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Published in The Diamond & the Thief – October 09
Lily Chan
Lily Chan is a writer, artist and lawyer living in Perth. She likes to create art out of Mills and Boon books. She likes babies until they start crying. She is the recipient of the 2010 Peter Blazey Fellowship for a manuscript-in-progress based on her grandmother's life. At the moment it is called "Toyo" but it may eventually be called "The Empress and the Persimmon Tree". She began writing it when she was ten years old.

See Lily’s online book i am in your heart – a collection of sayings by Sri Sathya Sai Baba

Read more poetry by Lily in foam:e 3

See Lily read at Cottonmouth 2009 and 2008

The Everything Poem
or, how we can stop writing poetry and go back to clipping our fingernails and potting grevilleas
By Lily Chan

pass it through the shredder
use it to pick up dog poop
before some stubborn voice says
I have something important to say
which hasn’t been said by anyone
in any form

another voice says hey, just find the Everything Poem
which says absolutely everything
you won’t ever have to write anything again
so tip over your tables and unbite your tongues, please,
I’m looking for the Everything Poem

it could be under your fingernails
between the floorboards
buried in your back yard
printed on the leg of a ladybird

but God Almighty I’ll catch that Everything Poem in a net and skin its fur right off and smack its bottom bare and slice it into sardine tin sized portions and seal the lids so it can’t run away again and then

all the Wordsworth poems and all the Ginsberg poems will be made redundant in colleges and libraries and festivals and gigs across the world and all the students will toss up their hats in glee as their curriculum is now the study of the Everything Poem

poetryless we’ll engage in normal behaviour
like cutting fingernails
and potting overgrown grevilleas
and feeding the cat the right stuff

poetryless we’ll spray our ears with Mortein
and should any poems show their dangerous face
attempting to usurp the Everything Poem’s place
we’ll deal with them mercilessly
with a double spray of Mortein
before they invade our house,
get under our skin,
get our fingers itching for a pen

you know they only want to suck our blood
and we need to keep those iron levels up,
need to save energy to do all those things
which need doing, like washing the dishes
and paying the electricity bills
and slicing cucumbers for salads

carpe diem, they say
I say, get your nets ready,
we’re a-going hunting,

carpe poem, I say
seize this poem
it’s under arrest
Published in The Diamond & the Thief – November 09
The Pink Coral War
By Lily Chan

The plane

On summer evenings mother slid the doors open to let the breeze in. Toyo soaked her feet in a tub of water and mother cleaned and patted each toe dry. The cicadas hummed a duet with mother who sang:

Otete tsunaide nomichi o yukeba    Holding hands, walking the garden path
Minna kawaii kotori ni naate       we become beautiful song birds
Uta ga utaeba kutsu ga naru        as we sing, our footsteps echo in the sky
Hareta misorani kutsu ga naru      in the swollen blue sky, the echo of our footsteps

Toyo loved her English class. Every day she eagerly waited for her teacher to arrive. She gazed at his flawless profile, the straight nose, determined chin. His eyebrows were as straight as his accent. Toyo and her friends were devastated when he left for an inter-district transfer. He was a handsome dream.

Then their English textbooks gathered dust.

The replacement teacher was old and fat and they called him Gut. He mopped a gleaming forehead with a handkerchief and spat out adjectives, verbs and nouns like cigarette butts. Sometimes she daydreamed that her handsome teacher returned to the school, greeting her with joy.

“Ah, Toyoko!” he’d exclaim. “I missed you!”

And then he’d swing her up into the sky with those intent dark eyes trained on her adoring face.

While humming a song Toyo watched a plane, gleaming black, dip down. The engine thrum reverberated in her ears. There were no bomb sirens. It was a Nippon plane.

Then the plane flew so close she could see the pilot’s face. His red skin, pointy nose, sunken eyes and the angles of his face were too sharp and strong to belong to any Japanese. She froze. Almost on top of her, the plane fired a detonating boom. The pilot’s eyes were light blue and intent, hunting for vulnerable parts of a city saturated with afternoon drowsiness.

Toyo wailed but could not hear her own voice over the engine thrum, tumbled on to the straw tatami mat, tried to bury herself into the floor. Like a big nosed metal dog the plane headed straight for her. She shut her eyes. The blackness seemed to take a form, a sound, enfold and shake her to bits, her ears packed full of sound.

Would it hurt to die like this, would it hurt, would it? The missile hit her as she screamed.

Her mother came home and found Toyo with marks of the tatami weave ingrained on her cheeks. She dropped the bags of shopping.

“What are you doing, Toyoko? You should have been in the bomb shelter.”

Red faced and puffy, the girl sat up. “I’m not dead?”

“The American hit a warehouse down the block. Fire engines are putting out the fire now.”

“I’m not dead!”

Concern and anger warred on her mother’s face.

“I told you to go to the bomb shelter! Now soak this rice in water. I walked a long way to get it.”

