My feet wear calluses and the stickiness from the durian coats my mouth and fingers. My sister makes fun of me for loving such a stinky fruit but I relish it. Who cares what it smells like? It tastes so good. I take turns biting into the fleshy fruit and licking my fingers, to the beat of my footsteps. Bite. Lick lick. Step. Bite. Lick lick. Step. With such a big family, I am forgotten enough to have freedom to do and go as I please. Bite. Lick lick. Step.
Too soon, the fruit is gone. I climb up a tamarind tree, my tree, that roots itself next to our house. I can see the world from up here. But I am also hidden from it, amongst the leaves. I like playing with the pods that dangle from the branches, which burst open when ripe. I see Ma in our family’s jewelry shop, talking with another customer. She presses some money into his hands, and he bows to her, hands together, and leaves.
Despite the war, the jewelry shop is still doing well, and I tell all the food carts to just bill the shop, as Ma just takes care of it. Ma still says I’m getting spoiled, and that I’m going to grow as round as the fruit I eat, despite everyone calling me “Skinny.” “Your siblings don’t eat a quarter of what you do! Where did I go wrong as a mother?” she scolds me.
I say, at least I’m getting nutrients while my older brothers spend their money on cigarettes, or new parts for their motorbikes. Anyway, I share all this food with my friends, but she doesn’t know that. I don’t know if she was more lenient when Ba was here. But he’s been gone for five years now. I don’t think it’s fair for daughters to grow up without their dad. I remember how Ba would always pick me up and swing me around, each time telling me how much I had grown already in a day.
Ma says now that I’m nine, I have to set a good example for my younger sister. I say, she has three other older siblings to look up to, so one less won’t matter that much. Ma says I have to be less carefree and more thankful for the privileges I get. “There’s a war going on, and since the Americans are gone, it’s too dangerous with your attitude,” she says. But I’m the fourth child, the second daughter, and nestled in between enough troublemakers and favorites to go mostly unnoticed.
I climb back down from my tree and trudge into our home. I walk into the house, tracking in mud, and carrying various twigs that fell from my tree. Ma sees my footprints and remembers that there’s a body attached to those dirty markings, her daughter. Or maybe she only cares about the footprints and their markings around her clean house. “Quang!” her voice echoes throughout the house like clanking metal. All my siblings scatter into shadows. “Quang!” she yells out again. The force doesn’t wane even when she stands a foot away from me. “Yes, Ma,” I say. She looks at me, exasperated. “You know, your father and I named you ‘clear.’ If we have any more children, maybe we should name them ‘dirt’ or ‘mud’ or ‘wild.’ That way, they will turn out to be clean and peaceful children that don’t stomp over my clean house with god knows whatever is outside.”
She sighs dramatically, hands raised like she’s praying to the ceiling. I look up. Peeling paint and cement. “I was on my way to wash them off,” I lie.
Ma looks too tired to argue with me. “Well, clean it up,” she orders, like I hadn’t just said that I would take care of the floors.
An hour later, I’m scrubbing away the now caked dirt on the tiled ground when I hear Ma whispering harshly. She’s talking to a man behind closed doors. “Do you know how hard it was for me? You had to fight for the South and got put in a prison camp for the past five years? I had to do this without you. I had to do this all alone.”
“We have to make plans, there isn’t time for I-told-you-so’s,” a deep voice cuts in. “I’m going to take care of this family.”
I have stopped scrubbing, too scared to make a sound. My ears stretch toward the words behind the door. This is the one time I am thankful Ma has a loud voice. “So what do we do?” she questions.
“We have to leave,” the man says. “For good.” And there’s something about the way he says good where my heart perks up. I know this voice, I know who this is. But can it be? Can it?
And then Ba walks in.
“Ba?” I gasp. I leap into his arms expecting to be swung around but he can’t lift me and I find myself having to steady my feet back on the ground. I look at him. Bones barely hold him up, with his skin clinging. His eyes look hollowed out, with dark patches. His hairline is thinning. It’s Ba, but a ghost of him.
His appearance scares me. I touch him, outlining his arms and face with my hands. He’s very much alive. A living ghost.
“Quang, look how much you’ve grown! Have you been good?” Ba says, smiling. His smile is the only thing that reminds me of what Ba was before. He’s acting like he wasn’t gone for the past few years. “Go get your sisters and brothers,” he orders me.
