- Sun Perch
It is late, but outside the night is glowing with snow & streetlight, quiet but for the occasional growl & skid of the plows. Winter, Syracuse, where the feinting snow fusses & scatters until it collapses roofs & power lines. And now sitting in that gauzy light, nothing but the sounds of sleep, my son's cublike snore, I am reminded that most of my childhood was spent walking in another city, alone, a boy who knew evenings only by the gradual blackening behind buildings, electric poles humming like bugs, from the street curb hearing the clink of dishes, chuckles of supper, a fish staring blankly at me from the center of a round plate rimmed with almond-eyed bluebirds—wings extended, midflap—the fish, perhaps lightly steamed, then wok fried, charred along the belly, fins crisped, mouth open from its last breath, fossilized in a reduction of fish sauce & honey—next to the plate, a bowl of steamed rice. I sat at the table waiting, not knowing how to eat the fish or rice with chopsticks, smiling as best I could while in Vietnamese John explained to his parents how I lived three blocks away, that I had been home alone for days. His father looked at me as he left the kitchen, wearing the shirt of a machinist, "Paul" stitched above the right pocket. Later, I would learn he worked three jobs, and on his only day off, Sunday, after mass, he would drive his family to some faraway lake outside the city, where they would reel in sun perch & net them boatside. As I sat at the table, smells of cooking oil & aromatics fading, John translated for his mother who asked me to spend the night, and I said no thank you, smiled, and walked home to whatever misfortune awaited in that dark house, where the plumbing was empty, my bed a palette of blankets on the living room floor. I said no, not out of shame but because I wanted to lie down and remember how I used my fingers to scrape flesh off bones—skin tearing with it—how I trembled when I was asked to eat the eyes, fins, & tail. I remember now, how my wife once looked at me in the throes of labor, how she gripped my hand when the pain ruptured up, and how through it all, [End Page 45] behind the brown webbing of her pupils, there was gentleness. When our son finally came, he could not breathe, he was blue, motionless. I remember the midwife rushing him off, and minutes later hearing a gasping bawl. I didn't know what I saw, as my son shivered, hands gnarled, locked in cry, still blind from birth, breathing underneath a plastic dome. When I think of it now—the drive to that faraway lake, my first catch flopping in the boat, and later jerking the hook from its mouth—the perch must have been surprised at the sudden uselessness of its gills, and as I watched it gasp helplessly against the hull of the boat, I wished what all boys wish for, a way of remembering how air rushes from your body after being socked in the gut, to sit in the dark, alone, when streetlight is just enough for a boy to make shapes with his hands, a play made of light, light made of snow. [End Page 46]
Santee Frazier is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. He is the recipient of a Syracuse University Fellowship, a Lannan Foundation Residency Fellowship, and the School for Advanced Research Indigenous Writer in Residence Fellowship. His poems have appeared in American Poet, Narrative, Ontario Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. His first collection of poems is Dark Thirty (U of Arizona P).