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Birth of a Song Poet
“I didn’t have very many people around to say beautiful things to me.”
“I used to go from the house of one neighbor to the next collecting the beautiful things people had to say to each other.”
“By myself, I whispered the words to comfort my heart. One day, the words escaped on a sigh and a song was born.”
No one looked at a calendar or wrote down the date of my birth. I only know what my mother remembered and what my brothers have told me.
My brothers say that I was born at the beginning of 1958, in the midst of the Laotian Civil War. In the bigger cities of Luang Prabang, Savannakhet, and Vientiane there were battles and debates between members of the Royal Lao Government and coalition groups of Communist revolutionaries. On the world stage, Laos had become a faraway place for the superpowers of the Cold War to test their might against each other. But on the high mountains of Phou Bia, in the province of Xieng Khuoang, in the village of Phou Khao where I was born, the Hmong continued the life we knew.
In 1958, according to my mother, the Hmong still believed that the young would outlive the old. Mothers and fathers continued to give birth to children. The living called out to the dead. Shoots of green rice were planted along the sides of steep hills and fertile valleys. Harvests were had. In 1958, according to my mother, my father was thinning but he continued his long shaman’s treks across the mountaintops to different villages to do healing ceremonies for those who were sick, weary of soul, or those whose spirits were in need of a call to come home. In 1958, my father believed that there was still life in him.
My brothers and my mother tell me that I was a harvest baby, an early birth in the New Year. The grain sheds were full to the top with rice and unshelled corn. Dried buffalo jerky hung from the rafters of the houses. Big clay jars full of fermented pork and greens rested in the corners of houses. The temperature had dropped, and white frost covered the green of the mountain foliage in a thin layer each morning. The wind had grown cold, and it swept through the village, cooling the uneven mountain terrain so that children with bare feet complained unceasingly when they traveled the distance away from the house to pee or poop. At each house, a fire burned around the clock. Mothers sat in open doorways sewing French coins to Hmong embroidered shirts, pants, sashes, and skirts. Fathers checked on cows, pigs, and chickens to ensure that there would be enough meat for the ancestral feasts and streams of visitors. The young gathered around their elders and whispered wishes for new clothes to be made for the New Year’s celebrations, new cloth balls to be fashioned so they could be tossed in the courtship rituals, new musical instruments to be crafted so that they could be played in the village circles, and new kwv txhiaj plees, love songs, to be taught so they could be sung at the festivities. The whole village was deep in preparations for the beginning of a New Year—except my mother, who could barely walk with the strength of my struggles inside of her.
My mother’s pregnancy had been difficult. Her daughters-in-law watched as she struggled to keep up with the younger women along the road to the garden and moved clumsily around the hard-packed floor of their communal home. By the time my mother had me, she had had nine children already. I would have been the tenth if the little girl with the pale skin and straight hair had not died. As it was, the adults knew that I would be her ninth and final child. My mother was in her late forties. She could not sit for long in the open doorway preparing clothes for her children for the New Year. Her back ached after just a few minutes. She could not bend down to stoke the fire close to the ground. She knelt by the fire, a short, stout woman, big belly before her, a bamboo fan in her hands, leaning awkwardly, fanning the flickering flames. Legs widespread, she went through the days, a hand on her back, heaving great, long sighs with each step she took.
My mother was weak and without energy during the long months it took for me to grow within her belly. There were nights when she woke up shivering because she had kicked the harsh woolen blanket off in the sweat of a moment, and then grown too weak and exhausted to pull it back up. For the last few months of her pregnancy, she woke up each morning in sweat as cold as a mountain stream. The chilly air traveled through the split bamboo walls. The hand of morning stretched its fingers through vivid dreams of dense jungle laden with the calls of wild creatures. In the gray, my mother made out the shallow breathing of my father beside her and saw how his body sank in with the exhalation of each breath. My father had been a slender man for most of his life, but in old age he was little more than thin muscle clinging to bones. He slept with their youngest child, a two-year-old boy, cuddled to his side. My mother struggled off the bed as quietly as she could. Her wide feet on the smooth, cold earth, she took in the cool mountain air, exhausted already by the thought of the journey to the bathroom.
