When the Mouth Closes
The room is a mouth
our dark body breathes high
in the sky. An oily,
Ilish’s pristine body slides
through wet clouds.
She smiles at us. Black wind washes
salt from scale, from the muddy bottom.
We gather around the tongue: my father,
Cousin Deepa, the ruby jeweler, and his
wife, prim on the molars.
Their daughter, Amrita, hangs from the uvula.
Pouts, fashion school, New
York, San Francisco. Pouts, me.
Now. Beautiful. Her mother nods,
pets her river white. Wine
tilts glasses. Whiskey trembles.
Cousin Deepa, suddenly girlish:
Oh, baaaabaaa! Her vowels
long as slits, her mouth
open as the sun. Alone,
without the married couple,
daughter in this room,
she said, Baby. Sad. Pressure.
Dark. Her light, low. A row of skin-
bleaching creams shepherding the dust
behind her, I wanted to say,
Counted days. Six pillows.
I wanted to hand her woman
words. Sleek. Full
Deepa’s mouth closed, green
as a bottle gourd. I felt
the ruined scalp,
the gut that bleeds
quietly in corners.
Ocean swelled between us.
A tangle of moldy decades
bobbed the surface.
Bengali wells up from the street far below us, floods the throat,
grabs our ankles, rattles the teeth. Amrita swims fast
to the safety of her mother. Who are they? I ask,
peering out the front of the mouth, watching signs and the feet of
innumerable people wetting the streets. What are they saying?
All maids, Deepa explains, calm, watching
the water gag down the throat. My father sits secure,
silent, on a wisdom tooth. Deepa strokes the tongue.
Glares at a hard empty kitchen, the not-swept-today
floors. They’re drivers too, she adds, her wrist flicks
crumbs from the taste buds. Rubbish.
The ruby jeweler and his wife cackle.
The molars ache. My tuning fork reaches
over the mouth’s loose incisors for
so many feet pounding Kolkata’s July streets.
I turn, hold the fork to the molars, vibrating.
I want the demonstrators’ words, but
cousins, soft-lipped, are not good translators,
and my molars only understand English.
Who are you to hook these bowels?
Will you string them up? Hang them
from ocean views in Honolulu?
Lose them on a loose-knuckled breeze?
Ilish flashes behind dark clouds. Her words
gut. Gums shift, recede. I wonder
what will happen when the mouth closes.
The voices from the street subside,
We swallow Chinese food spread
out across the tongue’s midline groove. Because,
no one to cook the prawns, the
banana flower stuck in the
icebox, browning. My father shooed
from the kitchen.
Amrita’s body says 17, says
plump, says thin, says
run-on hair and silver skin and bright
young-young thing. It says
only child. Amrita’s mother teases,
you never eat veggies. Amrita
snaps: Just not your shitty
Amrita licks the tongue.
Glands flush. Vessels thicken.
Amrita’s father, the ruby
jeweler, fingers the stones
on his wrist. He looks
across the tongue
at the round of his
He whispers to my ribs:
It’s nice, he says,
that she has stayed so fit.
Saliva steeps us all,
soaks skirts and pant legs,
rolls toward the lips, where I lean
toward the silver back of the
It is not Ilish’s time to kiss the river
mouth, not yet time for
that ancestral pull, when the
full belly of unborn will
call her home.
I watch Ilish in the sky
gleam in blackness, flicker behind
crooked clouds, anguish when she
vanishes, at last, in the
moon’s oceanic mouth.
I am curling around
a canine, tracing the line
of river to ocean beneath us, waiting,
when her voice, again, dislodges
When will you leap from those lips?
Or, will you plunder the body’s dark throat
Ilish is an anadromous fish popular in South Asia. Bengali Hindus prepare it on puja days, particularly to offer to the goddess Lakshmi.
Anjoli Roy writes creative nonfiction, fiction, and (rarely) poetry. Her recent work has been published in Kweli: Truth from the Diaspora's Boldest Voices, Frontier Psychiatrist, and Fiction365. She is pursuing her PhD in English and creative writing at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Her web site is www.anjoliroy.com.