The Lantern Books Blog: First Place Winner of the 2005 Lantern Books Essay Contest: Kao Kalia Yang
March 21, 2006 8:30am
The following essay won the $1000 first prize in the 2005 Lantern Books Essay Contest
. You can also read an an interview with the author
To the Men in My Family Who Love Chickens
by Kao Kalia Yang
In 1975, the Vietnam War had ended for the Americans but for the Hmong in the hills of Laos, for those who did not fight on the American payroll, for those who did not know that the Communist Laotian government had issued genocide against the Hmong (to “terminate to the root of the tribe”), death was coming from many directions. Already a third of the Hmong had died in the war. The Hmong were scared of death. And so they ran into the jungle.
My father’s first memory of leaving the country, the land of his buried father, the thatched-roof house where he had been born:
It was nighttime. I could see the roofs of houses in flames. I heard the voices of men and women yelling. My mother, an old woman already, kept urging me to run faster. The pack was too heavy. We had rice and a cooking pot and a blanket and a change of clothes and I had a gun. The gun was in right hand. In my left hand, I held my prized rooster close to my heart. It was only a baby then. Its feathers against my chest, I felt shaking. I did not know if it was the chicken or if it was me.
My father carried the chicken for five months in the jungles of Laos where his family had fled. The rice dwindled and it ended. My father fed the chicken for as long as he could. When my father lost strength because there was nothing to eat and the chicken got tired, he knew he could no longer carry the chicken. He couldn’t eat his friend. He chose to let it die. My father buried the chicken in a small dirt hole he dug with his fingers, beside a tall tree so that the spirit of his chicken could climb up high and know where to look for him if he too should enter the journey to the world of the ancestors.
Thousands of Hmong families ran into the jungle. In the beginning, there was the food they had carried but as time went by, first a year and then another, scavenging for food became difficult, starvation and disease fought on the side of the Pathet Lao soldiers. Hunted by all three, a third of the Hmong population would never emerge.
My family was in the jungle for nearly five years. In the jungle, my father would grow to become a man, he would meet my mother and marry her, my older sister would be born. In the jungle, my family tried very hard to make a life. They found pets.
My uncle Eng caught a wild rooster in a snare he had made. It was beautiful, the size of a grown man’s fist, with feathers as long as his elbows. The little rooster was the most colorful thing he had seen since the family had left their village for the jungle. He was hungry and it was meant to be food. He looked at the rooster and all the color it carried so proudly, and he could not kill it. They had seen so many deaths. The hunger gnawed and death gnawed, but beauty kept it at bay. He decided the rooster would become his pet. He fashioned a small bamboo cage for the rooster, and he attached it to the top of his pack.
A young man with big bones in his face and his ribs hitting against his elbow, a young man with dirty fingers and ripped hands that held on to a gun, he was gentle to the rooster. My grandma carried a memory for many years of how my uncle would crouch in the jungle trail and play with his rooster. My uncle carries the memory of how he did not leave his rooster in Laos:
We were on the bank of the Mekong River. It was the raining season and the river was high. The river was loud; it drowned out the wailing of Hmong mothers. So many children were dying in the river. They couldn’t swim. Few Hmong people could—we came from the mountains. I was scared and I knew that I was a weak swimmer and we didn’t have any money to trade for life jackets. We had heard that we could cut bamboo trunks and tie ourselves to them and that way we wouldn’t die by drowning. Everybody was trying to run into the water. There was no more time. I couldn’t leave my little rooster. Who was going to give it food? He liked people. What if he walked up to a man with a gun? I decided that if I lived, he would live with me. I tied myself to the bamboo trunks and I stepped into the water and there was the sound of guns ringing behind us and I asked my father’s spirit to protect us, my rooster and me. I used one of my hands to hold the rooster cage on top of my head and one to move the water. I remember the cold of the water. I remember how silent the rooster was. I remember how, half-way across the Mekong, my hands were both numb but my legs were still kicking the water. The river fought with us. It pushed water into our faces. I closed my eyes but I held on. I swallowed water but I kept the hand with the rooster as high as I could. I didn’t let go. I saw the sun rise on the side of Thailand. I saw the still body at the bottom of the cage. I will never forget how I let the water carry my rooster away from me.
When he felt the sand of the river’s bottom with his feet, my uncle did not know if he was dreaming or if it was real.
Many Hmong people died in the Vietnam War and many died after it. There are so many stories of death that are told in quiet voices in my family. A child that would be born in the safety of the refugee camps of Thailand, I would not know those they speak of. But in each chicken I see—my father and my uncle pointing to this feather or that beak and speaking of how it is just like the chickens they had lost in the war—I feel I know. I know that they had protected for as long as they could lives that were small, that were more helpless than theirs. I know that these two men, my father and my uncle, loved their chickens in the same way that they love their homes in Laos and now in America, the fragile peace that they work so hard each day to hold in their lives.