Small Bodies of Water / Nina Mingya Powles

 
 

The swimming pool is on the edge of a hill overlooking the valley where the town begins. From up here I can almost see Mt. Kinabalu’s dark rainforests. I have never been there, but I knew the names of things that live among the trees from looking at Gung Gung’s natural history books: the Bornean sucker fish, the Kinabalu serpent eagle, the enormous Rafflesia flower, the Atlas moth with white eyes on its wings.

Sara and I are the same age, born a month apart, but she already knows how to dive headfirst into the deep end. I lower myself down the cold metal ladder and swim out after her, kicking up a spray of white waves behind me, until my toes dip down and there is nothing there to catch me. I reach for the edge, gasping. I am happier here where there’s something solid to hold onto, where I can see our splashes making spiral patterns on the hot concrete. From here, I use my legs to push myself down. I hover here in my safe corner of the deep end, waiting to see how long I can hold my breath. Looking up through my goggles I see rainforest clouds and a watery rainbow. I see the undersides of frangipani petals floating on the surface, their gold-edged shadows moving towards me. I straighten my legs and point my toes and launch myself towards the sun.

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Gung Gung used to drive us to the Sabah Golf Club pool whenever we came to visit. He went off for his morning round of golf while my cousin Sara and I went straight to the pool, my mum and her mum lagging behind us. Po Po, my grandmother, stayed behind as usual. Over many years of visiting my grandparents in Malaysia, I can never remember Po Po coming with us to the pool.

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Where is the place your body is anchored? Which body of water is yours? If I looked at a map of the place where I was born, it could be easy. But I was four years old when we moved for the first time; we would move three more times after that. In his essay Mixed-Race Superman, Will Harris writes that the mixed-race person ‘grows up to see the self as something strange and shifting … shaped around a lack.’ Is it that I’ve anchored myself to too many places at once, or nowhere at all? The answer lies somewhere between. Over time, springing up from the in-between space, new shapes form. I am many mountains. I am many bodies of water, strange and shifting.

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In truth, my first body of water was the swimming pool. Underwater, I was like one of Gung Gung’s little silver fish with silver eyes, like one of those he catalogued and preserved in gold liquid in jars on the shelf in the room where I slept, trapped there forever, glimmering. It was here that I first taught myself how to do an underwater somersault, first swam in deep water, and first learned how to point my toes, hold my legs together and kick out in a way that made me feel powerful. Here, we spent hours pretending to be mermaids. But I thought of myself as less like a mermaid and more like some kind of ungraceful water creature, since I didn’t have very long hair and wasn’t such a good swimmer. Perhaps half orca, half girl.

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On a beach on the Kāpiti Coast of New Zealand, a place I came to know as back home, my mother and I wade out across the sand to where shallow waves lap against our calves. Buckets in hand, we feel with our toes for pipi shells poking up through the sand. At the place where the Waikanae estuary widens and empties into the sea, I stand at the edge of the low sandbank and push hard with the balls of my feet. Cracks form in the sand like an ice sheet breaking apart. At the slightest touch of my foot, tiny sand cliffs go crumbling beneath me into the shallow estuary. The slow current shifts to make room for the new piece of shore I’ve created. I learn that with the lightest pressure I am capable of causing a small rupture, a fault.

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Sometimes home is not a place but a collection of things that have fallen or been left behind: dried agapanthus pods, the exoskeletons of cicadas (tiny ghosts still clinging to the trees), the discarded shells of quail’s eggs on Po Po’s plate, cherry pips in the grass, the drowned chrysanthemum bud in the bottom of the teapot. Some things are harder to hold in my arms: the smell of salt and sunscreen, mint-green blooms of lichen on rock, wind-bent pōhutukawa trees, valleys of driftwood.

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When I got my first period when I was eleven, it was swimming that I was most afraid of. Not of attracting sharks in shallow waters like boys stupidly said we might, as if they could somehow scare us more than our own bodies already had. I had visions of trailing blood around the swimming pool, not knowing it was coming from me. I had no concept yet of what my body could contain; I thought I might stain everything red in my wake. In English class we watched The Diary of Anne Frank, the black and white film version. In one scene, there was a small pool of blood seeping into the middle of Anne’s bedsheets and some boys looked away.