When my mother first felt me drop low in her belly, she knew I had made the decision to venture from the clouds and into the world, and her exhaustion grew into a state of anxiousness. As a medicine woman, a healer, and a shaman, she had seen many old mothers who could not muster the energy to push their babies from their bodies. She had seen too many blue babies, colored like the monsoon sky, who never got to breathe the air of earth. My mother did not want this to happen to her youngest child. When she felt the familiar liquid rush down her legs and a pressure build low in her back, she told her daughters-in-law to stand aside. She crouched on her knees, legs widespread on a bamboo mat. She placed both hands on her thighs, looked straight ahead. My mother breathed the air of earth into her body and pushed as hard as she could so that I would know the air that waited for me at the gate of life. She did not stop until she could feel my wet, round head against her fingers. When my loud cries split the quiet of the early morning and called in the day with more gusto than the family rooster’s crow, her daughters-in-law rushed in close to help my mother. I was passed between different hands. My brothers’ wives crooned and they shushed me. They helped each other bathe me in the old plastic tub by the light of the family’s fire ring. The women wrapped me up in a warm blanket and handed me to my mother. My mother held me in her arms, safe against her body as she had all her children, and would her grandchildren to come.
* * *
I am almost two and I have learned how to walk slowly by myself. I am a sturdy balancing act on the dirt floor of our house. There is the dark outline of a man sitting in the late afternoon shadows. A fire burns in the center of the room, warming the cold air filtering through the open doorway. His body is turned toward the flames of the fire pit. There is a bamboo basket of dried bark by his side. His hands are busy, rolling out the long stretch of bark, twisting and turning it into rope. The doorway is an uneven rectangle of light. Outside, there are the sounds of children playing, laughing, and talking, peals of delight and joy rising in rhythmic, predictable intervals. I want to join them. I make my way carefully to the open door. I put both my hands on the door’s slight frame, and I try and try to lift one leg high enough to cross the door’s ledge to the other side. I try hard to raise the leg higher and higher but it grows too heavy, and it falls down in a swoosh. I look at the man by the fire for help. I don’t understand that my father has grown weak with old age and the endless coughing that brings his shoulders high and shakes them. I do not know that it will be only months before my father will go to bed and not get up again. I look at the man and then point to the open doorway where I can see Hue, my big brother by two years, playing with a spinning top.
I will remember for the rest of my life the voice that carried his words to me, the only words I have directly from my father: “Me tub me me los nws txiv mog. Kuv tus me tub los ntawm kuv. Los koj txiv ua txoj hluag rau koj khi qaib me me. Txiv tus tub tsis quaj nawb.”
“My little boy, come to your father. My son, come to me. Your father is making a rope for you to tie around the little chicken. My little son, don’t cry.”
* * *
I was only two years and several months old when my father died.
My father had made it through the harvesting of the crops and the New Year’s celebrations. He, a frail man, more bone than flesh, had leaned on the frame of our front door and sung into the night the traditional New Year chant to call all of our wandering spirits home from the depths of the jungle and the tops of the mountains. He had rested heavily on both elbows at our low dining table and called our ancestors’ spirits to partake of the herb-boiled chickens, big bowls of pork belly fat and greens, little bowls of spicy red chili pepper sauce, and heaping plates of freshly harvested rice. He himself did not eat much from the meal but he sat by and smiled as he watched his children, their spouses, and his grandchildren feast upon the hard year’s work in anticipation of the new.
The cold mountain air had lost its bite and the birds had begun to sing their mating songs. The mountain sun shone brightly in the early mornings and the sun’s rays lingered long into the late afternoons. My mother had burned many sticks of incense and boats of folded gold and silver joss paper for the ancestral spirits to keep my father’s body whole and his heart strong. Friends and relatives traveled from nearby villages to visit our house and pay their respects and speak their gratitude for my father’s generous and tireless work as a shaman. The stream of visitors made my father happy. His voice, weakened, called out greetings and goodbyes to the people who passed through our door. His parting words were always “Come again. We will meet each other soon.”
