Souvenirs for My Daughters


Escapes we make

for our families. In the obscured blackness,
night after night, we hide
ourselves away and meet
at locations prior agreed,
while we work in the fields.

Older brothers and sisters crouch
in the brush to help us home.
Children whisper, clinging on –
hooks and loops realign.
Bravery bestows to its rank:
strong to care and lead, and weak to follow.
Who can see lead the way in the dark.
They become our eyes. Our night vision
in the black world. We grip
shirttails,
long sticks,
or chained hands.

One night, a plan is called off.
Earlier in the day, a child was caught,
beatened and confessed.
So, new words are mouthed and signals
are secreted out by eyes and fingers,
from our child-leader
to take turns at the water urns.

At the water urns, sequentially,
one comes to meet and to receive,
one whispers then takes leave,
leaving behind
the new hearer
to be the next
child-messenger.

The decision is made
and few agree. Through the graveyard
behind the sick ward.

As Khmer children,
raised to respect and fear
ghosts and the spirit world,
we are shaken,
visibly stirred.
Each one of us cries and screams.

But, the brave ones shush the fearful
and explain,
since everyone, the good and the bad, fear ghosts.
This will be the best path home. Because this
would be the last place
they’d stand their guards. They’d never dare
to tread on sacred yards.
Besides, we know most of the people buried here.
They’d understand.

But, what about the ones we don’t know is asked.
To walk on their graves.

The brave ones sigh deeply, then offer,
This is what we’ll do. We’ll say . . .
‘Oh ghosts, pity
us children.
Forgive us for trudging
on you. Show mercy.
We miss our homes and our families.’

So, our mouths hang onto these phrases
and our hands the shirttails
of the ones in front. Linked like chains, we run
over the dead. Visions of rotting flesh,
gray bony hands, elbows up, blindly grappling
ankles later shackled in dreams.

When morning is still black,
when dreams are left to be caught,
mother’s hands stir and pry open our tired eyes
before Angka’s* spies wake up. One by one,
all the children take leave of their mothers and fathers,
who stand mesmerized
by life’s cruelty to the children.

Children try to make their way back to the group:
some sneak into those still sleeping;
some blend in among those already up;
in the bushes, some wait to tag onto the line
as it makes its way to the fields;
and some do not make it back at all.

The next night, it will be another path
and another agreed location, until there is no more
means to go to.

Then, it is just an escape,
an escape
from the punishing labors.

It is just an escape,
an escape to rummage for food
for that ceaseless hunger.

*Angka – literally, "the organization" - how the Khmer Rouge refered to itself. At the beginning, we had no idea who represented this Angka. I thought he was like the great Buddha sitting high on his pedestal.

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