Khanh Ha is the author of Flesh and The Demon Who Peddled Longing. He is a seven-time Pushcart nominee, finalist to Mary McCarthy Prize, Many Voices Project, Prairie Schooner Book Prize, a twice finalist of The William Faulkner-Wisdom Creative Writing Award, the recipient of SAND HILLS PRIZE FOR BEST FICTION, Greensboro Review’s ROBERT WATSON LITERARY PRIZE IN FICTION, and WILLIAM FAULKNER LITERARY COMPETITION. His new novel, Mrs. Rossi’s Dream, was Best New Book by Booklist and a 2019 Foreword Reviews INDIES Silver Winner and Bronze Winner.
It was summer when she arrived in Vietnam from China. Summer was the months of tropical storms and heat. The sea was rough during the whole journey. The warm breeze was dry, the sky blue. The coastline came into view and then disappeared. Sand-yellow, ochre, then brown. An older woman stayed close to her. The night they approached Hanoi, she lay awake. She lost track of time between sleeping and waking. In her sleep, she heard the murmur of the sea, the shrill call of a gull, the sound of waves. Summer blue sky, white lines of distant shores. The sea smelled acrid and warm like unwashed bodies. The sky grayed when rain clouds gathered. Then the sky and the sea became one, so immense she felt like a grain of sand. That night, unable to sleep, she put on the shawl her mother had knitted for her. Its wool smelled fresh. She pressed it to her face, inhaling the scent. The older woman asked if she felt sick. She feigned sleep and closed her eyes to hold back her tears. She understood then what it meant to leave her mother for good.
Eleven was a beautiful age. Carefree and happy just being with her mother. At the riverbank, she watched people washing clothes, beating them on the steps. Women and children picked soapberries along the bank stepped with flagstone. She watched children her age pick out round seeds, brown and shiny, and put them in their pockets. She asked her mother why they collected them. She told her that they pierced the marble-like seeds and strung them together to make necklaces. She watched two boys, perhaps brothers, crushing soapberries and throwing them into the shallow water. Moments later, fish floated up. She came near and saw the fish afloat in the current, their scales gleaming silver. She asked what kind of fish they were.
“Minnow,” the older boy said.
“Can we eat them like food?” she asked.
“Don’t taste very good. Use them as bait.”
“Can I try?” She took a handful of soapberries from the boys, walked to the river’s edge and tossed the broken fruit into the water. The boys watched her as she gazed at the river. She felt a surge of excitement, knowing that she must be pretty for them to stare so raptly. The water was frothy, flowing downriver from the landings where women washed clothes. She saw her mother still waiting on the bank, her little figure brown in the afternoon sun. She thought the fish must have gone home to sleep since none came for her soapberries. She glanced at the boys standing behind her. “Where did they go? They don’t like fruit any more.”
“They don’t eat em,” the older boy said. “The foam kills em.”
She looked down at the water again. “I don’t understand.” She decided to walk upriver to her mother. But as soon as she left the boys called out, “Hey, come back. Fish. Fish.”
Fish drifted on the current. All minnows. The older boy said there must be a school of them moving through. They spotted other fish, green-backed, silvery-sided, among the minnows. “Smelt! Smelt!” the younger boy shouted. She asked if they were good to eat, and the boys, snatching them up, said yes.
“Can I have some?” she held out her hands and they dropped three smelt, wet and shuddering, into her cupped hands. She headed upriver, her back stooped, afraid of dropping the fish, and when she looked back downriver at the two boys, they were bending over the water’s edge. The older boy looked up and saw her. He straightened his back, shading his eyes against the red sunset. When she looked again, he was still watching her with the setting sun in his face.
In those days, she wrote her mother every other day, saving sheets of porous paper and giving them to the matriarch at the end of the week to send home. The matriarch loved her penmanship and studied each letter. She told her, “Xiaoli, my handwriting on the best day doesn’t come close to your calligraphy. You express your thoughts beautifully.”