Toyo’s Boy who Loved Aeroplanes returned from the war on a stretcher with a bullet lodged in his spine. His mother no longer talked with Toyo’s mother. She scuttled from the shops to the hospital like a scroll of wood, curled over and ashen. When Toyo went to visit him she barely recognised the Boy who Loved Aeroplanes breathing in slow gasps, melting into the bed. His eyes were like two bruises in his face. His hands were still in the coffin, empty of flight.

In her dreams the American pilot’s face elongated into a gleeful rictus. He fired red bullets into her chest till she burst into flame.

Gotoretto (i)

When Toyo was nine years old her mother took her to Gotoretto for the first time. It appeared as a clump of rocks on the ocean’s horizon. Toyo could barely contain her excitement. She jiggled on her feet and leaned wide mouthed into the sea spray.

“Mother look! The waves, the waves!”

Mother’s home island came closer and closer, spinning into view like a lopsided discus. Toyo saw the men fishing in little round boats like wooden bowls. They hauled nets over brown shoulders, their faces wrinkled from the sea. They sliced the guts out of the silver undersides and laid the fish in rows. Fried fish, fish wrapped in leaves, fish soup, noodles in fish sauce, fish seasoned in soy sauce and sesame oil, fish with cucumber pickles.

The house where her mother had lived was small and clean. It did not smell of fish. A curtain of pink coral strings hung from the corner of the room.

“Look at this, Toyo,” Kayoko clasped a handful of hard pink granules, carved into tear drops and strung together. “My family dives into the sea to get this coral. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

The pink coral strings cascaded through Toyo’s fingers and made a musical clacking sound.

Toyo’s grandmother was a tiny woman, neat as a chestnut. Her eyes sparkled.

“Kayoko!” she called, wiping her hands on her apron.

Toyo had never met any of her relatives before, and mother never talked about them. Grandmother gave a little gasp when she saw Toyo and gathered her up in warm, soft arms.

“Oh!” She looked up at her daughter. “Why don’t you stay here, Kayoko? We have enough room. You should stay.”

Toyo wanted to stay. Grandma smelled like fresh linen.

Her mother smiled. “Okaa-san, we are Osaka folk now. We live in Osaka.”

Toyo discovered she had several cousins. They darted in and out of the room peering at her like she was an exhibit. She blushed and held her hands in her lap, twisting her fingers together. One cousin was a boy, taller and older than she was. He did not stare at her like she was an exhibit.

“Can you swim?” he asked.

She shook her head. He took her twisty hand and led her to the ocean.

“It’s easy. Watch me!”

He splashed into the waves like a fish, turning and diving until his skin gleamed. She watched him with awe. She rolled up her pant legs and waded in tentatively, feeling for sharp pebbles under her toes. Further out, the dark waves were clotted with seaweed and threatened to swallow her up. He dived under for so long that she was afraid he had drowned. She clenched her hands together. Then he emerged laughing, shaking the water from his dark hair, holding a clump of pink coral in his hand.

“This is for you, Toyo-chan!” he shouted.

Snakes & the Boy who Loved Aeroplanes

The boy who lived next door cycled past Toyo’s window every evening. His long legs turned the pedals and his hair flew in the wind. One day he turned his head and smiled at her as he sailed past. She almost fell over from the loveliness of his smile.

The boy who lived next door loved aeroplanes. His workshop was lined with cut-outs of aerodynamic bodies traced in paper, evolving into constructions of cardboard, wood, glue and nails with graceful wingspans. The aeroplanes hung from the ceilings in a sunshine world, rays of light casting shadows as they twirled.

Toyo watched his slender hands, his dark eyes bending over his desk, tracing lines on paper, and fell in love with the Boy who Loved Aeroplanes.

He went to the war dressed as smartly as a boy going to a new school, cap tilted jauntily, uniform immaculate, shoes shining. He saluted them from the train station with a grin. Toyo missed him. She listened to the radio every evening, twiddling the knob till the reporter’s crisp tones chopped through her room. The Japanese were always winning. Their planes and ships were the best in the world. Their soldiers were dedicated to driving away foreign vermin.

She imagined the red faced, hook nosed gaijin advancing in hordes, their eyes glittering like rats. The Japanese army swarmed through them in their neat black uniforms, and the Boy who Loved Aeroplanes led them all, brandishing the beloved flag. He shot down enemy planes as easily as a boy burnt ants through a magnifying glass. The world arched beneath him like a big blue cup.

She also dreamed of snakes. Snakes terrified her. Once Toyo had foraged for grass in an empty lot down the street for her pet rabbits. As she plucked grass a snake slid past her with its cold dead gaze and slippery scales layered on top of each other. She yelped and ran all the way home; her chest pounded inside her like a bomb. She never returned to the lot. Her pet rabbits were reduced to a diet of sparse sidewalk weeds and carrot tops. During the war the rabbits were reduced to rabbit soup.

Gotoretto (ii)

Toyo wrote long letters to her handsome cousin. She wrote to him about school, her friends, her favourite cake.

