3 A.M. Lok-Yiey rose from
her bamboo bed, rubbed kindling,
blew and blew on embers, ashes on
her cracked face and dried gray hair.
She boiled rice in red clay pot,
diced garlic, minced pork,
fried morning glories.
She placed the bamboo pole
on her shoulder,
different dishes on each side,
and rushed to the train station
in Monkulburi, Battambang.
“I did what I must,” she says,
“To keep you from hunger.”
Decades later in America, my uncle
made eggs and toast for his kids,
rice gruel with salted fish
for himself and his wife.
He dropped his children at school,
his wife at the train station in Malden,
then drove to the video store in Chelsea.
He converted anyone who walked
through the door with his smile,
“Good morning, Sir” or
“Good evening, Madam.”
When asked about his seven-day
work schedule, he told me,
“When the Khmer Rouge made you
dig ditches and carry mud in the sun
all day, everyday, until your body trembled
in fever, everything after is clear as vision.”
This past week in Wakefield
to celebrate her son’s wedding
my aunt and her sister fried rice,
made spring rolls, marinated wings,
dressed papaya salad
in fish sauce, lime, and chilis,
argued with one another.
Seeing them stressed, I suggested
ordering food from a local vendor.
Her answer, “My great joy is
seeing my son and his American wife
eat the food I make. See their happiness
come from these hands.”
The Leaves are Bright Red
There’s nothing else to say about autumn.
Chanda swings from the monkey bar.
My wife’s at home resting, carrying our second child.
The sun so warm and bright on my face,
my cracked hand and grey hair. And I fear growing old,
leaving my children to fend for themselves.
Job prospects, war, and the sun burning a hole
in the ozone, cancer cells eating the scalps of children
and grandchildren. We must listen to Greta Thunberg.
We must do something. Chanda falls off the swing.
I run to pick her up and put her on my shoulders.
The sun warms. The leaves are bright red.
Shivering. Ghosts everywhere
shaking branches. Howling.
I’m trying to cherish this moment, my health,
Chanda’s laughter, the baby in my wife’s womb.
About the Poet
Bunkong Tuon is a Cambodian-American writer and critic. He is the author of Gruel, And So I Was Blessed (both published by NYQ Books), The Doctor Will Fix It (Shabda Press), and Dead Tongue (a chapbook with Joanna C. Valente, Yes Poetry). He is a contributor to Cultural Weekly. His poetry won the 2019 Nasiona Nonfiction Poetry Prize. Tuon teaches at Union College, in Schenectady, NY.