Soon we all crowd around the table, eating to take away our anxieties. Ba and Ma sit at the only two chairs currently around the table, as the rest of us hover around them. My brothers lean against the counter, slurping up noodles. I eat banh bao with my hands, the soft bun steaming in my mouth as I chew. Ba waits until I have taken my last bite, the last of the eggs and vegetables inside, absorbing into my tongue. I swallow.
He looks into each of our eyes. There is too much silence. “We’re going to have to leave,” Ba says. Leave? Leave to another house? Another town? Nowhere is safe in Vietnam right now. But home is, at least in my mind.
“We have to leave the country,” Ba says, his tongue moving against the silence like sandpaper. “I am no longer safe here in Saigon. We’re no longer safe here.”
We all look at our parents, confused. My mouth is shut, and not from fear of letting my parents know I was eavesdropping. My mother’s face is dry, though I know she cried up an ocean just before. “I won’t be coming with you,” she says, each of her words pounds into our hearts. “I’m staying here.”
“What about us?” The words fall out of my mouth, sounding whiny and selfish even to me. All the shock from tonight becomes real and I can feel my face flush with heat. “How dare you make decisions for us? What if we wanted to stay in Saigon? What if I need you, Ma?”
She doesn’t answer. Of all moments in my life, now is the time she is silent?
I storm out the kitchen, pausing at Bà ngoại’s shrine to light a stick of incense. What would my grandmother think of us leaving? I imagine her wrinkly face and hands, skin drooping. “Come here,” she would say when we were upset. “It’s okay to cry, I’m here.” Then, in the smoke, I continue my exit. I go to my mat on the floor of the huge room we all share, and I cry.
Ba follows me in, and I can barely feel his weight as he sits down on the mat. “I will be here for you, all of you,” he says. “I am always here.” Despite being able to see his bones through his skin, he holds himself up like he’s the strongest man. The bravest man. My father.
“Leave me alone,” I say, angrily, childishly. But I am a child. I expect him to stay, but he just sighs and walks away.
“This is hard for me too,” he says so softly, he might be talking to himself.
Then Ma walks in. “You shouldn’t treat your father like this.”
I leap into her arms, sobbing. “Please come with us,” I say. “Please.”
“I can’t Quang. I wish I could, but I can’t.”
Ma pauses. “Quang, I’m going to tell you some very adult things. Pay attention.”
“I don’t want to be an adult.” I keep wiping away tears. It’s like they’ll never stop coming out of my eyes. She reaches out to my face and wipes away my tears with her fingers. I look up to her and see she’s crying as well. I mimic her, wiping away her tears too. Ma takes a breath. I take one too.
“I have to stay here or else it will be too suspicious that we’re leaving the country. I’ll be put under house arrest. The safest option for our family right now is for me to stay behind.” Her voice breaks. “I also can’t leave all these families to suffer. They rely so much on the money I loan them. I can’t do that to them,” she says.
“But what about us?” I ask. Unlike the first time I shouted out those words, this time it comes out sadder. Ma is important here, something I was always proud of. But even if she weren’t on house arrest, this whole community would suffer. So many families would be hurt.
She folds a bit of my hair behind my ear. “Quang, I keep thinking you’ll stay young forever. I kept you so innocent for such a long time for a kid to grow up during such a big war.” She pauses again. “But you can do this. Remember,” she begins in her calming bedtime story sort of voice, “when you were younger than you are now and when you went to school for the first time?”
On the first day of school, I was immediately picked on. I came home with scraped knees and a rip in my freshly ironed white blouse. Then the next day, the same thing. Then the next day Ma took me aside from my sisters and brothers and as she unbuttoned my torn shirt, told me, “Quang, you have to stand up for yourself. Ba can’t fight for you—he’s fighting far away. I can’t fight for you either, I have to stay at home. You have to fight for yourself.” Now she looks at me, with the same look in her eyes, kind of sad, but full of trust.
“And you stood up for yourself and all those other bullied kids, without my help. And you will leave Saigon without needing me. You never needed me. You could always fight for yourself. And you always fought for others”
“I don’t know, Ma.” Ma really won’t be coming with me. She’s leaving us, even though I am the one that’s leaving home. My body starts to turn into stone, and my breathing gets faster and faster. “Ma, what will I do without you?”
“Well, you won’t be alone. You have your brothers and sisters, and you have Ba. Remember, chia buồn. Remember that you don’t need to carry this sadness alone.”
I think about the days when we used to always joke about which parent we preferred. We favored Ma when she stood up for us against shopkeepers or bullies or the scary dog who tried to bite us. Ba let us sit at his feet while he hammered at metal, or gave us tastes of food that he would prepare for dinner. Ma was the force, the bright sun that lit the earth with her power. Ba, the shadows, cast where Ma couldn’t reach, our respite from the heat.
