Mai

By Peter Mladinic

The morning Tet started, the many dead

in a grated rectangular clearing at the edge

of rice paddies. The others, Danang

Security, in the open back of a truck passed

the dead stacked in rows. I want to say 500,

of course, these weren’t numbers, corpses

that only 24 hours before were soldiers.

Bodies laid out in rows like piles of laundry,

lifeless in green fatigues.  What fate

had brought those soldiers into rice paddies

the night before, if each chose to be there.

As I had chosen to stand watch

in the city, at an admiral’s quarters

the rooftop, the sky lit with flares.

The admiral in robe and slippers,

smoking a cigar.  Like his guards, of which

I was one, unaware of the firefight

in the paddies, across the river from the city.

The heard and felt thuds, the sky bursts

of flares. Eventually

he left the rooftop for his bedroom.

At sunrise the truck came and collected us.

The rice paddies like a field of tall grass.

In its foreground the grated rectangular

clearing, on normal days for helicopters

to rise and land. It took up the

southwest corner of a paved intersection

that in daylight was busy with traffic.

Across the street, on the northwest corner

             (section break)

a tower in which, on normal days

I stood watch. At the base

of the tower one day Mai, who looked

about 10;  she held the hand of her baby

sister, Huong.  With Mai I traded

a sandwich I’d bought from a vendor

for her picture, which I have in an album.

The sandwiches I thought pork

and ham were likely dog meat.

They tasted pretty good.  I bet Mai enjoyed

the one I traded her for her picture.

She didn’t eat in front of me. The sandwich

wrapped in newspapers in hand, she

walked away.  Maybe she lived close by.

She and Huong in loose blouses and slacks

light colored, rumpled like cotton pajamas,

came and went from the base of the tower.

The field, the intersection, the normal days

a Quan Chan in smart fatigues,

polished boots, a red or white scarf, and

white gloves, with a whistle directed traffic.

His dark helmet

with white letters QC on front.  Pivoting

his body, moving his hands, his ballet,

I hate to admit, entertained my eye.

Whichever QC happened to be there,

they always looked and moved

the same.  Move is the key. They moved

gracefully, precisely, whereas soldiers who

died in the paddies, whose bodies I saw

as the truck passed

didn’t look like bodies, just piles of green

                   (section break)

stacked in rows, presumably by ones

who’d shot them the night before, while

I stood on the admiral’s roof and Mai slept

or maybe huddled in a corner with Huong

in a house not far from the fighting

going on, the killing and being killed.

In Mai’s picture she’s in a studio gazebo.

If she’s still living… what became of her?

Peter Mladinic’s fourth book of poems, Knives on a Table is available from Better Than Starbucks Publications.  An animal rights advocate, he lives in Hobbs, New Mexico.

Author: authorbios

The literary journal dedicated only to author bios.

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