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Elephant Mountain This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.


In my backyard,
in a sleepy suburb west of Chicago,
I sit,
rocking forward and backward
in a springy copper chair,
fist curled around a sweating drink.
The sun looms overhead
and coaxes insects out of hiding,
who buzz around my head
like a halo.
A lone mosquito
breaks free of the swarm
and bites me, with a single
sharp prick.

With the welt rise memories
of a time
my skin was blanketed
with rosy spots
as I wandered
the slick slate pathways
of a Taiwanese mountain forest.

That morning
I climbed the tail
of Elephant Mountain
alone.
Walking upward
on the steep stairway
struggling
to draw a breath
in the humid air,
I admired the view
and fought with my lungs
to stay upright.

The city sat at my back,
sheathed in fog,
its buildings pointing
to my destination
higher
up the mountain,
deeper
into the forest.
Reaching the top,
the muted chirping of birds
stood in for the fanfare I craved.
Over my shoulder,
skyscrapers continued to gesture
while I walked further
across the Elephant’s back.

Enveloped by the greenery,
and with my lush surroundings,
multitudes
of stealthy tiger mosquitoes,
I felt a pull
back to my temporary home
where stopping
for a bowl of sugary cereal
wouldn’t be an invitation
for a blood transfusion.

Nearing the Elephant’s head
I walked behind hikers
who turned and gaped
at my polka-dotted skin.
Rapid syllables
flew from their mouths
into my deaf ears.
Cocking my head,
I repeated my well-worn phrase:
“Please,
speak very, very slowly.”

A laugh
like a delicate bell
came from within the group
from a petite, middle-aged woman
who stepped forward
and peered at my bites.
She introduced herself:
Smiley.
And greeted me to show
her English name
wasn’t an accident.

After hearing my pauses
as I racked my brain
for a forgotten vocabulary lesson
about meeting strangers
during a morning hike,
a silent shift to English
pricked me with a guilt
that was quickly drowned
by a wave of relief.

I understood
that I was welcome
to trek further into the forest
to a mountain garden
where their speedier friends
had begun brewing tea.
Calling upon my extensive Chinese
vocabulary,
I said, “Sure.”

I clambered up mossy stone
stairs after them
until a red corner
of their shelter came into
view.
Smiley went under the roof,
floating on four pillars,
and plunked down on a seat,
pulling me beside her
and presenting a container,
Pepto-Bismol pink,
of Tiger Balm
whose sharp scent felt like fire
in my nose,
but worked like witchcraft
on the mosquitoes’ little gifts.

Her friends scoffed at me
and I was handed a heap of shredded leaves.
One of the men
made a kindling motion
with the leaves between his palms
and I did likewise,
garnering a pool of sticky emerald juices
that I smeared on my arms and legs,
which left me feeling more like a piece of flypaper
than impervious to insects.

Quickly gulping a thimble
of earthy tea,
I was led around the garden,
past miniature curling shrimp flowers
and bunches of jade bananas
to a mesh square
around a small plant
that was feeding a caterpillar
she was raising to become
a butterfly.

After effortlessly stepping back
down the Elephant’s tail,
I found myself directionless
once again.
With the buildings rising around me
I wandered for no more than a minute
until I entered a store
and flexed my vocabulary
asking for directions to the train.
The store clerk paused,
no doubt searching for an English ­answer,
drumming her fingernails on the ­register
and staring
at the shelf of chocolate off to my side.
I felt a familiar feeling of guilt prod me,
but I brushed past it and said
I could understand
enough for her to explain,
but it would be nice
if she could “Please,
speak very, very
slowly.”

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.




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