THE NECTAR OF CAUTION
BY NGHIEM TRAN
Safety, what is that? What foreign language am I listening to?
Are those birds squatting along the telephone wires,
spelling out O M E N? I’ve seen them before, I’m certain,
yet their name escapes me. Something threatens to wash me
onto an unfamiliar shore, the salt on my tongue, the sand
crusting around my eyes. The fate of a beached whale: I reject it,
compelling myself to ingest the nectar of caution,
drilling into the maple tree until I hit the fattest vein,
river bursting out. I’m ready to grip
the nearest machete and swing. In a past life,
danger masqueraded as mosquitoes, bulbous mushrooms,
barren terrain where hunger was the only crop that grew.
I thought I knew the extent of my world’s perils
mapped out every dead end in the cave’s labyrinth.
But something clawed its way through. Beast with no face. Branches
wilted at its touch. No sound uttered from its footsteps, the ground
kept its mouth shut like it was told to. I watched a neighbor wash
her tunic in a puddle of rainwater, so focused on the task
she didn’t notice the American soldier’s blade cleaving her head off,
rolling melon, juices bleeding through the rind. Did I see
what I just saw? Was she dead? How could she be dead?
Where was the sign? The slow decay of skin?
The soldiers were coming. Why they wanted
to kill us all, I didn’t know. I didn’t understand.
The shacks I’d slept in, ate meager meals in, were set on fire.
Someone grabbed my arm, yelled at me to run.
So I did. The trees had eyes and looked away.
The mountains shut all their windows.
We were on our own. I couldn’t stop running
until I crossed into another world. Not the afterlife,
but somewhere close to it, where I could see
all the threads that connected us to death.
Even something as innocent as a touch on the cheek
could pull on a thread, alerting some starving beast.
SIGNS OF LEAKAGE
BY NGHIEM TRAN
They said the child was too young to understand death,
to understand suffering. Underneath the frost-hardened pond
was what they meant to say, which was if he couldn’t understand,
if he saw without seeing, the crow pecking the eyeball,
his mother’s graying skin, thin and brittle like dried leaves,
then he couldn’t feel. Nothing crawled through his veins.
Nothing entered him or took something precious as it left.
He was still whole, or had at least the potential to be whole,
to grow a skin graft over the loss, tarp over a pothole, a minor
bridge from here to there. The river overflowing. They meant to say,
You’re not our problem. We’re not responsible for tending to you,
little sapling, little fruits, ripening, now frozen, now darkening
with rot. Changed—
the trajectory of migrating geese.
The way south blocked by gunshots. How
many died before the flock lost faith, fled to a foreign terrain
where rivals had already laid claim
to fertile farmland. What in the mind dies
with each corpse we watch lowered into the ground?
Easier to pretend that nothing does.
The child was fine, appeased by simple delights:
a piece of candy, a dragonfly’s wings.
Even better if the child believed this himself,
if he never showed signs of leakage
to the ones who lived and must figure out
how to keep living, a task already difficult without caring
for someone else. A train with barely enough tracks
to cross the desert, a train that goes on and on.
But around what? Traveling where? Why push forward
with no arrival in sight? The view is the same. Mountains,
beaches, valleys. That’s what the child expected.
That’s what they were hoping for,
but the view changed because death does that.
Death has too many reminders, leaves too many
smudges with its ink-stained fingers. On bed sheets,
on tree bark, on shimmering reflections—how do you explain to a child
that his mother will never call his name to wake him in the morning?
How do you explain away all the changes
in the mind’s routine, the jagged glass of expectation
grinding against what isn’t there anymore?