By Vandana Khanna

March 13, 2023


On weekends, my mother would sit me down between her legs in the tight space of our back patio and teach me about control. It was the only free time she had between work and looking after me, my brother, and my sick father. Untangling the mess of my hair, she’d quiz me for my weekly spelling test. In the abundant sun of early fall, we’d sit on old towels, and she would begin.

With the first words, ambulance, accidental, adversity—the soft pads of her fingers would rub coconut oil into my temples, moving in strong circles to reach under the thick curtain of wiry strands. Every wince of the plastic comb’s teeth snagging on a knot, reminded me what the word arduous felt like.

My mother wanted order wherever there was wildness. It was the same with words. She’d make me break them up into two and three syllables, manageable units that she insisted I repeat. The sound of them in my mouth like some kind of ancient prayer, my tongue shaping them against my teeth until ambition slid easily into atonement like I’d been saying these words forever.

This was how she made sense of the world—standing in her parents’ garden half a world away, practicing the words that would one day bring her to America. While bees made lazy halos around us, she’d pull and coax until the unruly accomplice of my hair reached an accord, finally becoming a smooth river in her hands.


Vandana Khanna’s third collection of poetry, Burning Like Her Own Planet, is forthcoming from Alice James Books in 2023. Her poems have won the Crab Orchard Review First Book Prize, The Miller Williams Poetry Prize, and the Diode Editions Chapbook Competition.


Image by Ben courtesy of Adobe Stock


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