onus

he arrived in the middle of night
had been sent by his mother
to sneak her grandchildren away

he had been tasked to return
before the break of dawn
with two boys and one girl
the baby would have to stay

but his sister kept the girl as well
so he would not be overburdened
so the baby would have a sitter
when she was sent to the fields

he left with reluctance
not wanting to disappoint his mother
not wanting to delay the trek

he saved his nephews’ lives
but it was the last time
he saw his niece

oranges

sometimes two or three good segments
were all she could get from each orange
fallen and left to rot beneath the trees
but she gathered them anyway
a few every night, in the dark
after the day’s work was done
peeling and eating the flesh
then burying the rinds in secret

they had forbidden the girls
to pick from the fruit-laden branches
but had said nothing
about harvesting them
off the ground

legacy

with legs swollen
from malnutrition-caused edema
she lay on the sleeping platform
in the family’s single-room hut
listening to her older siblings
bicker around the rice pot
over the meager bit of food
they had to share
their cries of want
and unfairness
and dissatisfaction
prompted her own childlike outburst:
siblings shouldn’t fight
siblings should take care of one another
siblings should share

her statements silenced them
caused them to pause
and ponder in embarrassment
the pleas of a dying four-year-old

I may not have been there
to hear my sister’s last words
but all my life I have benefitted
from their influence

restraint

have I ever?

no, I don’t think

have I?

I don’t remember

I cannot recall
the last time
I saw
my mother cry

tears seep
from closed lids
like water
from a leaky faucet

the slow formation
of tense droplets
the only outward sign
of so much
internal pressure

acceptance

she was barely four
sick and dying
in desperate need
of food and medicine

he was also sick
and weak from hunger
but desperate
to save his daughter

he remembers:
walking ten kilometers
barefoot through flood waters
with her cradled in his arms
to reach the “medical center”

staying ten days
just watching her dwindle away
for lack of proper treatment

retracing the ten kilometers
again with her cradled in his arms
but a little higher, a little tighter
to bring her back to her family
for just a little longer

paper

my siblings had
birth certificates once
official documents
with stamps, seals,
signatures, and actual dates
not just the typical
year, month, and maybe
day of the week
memorized by
Khmer grandmothers

my father had one made
for each child after their birth
in anticipation of a future
of city living
of city employment
but the papers would have been
unnecessary
on a collective farm
could have looked like
subversive material
to suspicious rural comrades

so
my mother used them
to roll
her cigarettes

impulse

she sent no word that morning when
she left him behind
she had just lost a second daughter
she wasn’t thinking clearly and
she no longer cared about herself
she only knew that
she needed to go
she took a change of clothes and their little boy
she didn’t know the way but
she followed the sun
she walked west then north then west again
she moved purposefully as
she passed the spies on their bicycles
she pretended to have papers when
she asked for directions to landmarks so
she could correct her course
she reached her destination in the afternoon and
she fell into her shocked mother’s embrace

she apologized to him later that evening when
he arrived, frantic with worry that he had guessed incorrectly

they were spared their lives and allowed to stay

comfort

mom…
mom…
mom…

why are you crying child?
what do you want child?

nothing
i don’t want anything

then go to sleep child

she was hungry
knowing there was no food
she cried for her mother
in a plaintive three years old voice
needing a response
but making
no demands

impact

last night I was organizing
some scrawled notes
neatly copying them
onto a blank page

first the year
then the month
then a name

I began weeping
when I realized
I was making
a timeline
of deaths

memory

you were his favorite grandson
during your early years
he called you “a tralach”
his fuzzy winter melon
everything you said and did
made him laugh out loud

you never talk about
your childhood in cambodia
but we all know you were
old enough to remember
maybe even some things
from before the “sucky times”

i hope the sound of
grandpa laughing
is one of those things