A Strange Kinship

by a contributor

Portia Watson

It was evening when I arrived.
Through the bus window
The black streets slick with rain
Reflecting the electric white light
Of the storefronts
The booths of vendors selling all
Manner of things to
Those still out traversing the buzzing city.
The stench weaseled its way through
Dark alleys and slithered on its belly
With the cockroaches darting around
Dark corners, finding its way
Into my unsuspecting nostrils,
The smell of garbage, sewage,
And oil frying in pans
The smell of a lesser known part of a
Bustling metropolis.

The colors, the smells, the scores of people,
The motorcycles shooting like pinballs
In between taxis and rickshaws,
The music of horns and automobiles whizzing
Past and the fruit vendors the noodle stands
The knives chopping and the broth boiling
The heaps of amulets lying on tables
The thin briefcases of lottery tickets
The fresh fruit heaped in piles
The dried squid skewered with sticks
The images of the king adorned in gold robes
His majesty with his spectacles donned,
Next to portraits of the Buddha
Eyelids sloping like serene hillsides
Tourists with backpacks and
‘Pretties’ in heels
The Starbucks is next to the woman
Selling the rusted relics of the past,
And no one knows if the dirt upon them is real
Or put there to lure the man in the backpack
Looking for novelty,
Wondering what to do with
His clumsy hands
As he eyes a golden figure
Exotic and foreign,
Towering above the
Palm trees and lotus blooms,
With sloping eyelids like serene hillsides.

Monks in robes the color of ochre and
Traffic cones and the occasional velvety maroon
Walk steadily and slowly
Unafraid of time and ignorant of its demands
Their worn bare feet padding softly against the
Warm pavement
Their skin the color of cappuccino
Their eyes wrapped in wrinkles
Bald heads like buoys
Bobbing methodically
Up and down up and down
Silver alms bowls in their brown
Leather hands,
Shiny glinting things
They are wrapped in their robes
Like bald newborns
A timeless wisdom peering out from
Their young eyes
Peace and contentment woven into the
Fabric of the cloth
Cascading in folds
Down the landscapes of their bodies
But if they have bodies —
I cannot be sure

And each morning at dawn
These worn bare feet pad down the streets
With hearts full of blessings and
Empty bowls people gladly fill
And the strays roam looking for food
Begging for kindness
And they are dirty and they are
Wild but they are not unwanted
For they are living creatures
Like you and I
With hearts perhaps like yours and mine
And so the people feed them
Just as they feed the monks
The people come to feed the sacred
And the profane
And there is not much difference between the two
We all have beating hearts

My mothers and grandmothers
And older sisters and brothers
And fathers and friends,
They bring me bags of green mangoes
And rambutans that look as if they
Came from another planet,
And sticky rice in woven containers
And coconut treats wrapped neatly
In banana leaves
They teach me how to kneel and to pray
With my feet never pointing towards the sacred
And to burn incense to place at the altars
They weave leaves into beautiful forms
With nimble patient fingers
And chant rhythmic words,
The meaning of which is long lost in time
But the meaning is not what is important
In a land of tradition
Smashing chilies with mortar and pestle
Squeezing the lime
And not bothering to slice the garlic or peel off its skin
Their wrists wear thin strings of white
The strings of blessing and good fortune
Strings that have been prayed over by those
With the young eyes full of wisdom.

Nails like almonds
Oval shaped on smooth
Brown hands
That know the earth and everything
It gives birth to
She picks the longan fruit that grows high in trees
She likes the rain, she says,
Walks in it slowly
Letting it soak her skin
And these mountains are her home
She knows their slopes and shadows
Like lovers know one another’s bodies
Her father all skeleton bones and
Doesn’t speak
And I wonder perhaps if there are words
Somewhere in the hollow cavity of his stomach
And if they will ever find their way into the light.

She looks at me with the eyes of a mother
She tells me matter-of-factly
That to be with another human being
One must have endurance
And there isn’t really love left, she says,
But we worry about one another,
And at nineteen I didn’t know anything,
She tells me
As she sips her coffee that is black
Like mine
As her heart beats like mine
And her mother worries because
She does not go to temple but
She points to her beating heart and tells me
With a smile that
Her temple is there.

Sometimes the air here is sticky
But the breeze is always sweet
And the smiles stretch for miles
Sloping like serene hillsides
And everyone is your sister and your brother
And the woman at the noodle stand knows
Your order by heart,
By her beating heart that beats
Like your very own
And you are known by
The word that means
And what a beautiful thing to be called,
And you think that,
Each day you’ve walked these streets
Each time that sun everyone in the entire
Universe watches rise and set
Again runs its course
Your heart swells with the meaning
Of the nickname you have been given
The name that means “fulfilled”
And when you close your eyes
Your heart swells like the hillsides
Like the eyelids of the Buddha
That slope serenely
That have no need to ask for more
Because they are already

After fulfilling a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship grant in rural northeastern Thailand, Portia Watson has recently accepted a fellowship with an NGO organization near the Thai/Burma border. She is passionate about hearing the stories of others, coffee, and exploring the power written and visual art has to enhance our lived experiences.