Essays    Reportage    Marginalia    Interviews    Poetry    Fiction    Videos    Everything   
Little Crane

I feel him taking my hands in his and kissing them every time he saw me.

Fiction | Fiction, Flash Fiction, Remains, ghosts
December 21, 2022

Before my grandfather fled Burma for the United States, he fell to his hands and knees, kissing the red earth of his motherland, knowing he would never again behold its golden pagodas or lush green jungles. When I conjure the memory of my grandfather Po Po in my mind, I smell the surprising sweetness of his deep-brown skin, I see the way he lit up when his grandchildren were near, I feel him taking my hands in his and kissing them every time he saw me. His parents didn’t support his decision—how could you abandon Burma?—but he couldn’t bear a future of government work under a military regime, watching as the same fate befell his four young children. He had already fallen in line after protesting as a college student, only being released from prison because of a high-ranking brother in the military. In that moment of protection, of brotherly love, Po Po knew what his brother had risked to set him free: his own exposure as a sympathizer to the Burmese people—foreshadowing his own defection from the military junta. It was a debt that he would spend years trying to repay by living the life he was expected to live but could not bear. Po Po had seen war before; the Japanese occupied Burma for much of his childhood. But Burma split in two was different. This was blood spilled between brothers, the dirty violence of civil war where soldiers come knocking on doors in the middle of the night to carry people away and journalists with cameras are shot on sight.

Just after my own father died, Po Po entered his hospital room where I sat protectively beside my father, whose body numbly hovered between the world of the living and the dead. I wished to follow my father into whatever world came after life. I watched as Po Po took my father’s cold hands in his and kissed them too. In my father, Po Po had seen a son, his own blood, perhaps even glimmers of his past self. Being the youngest of three boys meant that Po Po was, long ago, also the freest. Every day, he would run from his family’s compound in Mandalay to the muddy banks of the Irrawaddy, the mighty river where all things come and go through Burma. He would watch the mist rise off the water, the fisherman hauling the wiggling, silvery nets of fish from the murky water, the ferries gliding back and forth, back and forth. He would watch the fishermen tap the sides of their boats to signal to the Irrawaddy dolphins, who worked in synchronicity with the men as they chased the fish in the direction of the boats—an unspoken agreement between man and animal. On the surface, Burma was still so wild and free, so deeply intertwined with the natural world. And as he stood ankle-deep in the water, the people would look at young Po Po and smile, calling him the “little crane.” 

In some ways, writing about Burma feels like stepping on soft, fresh graves, knowing that after the briefest taste of democracy, so sweet compared to the military junta, the people—my people—are watching as history suddenly repeats itself. I’m grateful that Po Po didn’t live to see the foundation of democracy, something he so strongly believed in, crumble before it could fully stand. But this love of his country, of the landscapes and the Irrawaddy, would leave a hint of wonder in his strangely gray, watery eyes forever, like little reflections of the great river itself. I close my eyes and conjure his. He is before me, smiling once again. As my earthy brown eyes meet his river-gray eyes, I see that, wherever he is, Po Po does not know the fate that has befallen Burma. I smile back, blinking through tears, reaching for him before he fades to shadow like the past itself. 

This story is part of the Remains notebook, which features art by Chitra Ganesh.