In those days, their letters took a few months to come and go. She almost cut into the first letter she received from home when she hastily scissored the envelope. A sheet of yellowed paper bore her mother’s writing, the ink smeared on each downward-slanted line. The letter had no date. It took a while for her to recognize her mother’s voice in the handwriting. Her mother had written the letter over several days and left gaps between her thoughts, always preceded by the line, “I’ll come back later.”
One night, unable to sleep, her mother sat up and began knitting a white sweater with a lavender hibiscus on the front for her. “It’ll look pretty on you, darling. Tonight when I got up and went for a bowl of water, I passed your cot and could almost smell the honey locust I used to wash your hair with. Old smells in the house. I use them to tell my way around the house at night. The one I most want to smell is the scent of your skin the nights you slept with me.”
The letters from home came once every three months, one sheet each time, different ink colors from letter to letter. “I buy ink pellets only when I need to write you,” her mother wrote. “Whatever the store has that day.” She saved all the letters her mother wrote. She studied their colors and the tiny notched edges, imagining their journey from one relay mail post to the next by carts, by runners, traveling on rivers and creeks to Vietnam by basket boats, from town to town until they reached her. If only she could stuff herself into an envelope and go home!
In the early days, the writing paper was so porous and veined with bamboo fibers it pricked her hand. In those days, she would be homesick when something familiar would come to her at some time in the day or night. The sound of a woodpecker drilling a tree outside the window made her think of the ah-oh of the mourning doves at home.
She missed the wall of her school, next to the much faded blackboard, displayed an old map of China. On the chalk rail were wooden compasses, a metal triangle, a square, a protractor. The school was poor, so the students took turns looking for white clay to make chalk for the teachers. On the day her turn came, her mother went with her to distant tracts of paddies where the soil was gray. They would wrap clay clods in a hemp bag and dissolve them in water at home. When the clay settled, her mother taught her how to roll it into finger-shaped sticks and let them dry, so her teacher could use them as chalk. Sometimes when school supplies became scarce, she went with her mother to the hills to scour bog myrtles to make ink. With a basket hooked on her forearm, she left home with her mother while the morning sun was still mild. She had never seen the bog myrtle fruit until she saw their purple flowers coloring the brow of the hill. She plucked the berries, took them home, and mashed them. She boiled the liquid until it turned dark purple. The homemade ink lasted three days and gave off a strong smell. Some of her classmates’ ink lasted much longer because they mixed it with scarce alum, which cost more than rice. So every three days she would go back to the bog myrtle hills. She resented the bog myrtle ink. Its foul smell made her miserable. Her mother held her against her breast a long time and told her to have faith in Heaven, faith in the order of things to be bestowed on mortals who cared and believed. She kept her mother’s words in mind and believed in a faith that could defy even death.
One autumn day, rain fell all morning. Then it rained again into the next day and the next, a damp wind never ceasing. Coming home from school in the afternoon, she saw a village messenger beating a gong as he raced up and down the dirt road. “Each house, each man, five bags of sand,” he hollered. Flood again, she thought. But this one could be bad, because the village had already mobilized all the men from fifteen to fifty years of age to guard the dike.
When she got home, her mother was putting on her woven rope raincoat, ready to leave the house. “Where are you going, Mother?”
“To the village cooperative,” her mother said. “Come with me. We have to buy sand and jute bags and carry them to the dike tonight.”
As she closed the door, a black spider fell dangling in the doorway. “Wait here,” her mother said and went back inside. At the ancestral altar, she lit a joss stick and prayed. Xiaoli watched the spider. It stopped descending and seemed to wait for her to go away. She swatted it and it wriggled on the doorstep.
Her mother put on her straw hat and took her by the hand. “Let’s go,” she said, “before it gets dark.”
“Why’d you have to pray?”
“The black spider is a bad omen.”
“Of the flood?”
“I prayed for us to be spared.”
She helped her mother carry the jute bags and sand home. They made five sandbags and hauled them to the dike in the twilight.
On the dike, villagers were banging pans and gongs and beating drums. Megaphones called people to spots along the dike that needed to be fortified. She clung to her mother’s arm as they jostled through the crowd. Papaya torches lit the night and the rain smelled of burnt leaves.
