Checked By Mate

-Yena Sharma Purmasir, Swarthmore ’14

My grandfather did not play chess
because that board looked too much like home.
The pieces come in black and white
and the squares taste like the streets of America
but underneath the instructions lies the warm
breath of India that has always been
just beyond my epidermis.
I never wanted to smell like spices and herbs
but I carried the culture of my ancestors in the hollow of my throat.
Somewhere between learning how to braid my hair
and jingling my bangles, I forgot the stories of the old kings
and queens. These elbows point to the world
because when my women did not have knives,
they learned to fight with their bones.
Some history is lost in translation but the rest is locked
inside our genome.

I do not know who to call mine
because this world always seems to belong to someone
else. My grandfather did not pour his blood into this soil
but he held his life in the dirt of his skin. Maybe it’s easier for men;
I drop my life into this country, hoping to make this taste
like home. I am not afraid to be white-washed into freedom
just like I was not afraid to be dyed
red brown, in the blood of the forefathers
who mean nothing to me in the Atlantic.

My grandfather is not a hero but I have folded the sound of his name
into my heart to keep him for always. I live in Queens
but America has taught me to hang portraits of kings
on my mantle piece. I carry my father’s photograph in my wallet
because every daughter wants to remember
the lines on her father’s face. The distance between my father,
my grandfather transcends the universe
but I like to hug my mother before bed,
if only to remind myself that we are still together.
My navel is my life scar but I have seen my mark stretched across
her stomach. They photograph ethnic women carrying water
on their heads but I am more amazed by women carrying
their children after birth.

In my stories, I have never been brave enough to call my mother
my queen but she has let me play princess
even as I slide into adulthood. The whole world can call me beautiful
but no one will mean it like she does. My mother has fought for my beauty,
lifted my skin color off the ground and offered it to our gods.
I am the first born who was not a son
but my mother does not hold my gender
in the same breath as her love. I am the baby girl
who had to learn to work with tools. Her friends
have girls who can cook but she says that she is mother
enough to feed us.

There are two colors on a chessboard
but the only one I can see is the faint pink
of my femininity. The me on that board has nothing to do
with India or America. Border lines are drawn on maps,
on boards but not on people. My skin is dark
but only because I have been burned by the fire
of the sun. Let that star be masculine,
adopt him and call him yours. You cannot look to his light
but the moon will shine where he cannot.
You do not have to ask but she will follow you home,
watch you sleep, love you
for all the times the sun cannot.

Royalty is nothing in the 21st century
but we pretend to know how to be part of that court.
My history books tell me women were quiet
even when they owned crowns. My teachers tell me
they were beautiful and weak
and soft. Women are always soft
because everything about our bones has curved
into a sphere of fertility.
Men wish to feel the dips of our frames
but I have seen others trace the sharpness of the queen.
Kings have seen men die but do not ask them
to watch their wives pass.
Maybe he had to guard the people,
but she had to guard his heart.

My grandfather did not play chess
but he was as useless as any losing king
the day his wife died.