In a House on Stilts in a Palaung Village

Vicky Brown Varela

we sleep on pallets, shrouded in mosquito nets,
morning glory and semolina cake and rice
making turns in our stomachs, where I dream

of the man I saw earlier on the trail, perched
between bushes, rifle between his knees,
whom I mistook for a farmer before I knew everyone

awaited something infernal. Like five o’clock
in the morning rooster crows. Like all the lights
turning on at once in a connected loop.

Like falling back to sleep after the woman
who takes care of us kneels in front of a Buddhist
altar and chants in a voice that reminds me

of my abuela praying a novena with the priest.
The staples stretched across my abuelo’s stomach
after he was twenty-one and target practice became less

of a game. Taming the flames of tiny candles
around the woman’s altar or around
the photo of my abuelo after liquid leaked

from his pores, a body bloated enough to not sink
or swim, but float. I don’t know what it’s like
to keep something safe: my abuelo’s wedding ring

lost in cigar boxes with old receipts and coins
from past decades, or the woman’s thatched
house on stilts tall enough to keep out the monsoon

but not the thrash of militia three months earlier.
Not bullet holes peppering chicken skins in the yard
below us, where at night, it’s clear enough to see

a corsage of stars pulsing, replenishing themselves,
then draining, like the layer of oil and water
and candle evaporating from the glass

after the nine days of prayer, my abuelo’s spirit
supposedly ascending, departing. The night before
we leave the woman, she gives us thimbles

of rice wine, something prohibited, something
so bitter it falls into our stomachs
and burns.



VICKY BROWN VARELA is a senior in the Creative Writing Department at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities. Half-Costa Rican and born in the sandhills of South Carolina, she splits her time between the two. Her writing has been recognized nationally in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. You can find her trekking through rebel territory and surviving on nothing but Weetabix in her downtime.