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What Is Safe

Karis Baerenwald

Hazel Ying Lee, first Chinese-American woman pilot


Novembers past, when we, eight siblings, slept

in one room, sometimes the blankets ran short.

I’d give mine to the youngest and lay on my stomach,

face pressed to mattress, shutting out snores,

letting dreams drift up from the center of me,

out my back, between my shoulder blades like wings.

Even then I knew I would fly, and in handball,

the only girl, when I hit the ball, just to watch

it soar above the heads of boys, I knew one day

I would prove them wrong. My brother, forehead

folded: “It isn’t proper for girls to sweat like that.

Or to swear or play cards.” My sister, years later,

when I told her I joined the military—her face pale,

a little shake of her head, the clink of the teapot.

“You know, Hazel, that is not what we do.”


But it is. It is what I do. Me, in the cockpit, P-63,

in the jittering seat, engine vibrates under my boots,

thrilling my legs, my gut, my hands on the stick.

I take this plane to Montana. The colors in the air

this November, pale blue sky, the ground, stretches of

musky brown skin of land, some trees still red-gold.

And I remember my mother, after the first time

I went flying, her eyes on the stain she scrubbed and

scrubbed out of someone else’s clothes. “It’s just not

safe,” she said. I know that. Safe is housekeeper,

aproned uniform, duster in hand—or gardener,

weeding, planting even rows. Safe is not me. Safe is

what I am leaving behind.

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