In the afternoons, just before the sun
would touch the tops of the mountains,
I would see them coming down the narrow
trail and to the brook's shallows.
Thin, stringy young men with ash-streaked faces
worrying a burlap sack half their size
on their shoulders, shoe-less but sure-footed
across the boulders lining the banks,
their loads high in the air to stay dry,
charcoal briquettes from tropical wood
made by hands, cooked underneath red clay,
the remains of a forest on their backs.
I should tell them that they take too much,
that the flood that comes with the monsoon
is born in the forest and loosed by bare soil,
I should tell them that.
But the hard and the rough on the soles
of their feet, their hands, their knees,
keep me from telling, theirs is the day to day
of charcoal and square meals.
The uncertainty of their children coughing
and running fevers, the unsettled sway
of their huts in a stiff wind, a missed lunch, and
they would say that the forest's forever,
that every sundown is a burden
for as long as they can remember.
Half the load will go to the town market
and the other to the city far away
where in backyards grills glow in the sunset
light that bathes the forest vanishing.