. On planes he orders tomato juice because
the thickness is closest to soup. The small joy of surviving
must be that it comes from nothing. Like when they rushed
inside the coop to gather the still-warm eggs, and lifted
the resisting hen to toss her outside the pen, and she flew.
* * *
In the middle of working, I look up to see the birds
And because there is no after,
even though the email is sent and the next round
drafted, and no one has responded scathingly
yet, even though the work is submitted
for approval, and the questions asked, we are left with
during, from which I glance up
to see two birds wheeling, the only living things
outside in the snow. Cold, truly alive,
they turn their small bodies away from my gaze
and the small window filled with small work,
for it is February, and they are in search
of warmth, or food– nothing more.
* * *
First Encounter With Beauty
Much earlier, perhaps aged four, when my world
was other kids’ hands scrabbling the backs of mine
in the basin of shaving cream, and wood chips tracked
into the classroom floor, and foam pieces that clicked
and fit together perfectly, we dyed eggs in the spring.
Balancing each one on a wire, we dipped them
in tubs of watery paint– bright pink, butter yellow,
pale green. I learned that day that robin’s eggs are blue,
my teacher lowering a shell into the ink to show me.
Cornflower. Cerulean. Like the names I had only seen
on labels while coloring. The blue egg was far more beautiful
than the rest, maybe because of its color, maybe because
of the robins, maybe neither, and I felt for the first time
the strangeness of seeing more than was before my eyes,
an understanding that was real but that I could never reach.
* * *
Stephanie Niu is a poet from Marietta, Georgia. Currently based in New York City, she earned her degrees in symbolic systems and computer science from Stanford University. Her poems have appeared in the Southeast Review, Poets Reading the News, Storm Cellar, Midway Journal, and Portland Review.
featured photo by Cathy Yang: a student studying art and computer science at Stanford University. When she’s not coding or doodling, Cathy is probably petting cats. She also takes care of 15 chickens. Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/cathyillo/