At first she knew the river meant Mother, a river full of eels
a moody one she couldn’t cross, without a friendship bridge,
without a party card.
Trained to lose a country in return for meals
she learned to dress for carnivals and ethnic dance,
wrote the textbook Brothels of Vientiane
to charm the candlelit bureaux, doped up patriots in flimsy shorts
while the garish bar toasted France.
Then, through sheer persistence, camouflage and the screaming human wave
she won the water back, reorganised the tides
and overbooked the wedding
with relatives who could not behave:
expats doing funny things, servants dozing under ceiling fans,
trade delegates throwing up,
village teachers drilling goodness into kids,
the aide-de-camp spreading out The Plan.
Manna had fallen from the sky,
the bamboo orchestra lost the beat,
the drummer eyed the quaint hors d’oeuvres — a month’s
salary grew stale on biscuits, banquet for a fly.
She gave birth to fearless boys, who sold the farms,
who played chicken
on highways for dying on; they’d live again
as dashboard tiger charms.
She wrung their embalmed hands, wiped her tears with holland lace,
at least a brother welding Saudi ships
smiled a photogenic smile
death would never wipe from his face.
The highland fauna grew precious, what grew tall
sawn up for floors, the final prize
on the highest branches on the furthest mountains
where rain once filled a waterfall.
She drank her cup of river, and sold her daughter
to a man who hid her in a den
for men with slimy hands and bloodshot catfish eyes,
for all they’d known was slaughter
and filled her boat with songs and cheap imported armoury
and raised a flag of sorts (a temple built by slaves
five armies claimed their own)
and sailed her opium to a wounded yellow sea.
© Adam Aitken