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


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


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


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
on a collective farm
could have looked like
subversive material
to suspicious rural comrades

my mother used them
to roll
her cigarettes


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


when finally free
to walk
where he chose
my father
still stayed
on the path
whether through
with water
with mud
or jungles
with underbrush
he kept to
the worn trails
the safe routes
by those first
lucky and
brave khmers
who had gone
before him
where would i be if
the well-traveled roads
could not be trusted
to be free of explosives?


i wonder if the woman selling
the palm sugar caramel glazed
crunchy on the outside but
chewy on the inside
golden brown deep fried
rings of glutinous rice flour
at the khmer wat today
thought i was not khmer
or thought i did not speak khmer
or just wanted to practice her english
when she offered her
“cambodian donuts” to me
at “two for one dollar”

i would not be wondering if
i had just said
two dollars, please in khmer
instead of in english or if
i had just wished
her a happy new year or if
i had just asked
how are you?
during our terse exchange

instead, all i managed was a
thank you at the end
and received an amused laugh
in return

i wonder what she
thought then


preacher boy

she was near blind
from starvation
struggling to walk
in the dark
with you on her back
she could barely
make out the road
by the moonlight
reflecting off the dirt
at one year of age
you pointed the way
saying “there. there.
there it is. there it is.”

have you always
been on a path
that leads you
to lead others?

big brother

mom called you “a neang”
three times last night
while recalling your childhood
which confused me at first
I had always associated that term
with our baby brother
but I suppose it makes sense
before you were ever “bong”
to the lot of us
you were “a neang”
to her


do you want to know
which child is the best?

she teased in Khmer

yeah, sure, which one?
I responded noncommittally

each one is good
in their own way

she continued to tease

then she began recounting
how her second daughter
was always so brave
how her third daughter
was always so thoughtful

and the fourth daughter
sat there soaking in
stories of sisters lost
before she was born