Men and women worked to reinforce the dike. Wives and daughters came to help their husbands, fathers, brothers. The sky was black, the river and the dike lit only by torches. The drums beat steadily. People moved about like ants, dragging sandbags across the rain-slick dike to places that had to be buttressed. After midnight, the river crested. The megaphones blared out orders: “Dike about to break. Run!” Water surged through gaps in the dike, and people splashed through the current toward higher ground. The frantic beat of drums knotted her stomach. Torches were tossed away, sizzling in the floodwater. Ashes floating like fireflies carried the burnt smell of papaya.
Water rose swiftly to their chest. They reached a hillside shrine, but people were already packed inside. They sat on the steps in the downpour, watching people crouched in the darkness under trees. Her mother cradled her, shielding her head from rain.
“Same kind of flood when I just had you,” she said, “. . . when you were barely a month old.”
She raised her head. “Was Father with you? In the flood?”
“No. He went back to Vietnam.”
“Why? What did Father do? You never told me.”
“He works for the greater good.”
“What does that mean?”
“He works for his country—in a dangerous line of business.”
“But if someone kills Father, who will take care of us?”
“You always have me, darling. And I always have you.” Her mother smiled at her affectionately. “Now, just rest. It’s going to be a long night.”
She closed her eyes, imagining a river that was like the rush of water surrounding them. A thunderous noise blasted through the air. Then shouts — “Dike broke!”— followed by cries in the dark. She shut her eyes, imagining a river, this wild river, overflowing her village, drowning livestock and pets. She thought of her house, then dimly of what her mother said about her faceless father before she fell asleep in her mother’s arms.
One day her mother came home late from her tobacco-stripping job in another village. She worked odd jobs. Nothing lasted long. Knitting shawls for people until her fingers and hands ached. She had calluses on her hands that she could not even pare with a knife. When there was no work, she set up a stand selling ginger sweetdrops in the alley outside their house. Xiaoli saw her coming in with glazed eyes. The bog myrtle ink smelled sour, and the brush she wrote with smeared it across the porous paper. The bamboo fibers had ruined it. Tiny splinters from the writing paper went into the heel of her hand. Her mother examined Xiaoli’s hand by the light of the oil lamp. After she pulled the bamboo splinters from the heel of her hand, she padded it with a handkerchief. Her face looked grim, her fingertips brown from tobacco leaves. She said, “Xiaoli, I’m sending you to Vietnam. You’ll be indentured to a Vietnamese family to pay off our debt.” Shocked, she looked at her mother who took her bleeding hand into her own. “I owe people money.” Her mother’s shoulders felt soft and bony, and when Xiaoli wept into her chest, she smelled sweat and tobacco.
In bed later that night, Xiaoli listened to the stillness, to the sound of oxcarts creaking along the road, but after a while she heard nothing. The air was hot after three weeks of dry weather. So much water had evaporated from the pond that you could see the mossy bottom. The rush mat was warm, and her mother was still awake, lying on her side. Her hair covered half her face. Her eyes gleamed.
“What kept you up so late?” her mother said.
“Do you want me to go to Vietnam, Mother?”
Her mother’s chest heaved and she said nothing.
She spoke into her mother’s chest. “Will you miss me when I go, Mother?”
“I will,” her mother murmured.
“I know deep in your heart you don’t want me to go, do you, Mother?”
“My heart will say no, but my head and mouth will say yes.”
Her mother stopped speaking.
“Where will you get the money to buy my ticket?”
“You’ll be on a boat. I don’t have to pay.”
She rubbed Xiaoli’s back for a while and then picked up a palm-leaf hand fan and fanned her daughter. Slowly Xiaoli felt herself disconnecting from her mother and slipping into a dark vacuum with nothing to grab, nothing to pull herself back with, and in that vacuum she cried out “Mother” and woke.
With her head pillowed on her hands, she curled up, trying to take comfort in the lullaby of waves. She couldn’t sleep any more, and dawn seemed an eternity in coming.