Mala Beads

By MAW SHEIN WIN

Sunset over Joshua tree
Yucca Valley, California

When she wakes, I offer water. She sips from the glass. I ask if she needs more pillows behind her head. I look into her eyes and notice that she has deep blue lines that circle her almost black pupils. Why hadn’t I seen that before? I think of the nazars that I bought in Athens fifteen summers ago. Those glass amulets to ward off the evil eye were also called evil eyes. A source of protection against a malevolent gaze. Things make me choke, she says suddenly, then closes her eyes again.

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I’m with my younger sister and my 89-year-old mother at a rental in Yucca Valley, California. It’s nearly 100 degrees outside, tumbleweeds and succulents outside the door. My sister and I drink cold water and blast the air con.

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I try not to scratch the right side of my torso. The rash has returned, crimson lines on brown skin. I wonder if it’s stress or allergies or a combination. I drink more water. The rental is stylish with its distressed wood furniture, ironic art in small frames, mismatched ceramic mugs, and a sepia photograph of a coffin on the silver fridge. Last night I slept soundly on the California King, huge white pillows and a fluffy comforter.

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Our mother is napping. Her saffron monastic robes placed across the rocking chair along with her orange shoulder bag. Blood pressure cuff, some dried apricots in a baggie, prescription bottles on the oval coffee table. I open the bedroom door to check in. Her mouth is open. Her turtleneck has dark berry stains. Her bones look sharp through the sheets, thin fingers gnarled from arthritis.

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The day before, when we arrived at the rental, she didn’t remember my name and she called my sister the name of our oldest sister. Before her nap, she started to tell us a story about when she was kidnapped as a young girl in Burma and then how her own mother was tall. Taller than all the men in the family. How that intimidated them.

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I had heard only whispered references to her kidnapping. A family “friend” or an uncle. Everyone is an auntie or uncle in Burma. How she couldn’t remember details. A ransom note. Bad luck. Eldest of six sisters. Three looked alike, tall like her mother, thin frames, thick eyebrows. The younger, shorter, wider, slender hands. No one spoke aloud about this, still the gossip traveled to family members in Mandalay.

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Duhkha in Pali means “suffering.” A word I heard my parents say over and over throughout our childhood.

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After lunch, my mother sits in a rocking chair and silently counts mala beads.

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Now, I hear my sister in the kitchen, chopping. Despite the heat, I decide to venture outside. The desert sky startles, a burnt orange streaked with violet. Joshua trees spread over the valley, reaching out, alien beings exploring a dust crater.

 
 

Maw Shein Win’s most recent poetry collection is Storage Unit for the Spirit House (Omnidawn) which was nominated for the Northern California Book Award in Poetry, longlisted for the PEN America Open Book Award, and shortlisted for CALIBA’s Golden Poppy Award for Poetry. She is the inaugural poet laureate of El Cerrito, CA. Win’s previous books include full-length poetry collection Invisible Gifts and two chapbooks, Ruins of a glittering palace and Score and Bone. Win often collaborates with visual artists, musicians, and other writers and her Process Note Series features poets on their process. She teaches in the MFA Program at the University of San Francisco. Along with Dawn Angelicca Barcelona and Mary Volmer, she is a co-founder of Maker, Mentor, Muse, a new literary community. Win’s full-length collection Percussing the Thinking Jar (Omnidawn) is forthcoming in Fall 2024. Read more at: mawsheinwin.com

Mala Beads

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