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There were pink crabs scuttling along the bottom of the outdoor pool next to my international school in the outskirts of Shanghai. They shined through the chlorine like bright, fleshy gems. We were shocked to see the tiny creatures here, right under our feet, in this colourless stretch of land where there were no birds and no insects but mosquitoes. The sea was not far away from us then, a dark mass just beyond the golf course and a concrete sea wall. It was always there but its presence felt remote, somehow not real, somehow not really full of living things. I felt an urge to scoop up the crabs in my hands and carry them back over the wall that separated us from the biggest body of water I had ever known, the Yangtze River Delta, and beyond that, the East China Sea.

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In the concrete city of Shanghai, the over-chlorinated pool became our sanctuary. It sparkled aquamarine against a skyline of dust. We were thirteen, almost fourteen, but underwater we still pretended we were something other than human. Or maybe we weren’t pretending at all. Underwater everything was different, bathed in holy silence and blue echoes. The slanted windows cast wavering lines of liquid light beneath the surface. We felt the way our bodies moved, lithe and strong and new. We pushed off from the edge into the blue again and again, diving deeper and deeper each time.

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Since we moved back I’ve taught myself not to be afraid of open water. There is no sand here, only pebbles and driftwood and shells. Everything scrapes against us, leaves a mark on our skin: rocks, wind, salt. The cold hurts at first but we push ourselves headfirst into the waves and come up screaming, laughing. I push away all thoughts of jellyfish and stingrays, the ones the orca sometimes come to hunt. The shore in sight, I float on my back and let the ocean hold me in its arms. Big invisible currents surge up from beneath, rocking me closer. I dip my head backwards and there is tiny Mākaro Island hanging upside-down in my vision, perfectly symmetrical and green, as if it’s only just risen out of the sea.

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The harbour carries debris from a summer storm just passed—shattered driftwood, seaweed blooms, plastic milk bottle caps, the occasional earlobe jellyfish. The further out I swim, there is a layer of clear, molten blue. My friend Kerry and I dive above and below the rolling waves. At this moment in our lives neither of us is sure where home is exactly, but underwater, the question doesn’t seem to matter. Emerging from nowhere a black shape draws close to my body and I lurch, reaching for Kerry, but then I see the outline of wings. The black shag is mid-dive, eyes open, wings outstretched and soaring down into the deep. Kawau pū, the native New Zealand black cormorant or shag as it’s often known. They perch on rocky beaches all over the Wellington coastline holding their wings open to dry in the wind and sun. Another wave rises over us and we turn our bodies towards it, opening.

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I was in my small bedroom in Shanghai on November 13, 2016, when the words ‘magnitude 7.8’ appeared at the top of my Twitter feed, followed by a tsunami evacuation warning for all coastal areas in central New Zealand. I sent messages to my parents and refreshed the page over and over while imagining the tide dropping away in the dark. They piled the dog into the back of the car and drove a short way up the hill, listening to the unsettled night. The warning was lifted two hours later, but the islands kept shifting. A long way south, four-metre waves came unseen in the night, pushing kelp and crabs up onto the land but harming no one. In some places along the coast of Kaikoura, the seabed lifted up by two metres. The words I heard broadcast on the Radio NZ livestream chimed inside my head for days. Do not go anywhere near water. The first wave may not be the largest.

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Almost two years later, in a different city, I was near a body of water when I received a phone call from my mother to say Po Po had died. She had caught pneumonia in the night and her small lungs could not cope. The River Thames flowed darkly beneath me, carrying pieces of the city out to sea. I stared down at the current and used the rhythm of its flow to regulate my breathing.

