Souvenirs for My Daughters


You shrug off your black outer shirt,
too many sizes larger than your now-thin frame;
collar bones protrude and ribs of the breast plate
jut out, gleaming sickly, in the flickering flame
of the wick. Your eyes spaced-out
pass the orange flame, trailed by gray smoke.

The first time, you sat stunned with fear;
quietly, you watched the leaves parted
in our thatched wall; you caught a glimpse of the
eye that pries into our life. Quickly, you blew out
the flame and told us, it’s time to sleep.

What I did not get that night was later told,
we can no longer talk when it is dark outside.
The Khmer Rouge spies peek in,
looking for reasons to put us to death.
Night after night, we pretend,
carrying on with our fake life
as if they weren’t among us.
Later, too starved to pretend much longer,
you stare back harder,
as if daring them to conjure up reasons to take us all.
Your eyes sink deeper
into your skull; and, in the dark,
the whiteness of your eyes grow wider,
more ghostly,
as your empty stomach roars and grinds
with no shame.

I make a promise to you. Remember.
Tomorrow, find something special for Mother.
Maybe a big snail, a fat frog, a male crab, or a coconut.

A rooster’s crowing scatters up sleep
before light. After you’ve already left for the fields,
I head towards the coconut grove.
I mimic the fishing for snails,
but to shove the bopping coconut into my bucket
full of water lilies. Then, snails and more lilies to cover.

I stew in the muddy pond, waiting
for the two black guards to tire out from standing
at the checkpoint. Just as their legs bend to sit,
I scram up the edge of the pond
and towards them. But I fail
in my attempt at thievery.

So, under a tall mango tree, I pretend to make my home.
Snatching with a hand of a stealing monkey, my bony fingers grip around
a mango on the ground, while my eyes feast
on the guards. Its passage secured, tucked under my shirt.
Then, snatch again, I smuggle another to its mate,
as I trudge and feign a slow jog. My heart flutters,
when I see under moonlight, a shadow walking straight up
to the thatched walls. A knife in one hand and two
mangoes in the other, I present myself to you.

You peel and you slice
slivers into my younger sisters’ mouths first.
When the third sliver arrives at mine, I utter,
“You take it, Muuc.”
But, you shake your head.
At last, you slip one slice into yours.

Today, when I taste the sweetness of mangoes,
my head utters, my mother would have loved to
have eaten this one.

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