Souvenirs for My Daughters

To be close

The monks chanted sarmma sarmput* . . . and doused water on the last bit of flames which burned my Jeedone (grandmother). We went home, ate lunch and I played. Then, we came back. After the fire died and the ashes cooled down, Pa-pa taught me to look for her bones. Our family picked through the warm wet ashes for our grandmother. What we found we put into an urn. The gathered bones were consecrated by monks and placed in the familyís stupa at a wat my paternal grandfather helped build. (Pursat, Cambodia, early 1970ís)

From the edge of the trees, the dirt path opens
to white stupas, with spires needled into night;
I am a little less scared now because there is
some light in the area. I am tired though; my legs
just want to collapse. But still, we have to walk
some more. We walk the aisle of the houses of the dead;
four houses down we stop. They bend down to undo the lock.
They open the metal door and tell me get in.
I shriek no! and flail my arms and legs
out so I will not fit through. But it doesn't take
the two soldiers long to fold me up to fit the mouth of the stupa.
Before the rouge soldiers toss me in, I implore them,
please donít be so cruel to me. But, they toss me in anyway.
They say this should be your lesson to stop stealing.

I donít think it is a funny game, when they walk off laughing
after I shake the tiny door and cry out please, please,
donít leave me in here among the dead.

When they burst out laughing again, I stop.

I look out through the iron door and, what I see is not much,
concrete wall towered up to a pagoda (I assume), concrete path,
and blackness. I can not see
inside the small box I am in; everything is dark.
I send my hands to find out
whatís what. Very close walls and short ceiling.
So short that I can not even stand up.

I pick up a small something, smooth and long,
like a small branch ridden of its bark.
Then I shriek. Another voice comes through,
just above a whisper and says to me
itís okay, the dead are not going to harm you.
I quiet down and listen for more.
I am in the next one from you. Itís okay, little one,
he reassures. Such sweet words I have not heard for so long
prick my body and make me feel small again.
A strangerís kindness in time of desperation is just too
much for me. I weep, remember my Jeedone. Chant
sarmma sarmput . . .
Then, I fall asleep.

Before morning comes, my door is rattled and they
let me out. We walk. Then, they throw me in a cage
with the other children. When they let me out again,
they come with my younger sister. I do not blame her for what sheíd told them.

They march us up to a platform of a guard post.
They tell us lie on your backs and dangle your heads off the edge.
I feel a hand gliding up and down my throat Ė visions
of a pigís throat before the slit is made jerk my head up.
And, I try to see my sister. Lie still he tells me, as he tightens his hand
over my throat. Then, I feel cool thin metal at the base of my throat. They ask
who told you to steal so many coconuts. No one, I tell them. I was just so hungry.
I donít believe you. Your sister said your brother told you to steal.
Again, I tell them no, I did it on my own.

Is that him? they ask me and point him out from
among the small distant crowd.
My sister answers yes. Heís a coward they tell me.
And I try to nod my head. Then, they let us go.
When we get back he beats us. You little liars, you told on me.

*sarmma sarmput Ė chorus of a Buddhist chant
*stupa Ė a building structure of a pyramidal shape used for keeping ancestral bones after cremation.

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