We pack what we can carry until the day wanes into darkness. I used to have dreams about this: my house is burning, fire tasting all it can, consuming all. Do I pack my memories, or the necessities?
In our big room that we all share, my sisters and I are quickly shoving things in a bag. “That’s mine,” Tam says to Hoa. “You can’t take that.”
“Are you going to take it?”
“Then I am.”
I go over to Tam. “Tam, what are you packing?”
“Since I’m older, I have to be practical. I’m packing things we all will need when we go to a different country.”
“What does that mean?”
“You know, packing jewelry and money.” I see that she’s quickly sewing jewelry and bills into her clothes.
“Tam, you’re only a few years older than I am.”
“But still older,” she says.
“What will happen to us?” I ask.
“I don’t know.” We sink into our memories, which will be our only thing left of our past.
“Remember how we used to hide in trees from Hoa, and she would cry to Ma and Ba? And then they would both come out but they couldn’t make us come down?”
“And we would shout, Hoa can just climb up! But she was too short back then.”
“You both were so mean to me,” Hoa interrupts. “And I did not cry.”
“And the only way they could get us down from the tree was to offer us chè.”
“We would do anything for food and sweets.”
Our smiles and laughter cease, when we remember life will soon be different, is already different. Our two brothers, the oldest of the family, come in. “We have to leave now,” they say. “It’s time to say goodbye.”
Ma goes through each of our bags. She looks into mine and lets out another deep sigh. Out of habit I look away, but remember this might be the last time I’ll be her daughter. I memorize the lines around her eyes, the wrinkles like wilted branches down her face. She silently takes out a twig from my favorite climbing tree, a few incense sticks I took from the shrine, and starts pulling out a comb before she stops. It’s her comb, knotted with long strands of thick black hair. Tears leak from her dark eyes, and she puts the comb back in, and we both pretend it never happened. “Be good,” she says to me. She moves on to my younger sister’s bag.
The store entrance, a garage door, creaks open to the ceiling. I glide my hands along the jewelry counter, marking the clean glass with my fingerprints and palm lines. Ma stands at the counter, looking as if she’s about to start another day of work in the shop. The lighting is wrong, though. Where the early sun usually greets us, shadows made from overhead electric lights streak across her eyes and lips. She hands us each a package, wrapped in newspapers. We walk out the store front in silence, clutching ourselves to keep what we have left together.
We step into the night. Hoa has opened the package wrapped in newspaper. I peer over to see what it is. The glint shows, bouncing off moonlight.
“Why did Ma give us gold?” Hoa asks.
“Shhhh. Be quiet. The lượng is for passageway on the ship,” my eldest brother, Due, says. He takes the lượng from Hoa. “Be careful with it. If it gets taken away from you, you won’t be able to get on the ship.”
“Remember,” Ba cuts in, “This is what you will tell the soldiers. Bà ngoại is sick. You are visiting your grandmother on her deathbed.” Ba walks quickly ahead of us to scout for any soldiers. After some minutes, we see him rush back to us.
“Put the lượng away. Stuff it at the bottom of your bags. Do that now. There are some soldiers on patrol up ahead. Remember what I told you. It’s going to be okay.”
We have so few possessions it’s easy to find a spot at the bottom of our bags without having to empty out its contents. We continue walking, knowing that there is no other way than through.
It’s easy to spot them. They stand near one of the few street lights, so they hover around it like moths. As we get closer, a soldier wearing all green with a matching helmet, calls out. “What are you doing so late at night?” he says. He looks at the other soldiers and they all straighten up. Their outfits make them look like weeds. Weeds that can kill.
Ba stands in front of us, shielding the five of us. Hoa begins to whimper and my other brother Sinh squeeze her close.
“We’re going to see their bà ngoại. She is very sick. She may not last the night. I’m taking the children to see her for the last time.”
“Hmm,” the soldier says. We don’t know if he believes it or not. Or even cares. “Let me see your papers,” the soldier says, and Ba doesn’t wince. He pulls the papers out and hands them over. The man barely looks at them, before handing them back. I breathe, realizing that I’ve been holding it in. “Wait,” the man says. “Don’t go yet. You,” he says to Hoa. “Open up your bag.”
I widen my eyes. He’s going to find the lượng, know that we are not visiting our ailing grandmother. What will he do to us? What will he do with Ba? Will they send him to prison again or execute him?
