Two Poems, Chrysalis | by ren hlao



the way border functions

we are inebriated the way
ambitions are, in the backyard—

mom and i. we grew and grew
outward like thickets

through the seasons we had spent
apart. my iris, all oilslick, tracks a raccoon that walks awkward

into the periphery, rabid and philosophical. we turn
since we are predators. we’re evenings;

all even. even now. never
say anything about that particular decade of red wine, never say

anything about red faces, anything about regretted adoptions. on
the east coast, soil hardens how personalities do. a tiny totem

sunk itself
beneath my spine when i was lifted, burdensome

and slop-soaked, into the new world. i try not
to lurch how domestication works, now.

mom mentions the length
of my hair as i stuff

an old hat rich like europe, turn
desperately to face her.



     The only collective house left in the city was sober. The kids living there were tired of roommates with rampant heroin addictions. They were clean with the kind of moral superiority that digs trenches within any community. They shied away from epidemics.

     The house was fine enough, the door had been kicked in by various swat teams during drug raids and probation violations relating to previous occupants, but now the place was quiet. The house leaned to the left, the bottom corners of the windows were loose and let the winter air into all the rooms.

     It was eight o’clock in the morning. The occupants moved as one. They move the sectional couches in the basement around in the shape of a pentagram. They play the floor like bagpipes with the chairs. They peel carrots in a swollen kitchen full of rain. Marcela had lived there for the last sixth months. She was an alcoholic, she would wake up shaking like a corroded muffler. Her roommates wondered why she was always so cold, why she never ate cereal, or paid in change. They move like drips of water, they trip over the dog and it plays dead bug.

     Around the house, Marcela only drank out of cups with lids. Once, she had spilled a mug of coffee onto the cigarette-burned couch cushions. The roommates looked up at her from their game of spades on the bedroom floor. They opened heaven. 

     Marcela walks to Kitty’s Bar and Packaged Goods down the street on Greenmount Avenue. Her pale skin clung to her bones like a noose to a neck. She was unsteady when she walked, her knees and ankles ready to collapse with the slightest vibration of the atmosphere. Her black hair was tattered, thin for someone in their twenties. Her nose had been broken multiple times from repeated sidewalk blackouts or shit-talkings. It was cocked so far to the left she could smell her ear. 

     Kitty’s was the only place in the city that served alcohol to-go on Sunday’s. The building was mashed in-between two taller ones on either side, both sold cheap, used suits. The sales associates were busy on Sunday mornings tending to the disingenuous catholics of east Baltimore. The neon sign was broken and the clear bulbs had been stained brown by decades of cigarette smoke from people standing underneath it day and night. The yellow paint of the exterior was pockmarked with bullet holes of various calibers. 

     Marcela walked up to the counter. There was a man in front arguing with Kamal, the cashier. Marcela recognized him as Dashawn from up the block. One of the older residents in the area. He drank all day, sometimes sold heroin. He lived up the block in a dilapidated rowhome where the formstone was constantly peeling off and falling into the sidewalk. Marcela remembered how she used to pick up the chunks and throw them at the lines of rats on her way to high school.

     The veins in Dashawn’s forehead were trying to tear themselves from his skin. When his mouth moved, the dandruff from his short, gray hair fell onto his slim shoulders. Marcela could see his collarbones protruding out when he arched his back, raising his hands above his head then bringing them down upon the scratched glass countertop. 

     Kamal had seen worse men than Dashawn. In the seventies, when the Shah was losing his grip on the country, Kamal fled Iran with the last of the doves. Dogs roamed the streets for years afterward, liberating the corpses of evil spirits. He watched the thick skin of Dashawn’s dark hands crack upon the counter in front of him. 

     Marcela put her forty-ounce of Olde English down on the counter next to Dashawn’s erratic body movements. Dashawn cocked his neck back and spit into Kamal’s open mouth. Kamal vaulted the counter like an inner-city olympian and grabbed Marcela’s bottle in one fluid motion. Before his feet touched the tile floor, slick with spilled beer and discarded gobs of chew, he brought the bottle hard down onto Dashawn’s face. The glass splintered off in all directions. Dashawn’s cheek opened like a border. Marcela could see inside of him. She could see his yellow teeth through the fissure. The edges were thick and vulnerable, smooth like cells forming. Blood was all over. On her lips, around the collar of her yellow sweatshirt, on the gloves of the police rushing the door, on Kamal’s gold wedding band. Dashawn was on his knees trying to hold his face together.        

      Marcela pushed through the crowd and put her hands on Dashawn’s shivering cheek. She peeled back the bloody flaps and wiped away the mess. She took off her shoes and stuck her foot through the wound. Then the other. Soon she had fit herself to the chest. She slid her way deeper down Dashawn’s throat. Soon she was standing on the floor of his stomach, she got on her toes and stretched up towards the wound. She reached out and pulled the flaps inward, closing the pinhole of light above her. She pushed deeper until her feet protruded into the bottom of Dashawn’s sagging pants. She kicked her way out of the colon and slid down his pant-leg onto the cold floor. She dried herself off with the bloody rag Kamal was cleaning his hands with. She stepped out onto the sidewalk and walked home.

     Her roommates were playing spades on the kitchen floor. There was a pot of tea on the counter. They had made the tea too dark. They walked into the bathroom and drowned the bathtub by filling its mouth. Later, they order food but never pick it up. Instead they drive to Assateague Island and get bit by the horses. They walk onto the sand where two eagles tear the flesh from a fox carcass. They are truant at work, they destabilize and mutate. They take bites of rain clouds. They spoil. 



ren hlao grew up outside of baltimore, maryland. their work has appeared in online and print publications including Homestead Review, White Stag Publishing, and Dangerous Constellations Journal. they live in san diego, california with their partner and four dogs.

(“little god; you open” has been printed in Glittermob Issue 13, “the way the border functions” in Spring/Winter ’19 of Sycamore Review, and “Chrysalis” in Fiction International‘s “Body”)

Posted In: