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It’s not about knowing
the right words to say.

Memories have permanence,
tattooed anchors.

Our dearly departed live

in cooking smells,
in the iridescence of abalone shells,
in knotted nets.

If we are careful,
patient and persistent,
we can tell the dead:

“Thank you” or “I miss you.”

I heard only silence

until my grandmother,
who drowned six years earlier,

spoke one simple word
through the hiss of searing fish:

Sail.

When I failed to make the spring’s crew
I cried a hurricane.

My tears flooded the docks,
washed the fishermen away.

Before I could sink, the captain tossed
a lifeline.

“None of this will matter when you are old.”

It never occurred to me that
seventeen was not forever.

Winds die. Horizons end.

If I were a sailor, I’d be the lonely type.

My letters home sealed in
empty rum bottles.

If I were a sailor, I’d surf on waves,
hanging on to sly mermaids.

If I were a sailor, I’d sing:

Tick tock goes the clock.
The night is old,
the wet air cold.
No more time for doubt,
the sun is set and gone.
Distant shores roll up,

I sail on and on and on.

They say you can’t choose
family,

but anyone who has turned themselves
out to tide knows better.

When my brother enlisted, I replaced him.
When my parents weren’t home, I left.

I found a man at the pier and called him husband.
I saw a woman swimming alone and named her wife.

Little cats and ship rats make excellent children.
They eat home cooked dinners and keep their ears clean.

My new family never asks
who and where and why.

We sway. We light
bonfires on shifting dunes of sand.

Ship shape,
first mate,
I’m sailing,
I’m sailing.

Hard gale,
fantail,
I’m bailing,
I’m bailing.

Scud dash,
rock crash,
I’m praying,
I’m praying.

Slick deck,
keel wreck.

All souls lost at sea.

When we seek our ancestors
we bring touchstones;

beloved belongings     rope
past to present.

We bake bread, we place
flaming pyres on unsettled waters.

My grandmother came from a far away land.
Her stories were oceans of brine and grass.

She worked in the kitchens of her landlord,
slept in hay,
sang on the shore.

If I were a sailor,
I would build a ship to travel time,

to feel the same salty winds that
swept her hair, taught her the secrets of

speaking with the dead.



Kathryn Allan is an academic editor, independent scholar, and writer. She is co-editor (with Djibril al-Ayad) of Accessing the Future (a disability-themed SF anthology), editor of Disability in Science Fiction, and the inaugural recipient of the Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction Fellowship.
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