" Đời người chỉ sống có một lần. Phải sống sao cho khỏi xót xa, ân hận vì những năm tháng đã sống hoài, sống phí, cho khỏi hổ thẹn vì dĩ vãng ti tiện, đớn hèn, để khi nhắm mắt xuôi tay có thể nói rằng: tất cả đời ta, tất cả sức ta, ta đã hiến dâng cho sự nghiệp cao đẹp nhất trên đời...
Lan resented that her children were smart. There were four of them. Each only a year apart. Nathalie and Nathan had been on honor roll since the 9th grade. Her first two had already gone.
She saw Amy four times a year on every holiday break. Singapore was only a five-hour flight away. As for Cory, if she were lucky, he’d come home during summer. He was studying biochemical engineering in Lyon, France. She couldn’t pronounce such a name, nor could she correctly spell the English names they had given themselves. “These days everyone has English names, Ma,” they said. Nathalie’s real name was Nhan, a white flower of an intense fragrance. It bloomed in Winter, usually along a river or near the ocean. Lan was also named after a flower—the orchid.
All of their names had meaning. In changing them to English, her children only kept the first letters of the names Lan had given them. Their new English names never became normal to her. She twisted her tongue over the foreign sounds, mistook the r for l when she tried to ask for her son Cory on the phone. His roommates were Vietnamese too, but they’d refuse to respond to her in their mother tongue. Instead, they nonchalantly told her that there was no one by that name there. ‘Those friends of yours need to learn to respect the elder. A bunch of rootless, uncultured brats,” she complained. “They were born here, Ma. So technically they’re French.” “Do they look French to you?” She laughed mockingly.
These conversations pained her. There was nothing to be done about Cory. Two summers ago, when he walked through the wheat field and tripped over the pecking chickens, she had not recognized him. He was tall, wide, and handsome. No son of hers should be so good-looking. She was a rough, common woman. Her best feature was her heap of silky hair, the color of burning coal—black with strands of bright red from working under the sun. When he stepped onto the wooden porch, even his shadow seemed to tower over her.
“Mama.” He smiled, his teeth straight and shiny. He bent down to kiss her hair. She only reached his chin.
“My god, what do they feed you over there?” She clucked, her throat dry.
“How do I look? What do you think?—engineered milk, Ma. At least that’s what they say.” He spoke in a low whisper.
She looked at him painfully. “Be quiet now. Come inside. I killed a fat pig for you.”
The rest of the summer was quiet. Cory laid in the hammock reading Nietzsche or Dickens. He used to read to her all the time, Vietnamese fables and historical tales, some romances here and there. She asked him to translate his English books to her. He said it was too difficult; some English expressions didn’t exist in Vietnamese. But he did relate Great Expectations to her and she enjoyed it. “It seems their poverty is so similar to ours. Why don’t you write about the suffering of our people? It would make you famous too if that’s the stuff they like.” He frowned at her, then slowly his brows relaxed into a smile. “No, Ma, we don’t need more of that. The only stories ever written about our country are about suffering.”
Lan knew he was right and could not argue with him. These days, she had not been able to respond to her son at all. He was magnanimous in the way he dealt with his less educated mother. She couldn’t take offense because he was being sensitive. But in her throat, she felt as if she had swallowed a bitter fruit. The other siblings looked up to their older brother. Nathan had already decided he wanted to be a doctor and gotten Cory’s approval. Nathalie, however, was a different case. Lan worried about Nathalie. She revered her brother.
In her mind, Lan secretly hoped Nathalie would be the one to stay home. Cory filled Nathalie’s head with wild ideas. You are in charge of your destiny, he told her. Anything you can imagine is real. He told her about the famous American Dream.
But what about the dreams of Vietnamese people? thought Lan. Of simple folks like her and Nathalie? She had dreamed of her children even before they were born.
She had been able to predict all of their genders. It was quite simple, actually; all she’d had to do was sing. Both Amy and Nathalie kicked at songs about the seasons, harvests, or love. Cory and Nathan liked the national anthem.
