Wood Working at the End of the World

Ocean Vuong

In a field at the end of the world: a streetlamp
shining on a patch of grass.

Having just come back to life, I lay down under its warm light
& waited for a way.

That’s when the boy appeared, lying next to me.

He was wearing a red Ninja Turtles t-­shirt—but from
another era, the colors faraway.

I recognized his eyes: black buttons salvaged from the coat
I used to cover my mother’s face at the end.

Why do you exist? I wanted to know.

I felt the crickets around us but couldn’t hear them.

A chapel on the last day of war.

That’s how quiet he was.

The town I had walked from was small & American.

If I stayed on my knees, it would keep all my secrets.

When we heard the woodcutters coming closer, destroying
the past to build the future, the boy started to cry.

But the voice, the voice that came out
was an old man’s.

I reached into my pocket
but the gun was gone.

I must’ve dropped it while burying my language farther
up the road.

It’s okay, the boy said at last. I forgive you.

Then he kissed me as if returning a porcelain shard
to my cheek.

Shaking, I turned to him. I turned
& found, crumpled on the grass, the faded red shirt.

I put it over my face & stayed very still—like my mother at the end.

Then it came to me, my little life. I remembered my life
the way an axe handle, mid-­swing, remembers the tree.

& I was free.

Ocean Vuong is the author of Night Sky with Exit Wounds and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. He was awarded a 2019 MacArthur “Genius” Grant.
Originally published:
May 19, 2021


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