Now it was the beginning of the planting season. The visitors had stopped their coming. Each was busy in his or her field, softening the earth with gardening hoes the size of palms, creating fields large enough to feed whole families, working with their backs angled away from the hot sun, their dirty toes anchored tightly to the mountainous terrain the Hmong farmed on. All over the villages in the high mountains of Laos, families gathered to go to bed early each night, to rise before dawn, to prepare for the next day’s toil. Each morning, before the crow of the roosters, the women in my family got up in the dark of night to make rice and prepare meat and greens for our day’s work in the garden. By the time the gray light entered through our split-bamboo walls and the roosters sounded their morning cries, all the adults would be ready for the fields and the children awake. The littlest of the children were assigned to stay home with my mother and my father. I was among them.
My father’s death, like much of his life, was simple.
My father, an early riser his life through, did not get up that morning. He had had trouble breathing through the night. His shallow breath had whistled upon the wind that crept into our room. My mother thought that she would let him sleep for a while longer. The household was busy in its morning routine. My brothers were looking over the farming equipment in the morning shadows. One of them sharpened the dull garden hoes by the light of the fire on a smooth mountain stone, adding drizzles of water from a nearby pail. Those with young children greeted them with hair tousling and hugs as the little ones sleepily chased the household dogs around the table. My older brothers talked of which sections of the garden to weed, which animals needed additional attention, and what repairs needed to be made to the thatched roof or a section of the house wall. Their wives had joined forces and prepared the morning meal. Hot food was on the table. We could hear the noise from nearby houses as neighbors went about their rituals for the day. My mother went into their little bedroom to wake up my father for breakfast. He was asleep. She saw the rise and fall of his chest. She called his name, “Nao Lor, Nao Lor, time to get up.” His eyes did not open but he shook his head at her lightly. He raised his right hand a little, a gesture to slow down the morning, she thought. She left him in his bed.
Breakfast was had. The adults and older children made their way to the gardens with their woven bamboo baskets on their backs and gardening hoes in hand. My mother stood by the doorway with her youngest children and grandchildren around her and watched as the long line of family trailed into the rising sun. The morning fog, close to the ground, shrouded the disappearing figures in the mist.
My big brothers and sisters ran from their gardens when they heard the news that our father was calling for them with his last breath. It was midafternoon. The sun was high in a clear sky when they reached the house and saw my father in his bed. What had been a quiet day grew loud with the wailing of my mother, sisters, and sisters-in-law as my father’s head fell back into the arms of my big brother Palee. The tousled gray hair fell across his forehead. His mouth was open.
My father’s last words to his older sons were: “I have lived this life like a young man, even when age came to me. I have two baby boys that I am leaving behind. They are mine but I cannot take them with me. They cannot care for themselves. I have nothing left to leave them except for the two small colts in the pen. Please raise my youngest sons for me. One day, if they become intelligent men, then maybe they will love you in return. If they do not, then raise them simply because I have raised you.”
Streams of salty water flowed down my mother’s cheeks. She now sat on the dirt, in front of the doorway to our house. Inside, friends and family crowded around my father’s still, stiff form, mourning him in a chorus of cries. My mother did not mourn with them. Instead, she sat on the dirt, a guard against the leaving of his spirit. Her strong hands balled into fists and she pounded on the brown earth. Her voice grew stormy as she cited the many reasons why my father could not leave. People tried to calm her. They tried to stop her hands from beating the earth, to help her up off the ground, to comfort her when they couldn’t do either, but my mother would not be comforted. She raged against my father’s departure until her hands bled and her voice grew hoarse.
I was too young to remember my father’s death or much of his life. I know only the stories that people tell me of him. I carry only foggy memories of the man in the shadows sitting by the fire, making ropes of tree bark for me to tie around little chickens, calling me to come close, telling me not to cry. Sometimes I come across the smell of dry lemongrass and the powerful scent of mint and I feel a pull toward that distant, thin shadow of a man who once loved me.
The only good thing about my father’s death is that he did not see the Land of the Million Elephants fall to the roar of the iron birds that dropped balls of fire from the sky. My father died in 1960, before our village of Phou Khao was turned into a military-prisoner site by the Americans. My father did not live to see his son yearn for a father, or struggle to become one.
Copyright © 2016 by Kao Kalia Yang