The Sea at Tamsui


I was in a bathroom once, contemplating private truth. Thinking in truth
of another’s body, his skin on this same surface and his skin itself a surface
that contains in one place all the atoms and scars of which he is made.
The strip light above streamed white, and fluorescence crackled like the fingers
of a laboratory skeleton in a silent horror flick. I thought of all that lies 
unspoken within any one of us.

Electricity is not true like day, and it kills
the nature of the night. But the phosphorescent presence of its current
is a hidden truth.


At Longshan Temple, in February, I threw red wooden fortune blocks,
the shape of kidney beans but chipped like children’s painted toys, broken
by their ceaseless cartwheel claps at pilgrims’ feet. At the first altar, I prayed
for my ageing marriage, and at the second, for stability. At the final altar, I laid
white jasmine petals bought at the gate. Incense like the smell of dusk pressed
into my dress.  Folding bodies touched me and I contemplated private truth
—the right of the soul to wander on the terms of its choosing. 

I rose from prayer and a young Canadian woman with four red studs symmetrically
piercing her lips invited me to the sea.  Her fingers smelled like jasmine

and her name was the same as my daughter’s. 


In fortune-teller alley, on our way to the sea at Tamsui, a man in a purple nylon
tracksuit touched the inside of my wrist.  His red string fingers crimped like beaks

and his magnified eyes, caged behind silver wire frames, crawled

into the dark of mine.

‘A piece of you is reaching for another life.’

 The jasmine-fingered girl curved her eyes at me, tongued the studs inside her lips
and stepped away.  The hawker breathed and crimson betel bled

in the fissures of his teeth. He shrugged at my smile. 

‘Your belief makes no difference. It is a muslin papered husk unneeded by the seed.’ 

I shrugged at his smile,
at the purple nylon static shocking at my veins,  at the betel cracks of his jaw,
blackening now, even as I thought of you,  my first encounter with you and how the
wood-striped building walls clapped behind your form like organ pipes swelling tall,
untapering and filling slowly, as if with blood or sound,   the reeded sound of breath
disturbing night, a low chord  of rain and mass un-requiemed—the unseen,
unacknowledged, undoing of my death.


Justine Whitfield comes from Porirua and now lives in Nelson. Her writing has appeared in Pantograph Punch, Headland Journal, Kiss Me Hardy, the Nelson Arts Festival and an anthology of essays from Landfall.