Mother said they already knew
that the communist soldiers
were on their way to her father’s house because he was a provincial governor, he was one of the firsts on their lists. They had many lists.
My mother never told me more than that,
stopping when the flooding of memories slowed her breathing. So the stories I don’t know,
I was in my mother’s belly
when they were heading toward the river.
My brother was about a year and a half.
They said he was a good baby—never cried—they didn’t drug him with opium as the others had been.
He mostly slept, carried by my father.
Some of the children never woke up
and were buried along the way—like bread crumbs in a f***ed-up
reminding them how to find their homes again.
I felt my mother’s heart begin to pump fast when they reached the river.
Instinctively, I reached upwards
and massaged it with my transparent hands.
She never learned how to swim
having been raised in the city.
Not like my father—who was raised in the countryside
and he has swum this river before
so he wasn’t afraid.
He’s never afraid—even when he trekked the dirt road with his
parents to ask for my mother’s hand in marriage—even when everyone on both sides said it was a bad idea,
a country bumpkin and a governor’s daughter. But here they are
everyone from both sides
standing in front of the river
escaping to the same place.
Mother said some brought plastic bags to help them cross the river
because they couldn’t swim.
Along the shore—on the Lao side,
husbands inflated bags as best they could for their wives, who carried their babies on tired backs.
Dotted in the muddy river
black heads bobbing
black plastic bags keeping black heads above water.
Sometimes people didn’t make it across
and got taken away by the current
but still they held on to their bags
afraid of drowning.
Some husbands gave themselves to the unsympathetic river to help
Some blamed themselves for not inflating the bags better.
Along the shore—on the Thailand side, husbands hugged the ones that made it while others fell on their knees with grief.
My father didn’t have a plastic bag. He swam my mother across,
my brother tied high on his back, and me,
still in her belly,
massaging her heart with my hands.