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The Ladies Pond is hidden in a meadow in a corner of Hampstead Heath. I go alone to find it one day during an April heatwave. I put my green swimsuit on under my clothes and pack my purple backpack: a towel, water, two peaches and a Kit Kat. I pass the sign at the gate that says ‘No men allowed past this point’ and head down the gravel track towards the trees. I notice that the wooden bench where I’ve left my things is engraved with the phrase ‘RECLAIM THE NIGHT’ and I suddenly feel like I have reached a place that is a sacred part of many women’s lives. Now it’s a part of mine, too. Here, it is safe and wondrous for me to be alone. The sunlit pond is fringed with reeds and willows and tiny blue dragonflies skim about the surface. Lowering myself down from the platform at the edge, I launch myself into the water too quickly. The cold shocks my skin, shoves air out from my lungs. I take deep breaths with my lips close together, trying to steady my heart.

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I didn’t know Po Po well; I can’t speak Hakka, the language of my mum’s side of the family, and she spoke little English. Our shared language was food. When we got back from the pool she brought out plates of sticky fried chicken, aubergine and coconut curry, fried bananas wrapped in paper. She watched us from the head of the table, her eyes sparkling. A few years ago I gave her a copy of my first poetry book. She smiled and mouthed the title slowly, tasting the letters, her voice catching on the edges of these English words she knows but hasn’t often said aloud. “Drift,” she said, “What is drift?”

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Longing to be closer to the pond, my boyfriend and I move to a first-floor flat right next to the railway line that runs between Hampstead Heath and Gospel Oak. Standing on the balcony I watch a fox prowl the downstairs neighbour’s garden in the mid-afternoon. Green ring-necked parakeets burst out of the trees overhead. Every six to eight minutes a train shoots past, shaking the bones of the building. Sometimes I feel the floorboards shudder and instinctively I hold my breath, measuring the distance between me and the doorway, thinking: is this the one we’ve been waiting for?

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The Heath is my neat portion of wilderness; the Heath is my new home. I walk in awe under the ancient oaks. I collect red-veined leaves and tiny pine cones fallen from alder trees. Wanting to be able to describe things accurately, I learn the names of trees that have featured in the pictures of stories I’ve read since childhood but never seen in real life. The words sound almost mythical to me now: alder, hazel, yew, ash. I look up names of birds commonly found on the Heath: siskin, coot, moorhen, redwing, mistlethrush, kestrel. They taste strange to me, like made-up words from English nursery rhymes, foreign compared to the birds I am used to: tūī, pukeko, kākā, ruru, takahē.

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Po Po’s name, her real name, was an English name: Mary. Did she have others? The name we called her, Po Po, is the colloquial form of wàipó, meaning mother’s mother in Mandarin. Two characters repeated: 婆 婆. Look closer: a woman (女) and a wave (波). The three short strokes of the calligraphy brush make up a water radical, a small body of water at the edge of her, one I don’t fully understand. When I write down her name I see I have drawn a woman beneath a wave, a woman in the waves.

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The pond seems to contain layers of translucent pearls and bluegreen clouds. A family of black tufted ducks floats around me as I become aware of what my body looks like: disappearing, half-swallowed by the deep. Here, there’s nothing to push myself off from. Here, I can’t touch the bottom and I can’t see more than a few inches ahead of me underwater. I am not sure where the shape of me ends and the dark water begins. My own heart is the beating heart of the pond. The only sure thing is my body. I hold my breath and swim out towards the place where the sun touches the surface.  

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The water radical 水, radical number 85 out of 214, is one of the most common in written Chinese. It forms part of thousands of characters, most of them relating to water, such as snow, river, tears, to swim, to wash, to float, to soak. And there are some that don’t directly relate, mostly verbs: to live, to exist, to concentrate, to mix, to strain. Scrolling through Pleco, the free dictionary app used by Mandarin learners everywhere, I find so many water-radical words that there could be enough for an entire language of water radicals. I begin to see it. It’s an inherited language, one I’ve carried inside me all along, one where I’m no longer perpetually caught in-between. It has no distinction between past and present tense, nor between singular and plural; as a result it contains all the places I call home, as well as all my memories and all my names. I float, I strain, I swim.

Nina Mingya Powles was born in Aotearoa New Zealand and is half Malaysian-Chinese. She is the author of several poetry pamphlet collections, most recently Field Notes on a Downpour (if a leaf falls press, 2018) and Luminescent (Seraph Press, 2017). She is Poetry Editor at the Shanghai Literary Review, and was won of three winners of the 2018 Women Poets' Prize.