LOUISIANA PURCHASE EXPOSITION, ST. LOUIS, 1904

You made us eat dog
so moms with giant feathers in their hats
could point to us and exclaim
to their astonished kids,
“Look at how these savages live!”
At the edge of our enclosure families
glanced at guidebooks you wrote
and whispered, wide-eyed,
Head hunters! – their mouths
agape with fascination.

Our forty-seven acre reservation
brought in more revenue than anything
else at the fair, even with all
the hot dogs and ice cream cones,
forty brands of ketchup on display,
ferris wheel, carousel, dirigible,
dinosaur bones, trains, and a funhouse
where fairgoers could visit “Hell.”
There was noise everywhere
from marching bands, barkers,
throngs of people. I missed
the highlands of Bontoc,
the mists and green slopes,
the quiet, and the scent of pine.

Two of us died on the way here,
frozen in the boxcar you failed to heat.
Some got beriberi, smallpox, pneumonia.
No one at the fairground asked if we were cold –
instead, they complained we were half-naked.
You people were so ill-at-ease
with your own bodies, so unlike us,
so afraid of your humanity.

You made us dance in our loincloths
several times a day and compete
in unfamiliar games we couldn’t help but lose.
Outwardly we smiled at you, but inside:
a swirling pool of shame, the surface
rippling with each stare, the depths
a dark and secret muck
embedding our despair.

You measured our skulls
to prove we were stupider.
I only learned later
you conspired to collect them
and take our brains after we died.
You knew, you anticipated,
that some of us would die,
and you felt entitled to dispose
of us as you wanted, without asking,
a femur here, a calvarium there.
Our bodies didn’t matter. You treated us
like dogs, consuming us, so even in death
I was still in a zoo, exposed,
my flesh boiled off and thrown away,
my skull indistinguishable on a shelf
with a thousand others, still subject
to scrutiny and gawking and judgment.

I want the last word.
I want my skull back.

***

Cristina Legarda was born in the Philippines and spent her early childhood there before moving to Bethesda, Maryland. She is now a practicing physician in Boston. Her work has appeared in America magazine, The DewdropFOLIOLucky JeffersonHeartWoodThe Good Life ReviewSmartish Pace, and others.

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