She would protect Nathalie. Nathalie was at the peak of her beauty. At sixteen, she was a rosy bud whose mild manner, Lan knew, hid deep passions. Lan refused to see her daughter’s blooming beauty, just as she had covered her mouth and looked away when she’d discovered a stain of blood on Nathalie’s underwear. She was only twelve then, much too young for such a feminine secret.
Yet it was hard for her to ignore Nathalie’s late arrivals at night, and the growing whispers behind their banana tree in the garden. Nathalie had started going on long walks after dusk and returning only after the crickets had sung well into the night.
“Where were you?” she asked when she heard Nathalie pushing at their creaky bamboo door.
“I caught a firefly, Ma. Look.” She held up a glass jar. Inside was a glowing winged insect. Her arms were swollen red from mosquito bites. Large beads of sweat rolled from her forehead as if she really had been chasing fireflies.
“Come here,” she gestured and Nathalie lifted the mosquito net to climb onto the bed.
The oil lamp cast a warm light in only one corner of the room. Lan lay on her side and watched the hazy, faraway look in her daughter’s eyes. She considered striking her across the cheek. But instead, she pulled the girl’s bony frame into her chest and held her there so tightly that Nathalie fell asleep from lack of oxygen and the heat passing between their bodies.
She had seen the boy. He walked behind Nathalie along the dirt road. Around here all the roads were merely footpaths of a thick, orange mud. She had peered up from her hat, just barely as to not be obvious. The boy was clumsy, swaying left and right, his jeans crunched up at the knees, his hands carrying two pairs of shoes.
Under the banana tree was a straw mat. The farmers usually gathered there at midday to take naps, share lunch or a piece of gossip. They would break the leaves off the branches to fan themselves. At night, it was a spot far enough away from the marsh and safe from water snakes. She had heard their footsteps crunching on the dry leaves and turned out the oil lamp. Back pressed against the cold cement wall, she pulled her knees to her chest and listened to the succession of suppressed giggles and irregular breathing. For a moment, she felt ashamed as if she were a child herself, caught in the middle of peeking into her parents’ bedroom. She wanted to run out, against the darkness, against her own thumping heartbeats to confront them. She imagined pulling on Nathalie’s hair, dragging her away from the boy, his eyes oscillating, half-fearful, half-mocking. She wouldn’t look at Nathalie because she knew, she knew that her daughter’s eyes would be so filled with hatred, shame, hatred. So she sat, rocking herself, and waited. Perhaps this was the only way. Nathalie would stay here. She had decided her own fate under the banana tree.
After that night, Lan awoke each morning with a new vitality. The house was filled with sweet smelling fruit, oranges, apples, bananas, mangosteens. Every night, there was meat on the table. She went out to the field as soon as the rooster cawed its song and stretched its long neck toward the rising sun. Nathalie still took her nightly walk. But Lan no longer stayed up and waited. She merely fell asleep each night, feeling peace and excitement as she pictured the days ahead.
Soon the day came when Nathan received his scholarship. Four years in the U.K. The three of them huddled together that night. She had cried greatly but did not feel too much of a loss.
“I’ll call every week, Ma.”
“You all say that. Cory and Amy did too. How often do you hear from them?”
“I won’t be like them. I promise.” He appealed with red eyes.
“I know.” She stroked his back till he fell asleep.
“Mama?” Nathalie muttered. Over the course of two months, her face had grown noticeably round and ruddy.
“Hm?” Lan asked, her left hand still patting Nathan’s back.
“Do you think I’ll ever get to go? Overseas I mean? I miss Amy. I’m applying for a scholarship in Singapore, Ma. I’m not as smart as them, though.”
“Be quiet. You are the smartest of all. But going isn’t always as great as you think. You will have to do everything by yourself, it will be very hard. You are not used to it—you won’t like it much.”
“I can get used to it, Ma. I want you to be proud of me, as proud as you are of Cory.”
“I am proud of you.” She sighed heavily. “Darling, how many times will your brothers and sisters actually see me in their life? Have you thought of that? I’m old. I might live for perhaps twenty more years. If they come see me once a year at their best effort, that’s twenty times. Twenty in a lifetime that I will see my children again.”
Many more weeks went by. Lan pretended not to notice her daughter’s mood swings and continued to pass the best pieces of meat to her at the dinner table. The girl winced but swallowed obediently. Nathan had already gone. It was just the two of them now.
