Twenty Two

— Vuong Vu

Old men from my father’s village
still speak of him and the night
he led a group of men across a river
to their freedom, he, himself,
carrying on his shoulder
a young man who could not swim.

I am barely the man my father was,
I am barely his shadow.
At my age, he had already made
a home with the timid farm girl
who would become my strong mother,
had fathered a son, the first of thirteen children,
and he had fought in a war
he was too poor to understand.

At twenty-two, my father was held
in a prisoner of war camp; he led
a group of men to climb over
the sharpened ends of bamboo poles
that lined the prison walls.  They hid
in the mud of rice fields until night
to cross that river,
to return home to their villages.

My father told me this story one summer,
the summer my mother lived away,
the summer she told him if he missed her
to water her flowers, and he drowned the garden,
the summer I was twenty-two and felt crushed
by the weight of life that lay before me,

the summer I sat with my father,
in the still bright evening,
in the heat of the kitchen,
and he became my friend.

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