The Girl in the Picture

by Shelba Cole Robison

for Kim Phuc

The girl in the picture —
the naked one with flames on her back,
arms flung wide, exposed bare pubis —
the girl in the picture ran down the road
and the world gasped when it saw her
napalm ravaged steps.

The girl in the picture, skin burned through to her bones
Did not die from jellied gasoline like
her brothers who hid with her during the
attack. When she left the hospital barely mended
she wanted to hide her scars away from prying eyes,
wanted to heal scorched children like herself.

But the girl in the picture was summoned to Ho Chi Minh City.
Her President ordered her wounds undressed for visitors,
paid camera crews to film her gnarled skin. Years later
she stole away to Cuba. Studying medicine in the island’s heat
she dreamed of wearing short sleeve dresses,
waving smooth arms as she danced like the other girls.

The girl in the picture is a woman now.
She married and gave birth to a child.
She flew over the country that ordered her set fire,
escaped from the plane when it refueled in Canada.
These days, when it’s cold she pulls her coat sleeves
all the way over her fingers to hide her past.

The girl in the picture teaches her son to count in Vietnamese,
Spanish, and English. As he plays with her scarred fingers she
wonders why many years ago she had to wear flames.
Wonders when she will show her picture to her son
and how she will explain to him the reasons
his mother had to run naked before the world.

As Professor Emeritus of English and Creative Writing at Saddleback College, Shelba Cole Robison has nurtured many writers through their writing development and publication. In addition to her readings across the United States, she is an internationally published author in fiction, poetry and nonfiction, with work most recently appearing in Literal Latte, Dance Connection, Appalachian Heritage, and Gridlock: The Anthology Of Poetry About Southern California