Back to Issue Forty-Five

On Marriage


Next to the window
in the kitchen, my mother thins
my hair into a bun

of smoke, smears cooking oil
under my eyes. In this home
we aren’t supposed to be beautiful,

just enough. With longing
fingers, I trace her small self,
her figure sagging

in a thin cotton slip, instead
of looking at my own body. I’m scared
of understanding what I have become.

Long ago, I would watch
my mother undress and dress
every morning

while I thought about
what a woman must hold beyond
her burka, what part of the body

remains with her. She never stopped me
from looking but also never told me
why red pools

between our thighs each month,
why we needed to stay
home while my father ran

barefoot in the rain.
In the end, we are daughters
who know

only what our mothers have taught
us. We step
into our black burkas:

in front of men, our bodies
are drenched in silk, blooming
and ancient. For the first time, I leave

the kitchen, my mother coiling close behind
to meet the gaze of my father. Before this
I have seen him twice, from a distance.

Behind my back my fingers
scrabble. I want to touch
the knuckles of the man

who made me, but I am simply
an investment, rupees given
for my leaving. I wonder

how long daughter has meant
dowry. And another man, I name him
husband: yellow-toothed, dark

skin like mine. When I leave
to go home
with him, he puts a finger over

my shut mouth, as if checking
for a pulse. My mouth
is not mine anymore.

It is a door unworthy of opening.
There is a reason why
women in our family have never learned

the word in our language for love,
only the word for listen.

Sarah Fathima Mohammed, daughter of Indian Muslim immigrants, is the 2021-22 National Student Poet of the West, the nation’s highest honor for youth poets, and the 2022-23 Vice Youth Poet Laureate of Santa Clara County. She has been honored for her poetry at the White House and has performed at PBS’s Poetry in America, Carnegie Hall, and the San Francisco Opera House. Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Cream City Review, Rattle, and wildness. She was born in 2005.

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