Sara Johnson


       if her throat became dry during labor, her husband,
       Nao Kao, was permitted to bring her a cup of hot water,
       as long as he averted his eyes from her body.

             --Ann Fadiman, on Hmong childbirth

It is early. The water is careful
to move across the shingled roof; it speaks
protectively, dripping, while inside the house
the mother is soundless, a squatting eagle,
looking nowhere ahead, only breathing
as sweat pools below.

This is childbirth in the morning,
during summer, when everyone is easily gone
and the quiet lets muscles
talk, tensing and relaxing. Her husband
brings a cup of hot water, looks, and leaves
to wait outside-there is no room left in her
for others. But there, he glimpses
the firm bones

of her feet, planted into the earth
and the way she reaches between her legs
to cup the head, catching the child before
it could touch the ground, before the dirt
could cling to the blood,
like the river

holds the fish afloat. Maybe he will go fishing
tomorrow; how slippery and ripe the fish seem
to him, how easily their insides spill across
the floor.

Location: Ithaca, New York

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