It poured. The rain flooded the meadow, the yard, the house. Lan sniffed the air—sweet and muddy. Nathalie was nowhere to be found. She was not at any of the usual spots, at home in her favorite chair reading her brothers’ letters, or under the banana tree. She called her daughter’s name, but her voice was drowned by the roaring thunder. She went out, knees deep in water, with the rain prickling her eyelids, her mouth. Keeping her eyes shut and only glimpsing every now and then in the distance, she saw, on top of the mound of sand and construction debris in front of the village’s elementary school, a large block of wood rolling. Then at the bottom of the slope, the block of wood stood up, climbed back up, and rolled down again. For a moment, she stood still, puzzled and watching the gray figure. Then she gasped, her breath short but sharp. Against the foamy torrent, she ran toward the school.
“You dumb child! What are you doing!” she shouted. She looked at Nathalie fearfully. “What are you doing? What are you doing?”
Nathalie slumped to the ground like a rock. Her soaked shirt clung to her ribs and the round, swelling bump on her stomach. “Ma! I’m so sorry. I’ve ruined everything.” Her hands clutched at a crumpled piece of paper. She unfolded it shakily. “Look, Ma. I got accepted. The fall of 2012, it says. I’m going to the International School of Business and Management. I’m going…” She trailed off.
Lan bent down next to Nathalie, covered the girl’s body with her frail arms. Flashes of lightning lit up the sky. Though they could not hear each other, they were both crying.
Lan spread cotton sheets on the floor and filled a large tub with warm water. Up until this point, they had not discussed what to do. When Lan spoke with Cory on the phone, she looked over at Nathalie and the girl put a finger to her lips, silencing the impending news. Amy was visiting in August; she would find out for herself. As for Cory and Nathan, they probably wouldn’t know what to make of it. It was best to save them the awkward reaction.
The house was bathed in fresh sunlight, which shone through the baby’s paper-thin skin. He arrived so quietly and with so little fuss that Lan had to pinch his cheek so he could cry. After gently wiping him clean, she turned to Nathalie.
“Do you want him?” Lan rocked the baby in her arms. “Whatever your choice is, I can take care of it.”
Nathalie looked at her gratefully. “No, Ma. No—no, of course not. Thanks for helping me—” She put the wrapped-up baby into Nathalie’s arms. The baby found its food, and fed hungrily.
For months, the baby didn’t have a name. He wailed, the soft skin on his forehead wrinkled. His mouth grimaced and he refused to drink from his mother.
“It’s like he’s your baby, not mine,” Nathalie said with a tinge of sadness. It was true, as soon as Nathalie handed him to Lan, the baby wriggled quietly and grinned a toothless smile. Sometimes he’d burst into a succession of giggles. When he couldn’t stop, he’d hiccup, eyes still smiling.
“An, that’s his name,” she suggested and Nathalie agreed.
“It means peace, right, Ma?”
“Yes, I feel peace,” Lan answered, not listening.
Nathalie started going to school again. She was a bright girl and it didn’t take her long to catch up in all her classes. Grades were not a problem. It was her classmates and the professors. Her friends were glad of the “tragedy”. Nathalie was smart, pretty, but now she wasn’t perfect anymore. Though they didn’t say it, Nathalie could feel their secret celebration. And her teachers, they looked at her with such pity. You could have had such a bright future, their faces seemed to scold.
Nathalie still studied at the oil lamp every night, but no longer with any enthusiasm. She couldn’t see a purpose in it. What would she do? She had to do something to take care of An. She yawned and scribbled heartlessly on the blank page.
“Mm? He’s asleep now.” Lan put the baby down next to her and resumed knitting a sweater.
“Perhaps I should quit school. Get a job.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“But I can’t do anything now, Ma. Graduating from a village’s school. It means nothing. You know that. I could help you out on the field.”
“I have no job in the field for you. I have already accepted the scholarship for you. I took the mail yesterday. You’re going in the fall.”
“What? Ma! What about An?” Nathalie looked from Lan to the baby.
“I can take care of him. Can’t I An?” She smiled wistfully at his sleeping face.
