Crossroads and Unholy Water

Man Nini

From “Crossroads and Unholy Water”

Man Nini was queen of the coal kitchen,
standing within six square feet of soot,
in front of four pits glowing with embers,
churning the bubbling bean sauce, beaming

the yellow kernels of her smile at the chickens
flapping in the loose ashes below, strung
together by the feet with sisal,
their furious claws resembling the old

people’s toe nails. She sighed as she sat
on a low straw chair, the heat-lacquered
columns of her black legs folded in a squat,
her soiled apron caught between the knees

forming a valley just below the wrinkled
mound of her belly, to sort out
peas, the good, the diseased, though all
grew round together in the same pod.

When she took off the flowered scarf she wore,
Man Nini’s hair resembled rice paddies,
with traced avenues on her scalp that
glistened like the moist red earth

of Kenskoff Mountain in soft fog. The remnants
of frizzy white down were gathered
into inch-long, upright, puffed-up braids
which, in the darkness of the windowless

kitchen, seemed the luminous gathering
of her ancestors’ will-o’-the-wisps, filled
with murmurs about the secret of her strength,
joy, and the sweetness of the food she cooked.