The soldier looks through Hoa’s bag, rummaging his dirty hands into the bag. We see his arm reach deeper into the bag. Ba’s eyes are hard, as he stares at the soldier’s hands, knowing what he will find at the bottom. He braces himself, curling his fist. Something in his fist glints.
There is a pause. The soldier pulls his arm out. Nothing.
I keep holding my breath.
“I’m sorry about your bà ngoại,” the soldier says, waving us off. He and the other men chuckle.
We make sure not to quicken our steps, to not make it look like we are running away.
“Hoa, where’s your lượng,?” I ask once we’re far away enough.
Ba holds Hoa in his arms. “Where’s your lượng, Hoa, did you lose it?”
Due has trailed behind, making sure the soldier doesn’t change his mind and come after us. Due is years older than us, but it’s not until this moment I find myself realizing that he’s been helping Ma take care of us since Ba was imprisoned. Not only a big brother, but a parent to us as well. He’s even grown so much taller over the years. Sinh is waiting for his turn.
Finally, Due catches up. His dark hair falls into his face. He’s breathing heavily. “I had it, Ba. Thank god I took it from her. We’re going to be okay.”
We continue in the dark, our faces illuminated with street lights showing us our path. We are quiet for a while, still full of adrenaline from our escape.
We take a crowded, somber bus to Nha Trang, which is in the center of Vietnam. Stone-faced men barely look at us and we exchange our names for Chinese ones, Chinese identities, erasing ourselves.
Now we’re at the gate to the ship. There are soldiers everywhere, holding up pictures of Ba. It’s a grainy picture of his face, back when he was healthy, front on and looking angry. HAVE YOU SEEN THIS MAN? they all shout over the crowd. Ba tells us to go ahead. He’s wearing a fake beard and a hat. Even without the disguise, his body is so meager, I can barely recognize him. We are all carrying our lượng closely. I keep looking behind me to make sure Ba is still there. “Go ahead,” he tells us. “If I get caught, at least you all will have a chance.”
Once we’re on the ship I immediately find a place where I can see the gate. I lean against the railing, I’ve never been afraid of falling. There is Ba, he’s still there. There are so many people around me, yet all I can hear is my heart. It goes thump, tha-thump. Thump. Thump. He slowly moves up the line, burrowing his face into his fake beard. Then he reaches the soldier, who is holding up the picture of Ba.
It is the longest minute of my life. So many things will happen from this point forward but nothing will ever bring on as much terror as this moment where Ba is at the gate waiting to see if he’ll get caught.
I imagine him trying to get through but a soldier stops him. The soldier holds the paper marking Ba as a criminal, and peers into Ba’s face. Then the soldier rips off Ba’s fake beard. Slaps off the hat, before hitting Ba in the face, knocking him over. “Nice try,” the soldier smirks, before calling in reinforcements. And us, as children, stand shocked, as we all watch from the ship, as they beat Ba up. Due covers my face, but I see the red, the puddle of blood. Another parent lost.
I start to tear up, a moment is a minute is a year is infinite. The soldier looks into Ba’s face again.
But the soldier lets Ba through and I breathe. They didn’t recognize him! He’s safe! We’re safe! He soon joins us and we all hug each other.
I think of my goodbyes. Goodbye walking barefoot, goodbye food stalls, goodbye tree. Will America have Vietnamese food? Will there be trees to climb? I try not to think of Ma and my friends. But her face keeps coming back in my thoughts and I wish I hugged her for longer. I wish that I could have been nicer to her. This is the moment I stop having a mother. I’m the fourth child out of five. I am in the middle, but I am full of responsibilities now that Ma is gone. I have to not only be responsible for Hoa, but also myself. I’m still a child, but I am not anymore. I’m only nine. It’s an old nine years old.
“I want Ma,” Hoa whimpers.
I want her too, and I open my bag to pull out Ma’s comb but I catch a piece of paper instead. I unfold it and see Ma’s precise handwriting in between the dotted lines.
You are strong, and you will have to continue to be so. You have a long and rough journey ahead of you and I won’t be able to be there for you like I was. You are your mother’s daughter, and because of that, you will always have a part of me with you. You are stubborn. You are kind. You are smart. Remember this. Ma yêu con,
(The above is an excerpt from Khanh San Pham’s Eating Oceans).
San Pham is an artist from Ann Arbor, MI. She received her B.A. from the University of Michigan and received her M.F.A. at Emerson College in Boston, where she now resides. She is interested in combining art and writing to decrease stigma and create dialogue on mental health. Her work centers around her identity as a 2nd generation Vietnamese American and as a woman going through Puberty 2. She loves the sun.