Ina Cariño

with scrimshaw-handled comb,

double-sided butterfly, mama tends

to my hair — rakes fine-toothed wood

scarlet across my scalp, its spine

carved with peonies dappled gold.

the instrument glides easy enough

through oil-slicked locks, to sift

kuto: head lice, scourge of parents,

of every grade-school classroom.

it is a collaborative effort, slow

hunt shared in swathes of sun

streaming past ikat curtains.

we count crawling parasites.

we pick the eggs with thumbnails,

liquid bug bodies still unformed.

edge pressed to keratin edge —

pop! — until the sacs burst & spray.

tiny teardrops, harmless.

sometimes, there is blood.

soon our lunar cuticles are dotted

with my own wet crimson.


I want to smear the same ruby shade

on my lips, jewel-chintz glinting

even at night. I want to click

down stairs, down sidewalks —

heels four inches high & cigarette-thin.

mama says I’m too young.

I still reek of playgrounds

at dusk, still rub heads with kids

whose kili-kili drip sweat

from scampering down alleyways,

past neighborhood sari-sari stores,

their cheap wares beckoning:

berry-colored Chinese Haw Flakes,

homemade lychee ice pops,

bags of chicharron for soaking

in suka at sili. my mouth

still withers pula, raisin-like

after sucking on the last

soggy pork rind — acid lifting skin,

edges curled. I suck & suck:

little louse puckering.


mama says I’ll bleed soon.

nights, before bed, we read chapters

from a book naming things

that sound celestial —

cervix, vulva. labia majora.

she points on a diagram to a nub

in the middle, above an opening —

small guava pip waiting to grow.

I tell her I’m not afraid of red.

I’d skinned my knees before, felt plenty

strong when punched square in the gut

after calling a boy bobo, pangit.

putangina mo, he’d said, your mother

is a whore — & his fist hit swift,

trying to go straight through me.

I didn’t even buckle. mama laughs,

whispers, women bleed together. no secret:

but I feel myself untethering, just as cord

was cut from womb — curse passed

down from daughter to daughter,

to daughter       to daughter.


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