Remains of the Fire

— Vuong Vu

It is my old house, the one
in which I spent a lovely childhood,
that I dream of the most.
I am a ghost, then, still wandering
those rooms.

In the summer when I was nine,
the hill behind the house burned.
My brothers and I watched the fire
descend toward the house,
its flames rolled down like waves,
ash blanketing the hill.

The fire was put out long before
it reached the house.  It didn’t even
come near my mother’s garden.
Later in the afternoon
when the fire trucks had left,
my brothers and I climbed
the hill’s charred terrain where clods
of soil had baked into stone.
Near a burned thicket of chaparral,
we found the brittle curls
of snake bones, a lizard so gnarled
by flames it resembled a dry leaf,
and quail nests where eggs
had shattered like thin porcelain.

We looked down from the hill
and saw our small house,
my mother’s garden, its flowering rows
of mustard, her pond of lilies.
We looked out into the valley,
a patchwork of farms and orchards,
the clouds white as milk,
the ripe fields like honey.

Standing on that hill, we were blinded
by the afternoon’s golden glare.
Sweat fell from us as heavy as glass beads.
My brother Viet told us the heat was left
from the fire.  Nothing goes away, he said—
he had learned in school
so we believed him, believed
the summer’s heat was the remains of the fire.

I still dream of that summer,
of my brothers when we were young,
the small house that seemed so large to us.
I still dream of that fire,
only to wake from a fever.

A fever—that is what nostalgia is,
a fever that dies in the cold of morning waking.
Lying in the early gray hours,
I’ve come to believe that the worst fate
is not Hell, but to become a ghost,
wandering through familiar rooms
while, painfully, and painfully so,
nothing remains of that life you know.

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