Mother disapproved of his gift.

“These coral pieces are expensive. He should sell them in Nagasaki to support the family. He must have liked you very much to give the pink coral to you.”

Toyo glowed. She polished the pink coral with an oiled cloth so it shone and would not discolour with age. It was the most beautiful gift she had ever received. She held it gingerly, reverently, lovingly.

One day mother received a letter from Gotoretto. Toyo’s handsome cousin had had an accident and was in hospital. Toyo imagined his body limp like a dead fish, his body split with pink flesh and shattered bones. She oiled the pink coral frantically as if it was him and the oil was the medicine that would make him better.

Her handsome cousin was never the same. Words spun out of his lips in indecipherable strings and then one day he stopped speaking.

The train

The bombs hit Osaka like rain.

The trains departed to country refuges like black slugs, fat with young children and suitcases. From her seat in the carriage Toyo saw mother’s face in the ocean of crying mothers, waving frantically. She sat next to her friend Yuki and clutched her lunchbox with its trays of pickles and rice balls. The train puffed and steamed and blew its whistle.

She waved goodbye at mother who grew smaller and smaller and disappeared, replaced by other stations, apartments, roads, the green hills and rice fields of the countryside, where farmers looked like gods with straw hat haloes and sun wrinkles, and further still where the trees were black skeletons encased in ice. She greeted the first snowflakes with joy, catching them through the window and watching them melt on her palms. The snow was beautiful until she shivered with cold.

When the train stopped, it regurgitated the horde of children. The matrons marched them to a Buddhist temple at the top of a hill; its empty spaces were lined with rows of thin mattresses. Toyo could not sleep. She stared into the black roof until the darkness sunk into her eyelids, and she flinched upwards with her hands and grasped at the blackness.

The snow fell and fell. During the day the Buddha was serene. At night he was menacing in his silence and the path to the toilets became an obstacle course past the outer temple where the monks stacked empty coffins. The path deterred many children to wet their beds instead. Rows of empty coffins waited hungrily for ghosts, corpses and small children with full bladders.

The children developed rashes in their armpits, chest, in between their legs, down their shins and knees and ankles. Lice lined their clothes like intricate beadwork. The girls spread out their blankets and mattresses and inspected the tiny white worms crawling through the fleece. The itching was incessant. At night Toyo woke every few minutes to crush some lice with her fingernails and flick them to the side.

At meal time the children waited in line for boiled rice and dried onion flakes floating in watery miso soup. As the days went by, they began to look less like children and more like stray cats. Their eyes darted from one serving to another, hunger sharpening their claws. If someone’s serving seemed bigger, that child was pushed and pinched for the rest of the afternoon. Toyo could feel her own claws growing in the long hours of the night as her stomach tried to eat itself. She knew that if she looked into the mirror she would see the glowing face of a cat, yellow and lean.

Gotoretto (iii)

Toyo wrote letters to her handsome cousin. She wrote about school, friends and her favourite cake. He sent her beautiful coral jewellery. He encouraged her to swim in the sea.

One day there was a storm and he drowned in the sea, his body lost forever among the dark seaweed clots.

The storm had swallowed him up.

A letter

The children dreamed of inori sushi, tempura udon, potato curry, pickles, rice, oranges, apples and grapes. Their stomachs did all the thinking.

Toyo wrote:

     Dear Mother.
     I hope you are well.
     Here, it is very cold and the snow is three feet high.
     Everyone has lice and it’s very itchy.
     They give us food but I always feel hungry and sometimes I eat the snow.
     So does Yuki.
     I hope to see you soon.

Love from Toyoko.

She slipped the letter up her sleeve. They marched in orderly rows to the school. No one wanted to be at the front. The walkers in front had to break the first layer of snow, feel it seep into their toes and ankles, past the flimsy cloth barrier of socks. All day their feet would sit in the wet socks, numb as ice cubes. Toyo and a gaggle of friends lagged behind. Toyo pretended to slip on the ice. The gaggle reached down to help her up.

“Come along girls. Now,” said the teacher sharply.

“We’re just helping Toyo; she slipped,” they chorused.

Toyo performed a stagger. The teacher turned her back and they struck: Operation Post Letter. Shielding Toyo with their bodies, they shuffled toward the post box and she slid the letter in. Then they ran to join the procession. The pilfered stamp licked on with a hungry tongue and sealed with thin fingers, the letter flew to Osaka on her yearning.

Three days later a bevy of women led by Toyo’s mother descended on the temple. Mother did not hug Toyo. She told Toyo to take off her clothes. The mothers undressed the children, boiled their clothes in huge vats and stirred the water periodically with long sticks. Lice eggs came bobbing up to the surface like sea froth. Their scalps were massaged with oils. Lice pinned, squirming, on the ends of needles and combs. Miso soup doled out with generous servings of rice.

Mother’s eyes were red, her mouth a thin line which wobbled at times, as if she was trying to press down sobs.

“I’m taking you home,” she said.