the girls of harbin

by Xiao Yue Shan

they call them northern lilacs, winter beauties. they say coralhawberry
cheeks in nomadic january, that between the baroque quarters
of songhua river you can see the small hem of a gold-brocade cashmere
kissing the ice-crushed curb. they say in harbin, you can watch
girls just walk, forever. that she sweeps through the city
and the streets make music against her body. in heilongjiang, the days
are so short for so long, but the light loves the skin it lands on—
seemingly staying for awhile, breathlessly frosting,
hinting of water, before washing itself away. they say the further north
the further you are from heaven. and maybe that’s why the girls here
are milk-bathed, long-necked, loudly laughing, shaking out their hair
from glazed-shell pins, looking at you that way. no matter where
they are, they’re thirsty for a winter that blurs the edges of when
their shoulders meet the air, pale as horizon. they say when russia came
with its railroads and cathedrals and black bread, it was
girls with whom they drank vodka from porcelain bowls, tearing
red sausage teeth-first from coal-charred steel, girls with eyes
and lips satin as rice paper, girls measured with peaches,
girls who were daughters of refugees and criminals and girls who knew
the needlepoint of new snow against raw fingertips, combing through
the land, knitted with ice like lacework, for something, oh, anything
to eat. it is because the winter-earth has been thawed by blood, here,
that they say you will never hurt a girl from harbin. that she wears honey
on her breath but doesn’t talk sweet. that she’ll break a window
before she opens a door. that she eats ice cream in the dead of december,
licking a black sesame drip from a bare wrist. girls in harbin know to never
complain about the cold. they press it to their chests as a bouquet
of bluebells. or a blade under the sleeve. and through shuangcheng
to yilan you don’t get tired of watching girls walk. the winter chrysalis
shedding in mid-may turns the day orange, dripping tangerine, and
you’ll see them in their thigh-skimming skirts, lips just-bitten red,
throwing a sudden black braid over the shoulder, tossing easy
a wind that always blows northward, disrupting the timid spring day
like a wild peony bursting, breaking the bud with one flick of a silken skirt.