Losing Words

Losing Words

A. Sirena


Chiku’s jaw is made of flowers. Her flowers—plumerias and mai’anas, braided into ti leaves, her favorite maskaran mwarmwar thus far—are the reason why National Geographic is on the phone speaking to her husband. International calls are expensive, so Pete keeps it short. Chiku nods, signaling Pete to agree to her being featured in the magazine’s 1970 July issue. He asks for the date before hanging up.

When Chiku began wearing the maskaran mwarmwar along her face, kids mocked her. To establish her existence, to fight becoming a myth of “the jawless lady,” she riddled the villages with constant reminders of her presence. She frequented the village grocery stores. Any free time she found during post-harvest seasons, she spent in the island library, reading in a chair next to the circulation desk. Every now and then, Chiku saw young women wearing maskaran mwarmwars around their mouths. She paid them no attention until she realized one day that she saw several people wearing her jaw. She went to the grocery store and saw plastic mwarmwars hanging near the cash register, but they were called “flower facelets.”

Chiku soon saw herself everywhere. On the lawns of the island university. On local billboard ads. In Cosmo magazine. Even on an episode of I Dream of Jeannie, when Jeannie took a trip to Hawaii. Chiku decided she was glad the trend was called flower facelets. The words signified an impermanence, a temporary existence. If any other woman wanted to, she could take off her plastic flowers and still be her. “Maskaran mwarmwar” loosely translated to “facial flower crown,” but a mwarmwar was hardly a crown, hardly an object so separate. Like every island woman, Chiku braided herself into the leaves with each fresh, fragile flower.

Chiku agrees to National Geographic because, with the flower facelet trend spreading like religion or an infectious disease, she feels herself disappearing. But she cannot visit every grocery store on the island or in America. She cannot sit in every library in the world.

The day comes. The magazine wants to shoot next to the island’s famous hot springs, only the photographer has no clue where it is. Chiku drives them, the photographer and her daughter, to the springs in her truck. An hour into the shoot, Chiku and the photographer are taking a break because the arches of Chiku’s feet are almost burned from standing barefoot by the geysers. The photographer stands near the beach shores. He stares through his camera for angles against the horizon. Chiku sits in her truck parked along the road next to the underground hot springs.

The red of a petticoat dress thrown into a plastic bag in the back seat catches Chiku’s attention from the truck’s rearview mirror. When the photographer arrived at her home earlier that day, Chiku was ready. She found the red dress, adorned with a white collar and three white buttons running down the center to her waist, at the commissary a few weeks before. The dress went perfectly with her favorite white kitten heels she wore for mass only during Christmas and Easter. She prayed God might forgive her for wearing them today. But before Chiku could change, the photographer handed her a black tote containing a coconut bra and a grass skirt. “Wear this,” he told her, so she did. Chiku takes the moment now, removed in her truck, to scratch her thigh beneath the cheap and itchy leaves. She hates grass skirts.

She returns from her break with the dress folded into a nice square and her white kitten heels. His back facing her, the photographer still searches for the right angle. She snaps her fingers to get his attention. He lazily turns around. She holds out her dress, her heels sitting nicely on top. He looks at the clothes for a moment, nods, and says, “Those are nice.” He continues looking through his lens.

Chiku, not quite defeated, searches for her daughter, Fina. Fina plays near the bottom of a cliff where pools of water collect into concave rocks. Chiku snaps her fingers and points at the clothes. Her daughter nods and walks with her mother to the photographer.

“Mister,” says Fina, “my mom doesn’t want to wear this skirt anymore.”

Chiku holds out the clothes once again.

The photographer grunts. He looks through his lens again. “It’s traditional. Looks better in the magazine.”

Fina tugs on his shirt. He puts his camera down once more.

“She wants to wear these clothes,” she says. Chiku, arms still extended, leans closer to him.

“That’s too modern for this piece,” he says. He turns back to the horizon.

“That skirt isn’t even Chamoru,” says the girl. “They’re Hawaiian.”

“Look, kid,” he says, staring at the sea. “No one really cares.”

Chiku’s arms dropped. After a few waves crash against the shore, she hands her clothes to her daughter and points to the truck. Fina obeys her mother, putting the clothes away before she goes back to playing in miniature oceans.

They begin shooting again. Chiku fights the urge to remove the mwarmwar, to reveal the row of teeth lining the centered bottom of her face, the raw hole of her saliva-coated esophagus and the muscled tongue that, when resting, lays limp against her throat. Instead, Chiku poses in whatever position the photographer requests.

Chiku receives the magazine a year later. The woman on the cover looks like her, jawless, grass skirt and all, but she is not Chiku. The pictured woman appears lost. She looks like someone afraid of being lost. Chiku isn’t afraid of anything. That woman is horrified. That left hand appears to cradle that cheek and everyone’s flower facelet. That woman doesn’t seem to be looking for the rest of her face but for someone else entirely. National Geographic titles the feature “Woman of the Flower Facelets.”

Chiku scratches her thigh. She rips the magazine and feeds that woman to her goats.

A. Sirena is a Chamoru-American currently residing in the heart of shrimp and grits country. She was a finalist for Black Warrior Review's 2018 Flash Prose contest. When she's not writing or reading, she spends her time giving belly rubs to her cat, Mojo.

Illustration by Meghan Irwin.

The Parents

The Parents

To Lose a Jaw

To Lose a Jaw