Family Tree

by Patrick Tong

I’m just going to start here. At its trunk. It was
                      not so long ago my name slipped into our family tree
like the silken soil slips into my palms. I hand-snip
                      the tenderized roots, but here’s the truth. Everything soft
ends at the tree crown. Mercy too good to stay for
                      this long. Please, anything but the climb.
The first branch already knows misery. Once, my
                      father saw his city square as something other than
mausoleum. Erstwhile beauty. Then the square
                      seethed with a revolution not worth the wounds.
Democracy the last thing that came out of their mouths
                      before blood. Their bodies disposed of near an oak tree.
Thousands of epitaphs that were never written. My
                      father almost learned to martyr, almost let the
gaping sky swallow his soul right there. He says,
                      it’s hard to raise a riot from the dead.
When I sit on the second branch it almost breaks.
                      My grandmother does not talk about the tyrant, all the
corpses he left behind. When she was ten, her country
                      exhausted a thousand flocks of sparrows so they wouldn’t
stitch their beaks into the grain. Her brothers knocking
                      their fists into pots & pans by the trees. Only to reroute
the locusts to every wrong place in the end. When
                      my grandmother was twelve, she listened as they gnawed
away the thatch. Watched them scythe the fields, uncontrolled
                      like an infection. Her neighbor smothered his crops with
kerosene & suppressed the locusts into ashes. His bones had
                      turned so docile they lurched in wind. My grandmother
learned to domesticate sparrows, but never hunger.
                      & famine knows her better than the doctors ever will.
I reach the last branch & all our war stories begin.
                      How the Japanese returned to the land that was never
theirs, lassoed the villages half past midnight. How the air stunk
                      of surrender. A soldier plunged his bayonet into the soil
that would birth a tree, abducted a water well & my
                      great-grandfather. My grandmother prayed by the
hearth, asked for a god who would listen, dreamt about
                      a knife every night. Every road was forgotten:
the one to freedom, the one home. After my great-grandfather
                      escaped, he watched the soft-hush light unfasten
from a newborn’s orbs, the crooks sepia the sky with
                      smoke, & a troop dig another trench to not die in.
Best to think of our family tree as immortal. At dinner,
                      my grandfather mounts a painting of it in the dining
room, traces his thumb around the roots, reminds us to
                      stay safe. He knows how easily the shrapnel finds
your limbs, your family tree.