Near the Laotian border
villages cling to the hillsides
like barnacles to a ship.
I occupy an entire hut
and lie down nightly with ghosts
that rustle and pant and toss
till dawn. My neighbor speaks French
and went to college in Marseilles,
though she has no nationality,
and settled here after the war.
She keeps a mongoose. Every day
its bright pink mouth bedevils me,
its rage for play so terrific
it sometimes trees me, sometimes
wrestles my leg like a cobra,
its gaudy prey. My neighbor
thinks her pet cute. So do I,
when it isn't hacking chunks
of meat from my calf or digging
mine shafts in my garden. One day
the government patrol arrives
to check our papers. Foreigners
remain suspect in Vietnam,
and the current government lacks
friends among the Western powers.
The soldiers, though, are polite,
and stamp our papers, shake hands,
and leave. One of them has disappeared,
but their lieutenant's unconcerned.
"A local girlfriend. He'll catch up,"
the officer explains in formal,
literary Vietnamese. But
he's wrong. In my garden I find
the mongoose kicking dirt on a corpse.
It tore out the soldier's throat
and nearly decapitated him.
Now my neighbor and I must bury
the dead man so carefully
that even if they search with dogs
the soldiers won't find him. My neighbor
looks pleased. "I trained my pet to kill
whatever comes in uniform," she says.
We dig a hole six inches deep,
or so, wrap the stiff in plastic,
and sink him under a layer
of fragrant bark and mulch. Bemused,
the mongoose watches this process,
and when the hole's filled nuzzles me
with brotherly regard. My neighbor
kisses my cheek and takes her pet
home to a damp hut like mine.
Exhausted, I lie down with ghosts
now more plentiful by one,
and feel the mountains grind all night
as the good earth digests us.
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