Postcard: a desert sestina by Jennifer Zilm

Hey you!—this postcard, like every other, is just fragment
of a larger journey. Stepping over the threshold
of the plane, I entered this hot room
of a country. Seen entire the desert seems soft
but the sand is sharp to touch, like turning
hard snow with bare hands when I was a small girl.

Old city, feet scalded, I gave my cracked sandals to a girl
to mend the straps with leather. Each fragment
into the sole she cobbled, her hands fast turning
the shoe as she stitched, crippled father in the threshold
of their apartment, a huddle of darkness soft
at the border of their dark interior room.

Within the jumbled storefront there was barely room
for movement, a dim light bulb over the girl
shone out her smooth beige skin soft
as the leather in her hands, as though she herself was a fragment
of fabric, a spasm of ancient rubble, she spoke her price beyond the threshold
of my hearing. I tossed notes of pink and purple at her, turning

back into the walled city: narrow streets dense with men, turning
and twisting beside butcher-shops and blue worship places to my room.
Safe, in my ladies-only hostel, the sign above the threshold
promised respite—semi-private—but on the lower bunk a girl
who spoke a language neither mine nor the city’s, only a fragment
of English when I showed her my transformed sandals: ‘soft

—like a mantra she said it, the back of her tongue against her soft
palate as though her alien mouth enjoyed the slow turning
of sibilants and fricatives, as though the word itself was a fragment
of a great puzzle that would connect us: me and my room-
mate, my companion of chance and accident, the bewildering girl
smiling, as though any moment the threshold

of touching she might violate, as though the threshold
I had crossed was read as an invitation, soft,
to strange lovemaking, some continental girl-on-girl.
How easy it is—in a desert place—to mistake the innocent turning
of a doorknob, the entrance of a stranger into a shared room,
you must understand, travelling alone you are just a fragment

of your native self: your body, sunburnt dusty, is the threshold turning
your resolve soft as her hands on my hungry wrists in that room
—I mean really wish you were her: this strange girl
.           touching this tired fragment.

Copyright © Jennifer Zilm. Originally published in The Missing Field (Guernica Editions, 2018).

Jennifer Zilmis the author of Waiting Room (Book*hug, 2016) and The Missing Field (Guernica, 2018). She lives in Vancouver and works in public libraries. She is a failed Bible scholar and still sometimes thinks about joining a cult. In 2014 her favourite words were fragment, soft, threshold, girl, room and turning. Find Jennifer on Instagram & Twitter

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