[audience: “DRIVE FAST!”, laughter] When stopping for a piss an hour from
Hanoi, my sister holds the Kodak as I squat beside the road, to take a closer
look at gravel near my feet. Our mother locks herself inside the yellow rental
van, insisting on heroics like the strength it takes to hold a liter of the lychee
water clenched between one’s teeth. My sister rolls her eyes as we trade places
in the ditch besides a sleeping cow. She says, “Don’t leave me now okay?” I won’t. My
sister nods, retreats into the edges of her toes. I
think about a photo of that summer wind around my lungs. Red hogs
passing gas along the hem of farmlands owned by no one but girls shin deep in
mud. Sun burnt, they plant another generation of water from their backs. My
mother asks, “Are you my sister, too? Are you my sister, too? Are you my sister, too?”
Each girl shakes her head, and I will come to know Vietnam as one long stretch
of ghosts along a highway. Closer to Hanoi, our mother stops the van. She tells us
to stay seated as she leaves. We watch her turn into a child then a bullfrog
stepping barefoot off the road and toward a blasted concrete wall. We
watch her lean into it as she begins to cry.
“Oh sister, for without you I am lost. The setting sun. A tombstone without a name.
Jungle standing thick behind it like a village. Rise from ash
to silhouettes of people left behind who never had a chance to say, “I love you
and goodbye.” [audience: “SWEET,” “sweet,” “sweet”…] SWEET is the smell of sandalwood and
jasmine burning incense on a moonlit terrace in Kolkata.
I am tuning my viola to the mockingbird inside my head. Our neighbors one by one
emerge and lean over their railings. My landlord lights his lamp. A wounded
street dog in the distance HOWLS before he meets his maker.