“Thank you for the sweater.”
“No child of mine can leave without one.”
“Singapore doesn’t really get cold, though. The weather there is like ours.”
“It’s all cold to me. It’s all far and cold.” She cut the last thread and tied it.
The truth was she had pictured the three of them, sitting on the front porch, content to be exactly where they were. But only she and the baby were happy. Every time she looked, Nathalie would have her chin resting on her hand, her gaze never touching her surroundings, always immeasurable, always at a distance Lan felt she could not reach. “Where are you? You’re already gone.” Even with the baby, nothing had changed. And so she filled in the information noiselessly and sent it away. Just a piece of paper with some official-sounding words on it. Yet she couldn’t help but feel as if she was sending her last child to war. Nathalie would be safe; she wouldn’t get shot or blown up. The uncertainty wasn’t life or death, but whether she would return.
A month after Nathalie left, Lan heard rapping at the door. Baby An was crawling on the kitchen floor, putting anything he could find in his mouth. The boy was at the door clutching a plastic bag filled with oranges. His white shirt was well worn but the collar was crisp as if it had been ironed only a few minutes earlier. He wore the same uniform-blue khaki pants that all her children had worn in school. At the sign of a stranger, baby An sat up and stared curiously. He then clapped his hands together and giggled. The boy looked at the baby and his whole face flushed.
“I’m Nam.” he said, “I’m a friend of Nhan’s. I just wanted to give you this.” He raised the bag of oranges.
“Come in, Nam.” She addressed him sternly and tried to smile at the same time. He was already nervous. She told him to sit and he obeyed at once, stiffly.
“Relax, Nam,” she said. He stared at her silently. Baby An had crawled under the table over to his legs. She bent down, about to pick up the baby, but stopped herself and waited. She would determine right then and there everything about Nam. He was waiting for her to speak, to ask questions. She said nothing.
When her stomach had first started to swell again, Lan hadn’t told her husband. After the first three and getting twenty stitches when Amy was born, she’d thought perhaps the universe should spare her. She had gone to see Miss Peach without a specific intention, treading the boundaries of her choices. The house was murky and damp. Miss Peach was stirring a combination of herbs at the stove. The smoke rose from the clay pot and hung in a cloud above them, its bitter, fruity smell filling Lan’s nostrils. She felt sleepy. Miss Peach asked Lan what she wanted, but she could only shake her head. “Well they all only want one thing when they show up here.” Miss Peach curled her mouth in contempt. The reddish mole above her upper lip was laughing. She laid Lan face down on the bed. Lan was surprised by the gentleness of her touch. “Don’t be scared,” Miss Peach breathed. Lan found the motion soothing. Miss Peach held the sharp ends over the candle flame, then pushed them, one after another, into the layers of skin on Lan’s back. After all the needles were inserted and removed, Miss Peach gave Lan a lump of fine black powder, twisted inside a piece of plastic. At home, on her own bed, Lan bit through the plastic and the powder streamed rapidly down her throat.
Lan woke up with her stomach contracting painfully. Her husband was shaking her shoulders “Lan, wake up, wake up. Tell me what’s wrong.” She bent over the side of the bed and vomited cloudy fluid that was neither food nor water. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to be pregnant again.” She looked up at her husband’s face. His eyes were sallow and humiliated, ashamed of her, for her. “I forgive you,” he blinked. When her stomach had continued to expand, Lan had gone back to Miss Peach. She’d studied Lan up and down, her face puckered and amused. “Well that’s God’s plan, not mine.”
“Can I hold him?” Nam asked tentatively.
“I never got to say goodbye to Nhan.” He picked up the baby by the armpits. With confidence, he held An under the arms and bounced him up and down. Baby An’s mouth opened into a little “o” and he reached for Nam’s face.
“I think she didn’t want to see me.”
“She had a lot on her mind.”
“I always knew she was meant to do many things.”
“You think so?” she asked. Nathalie wanted to be as good as her siblings. But did she particularly want anything else? For herself?
“She told me once—when her brother sent you five hundred francs, you had left the envelope on the kitchen table for a month. She said the foreign currency was precious to you because her brother had sent it. It showed how great he was. It showed he could give back to his family.”
Lan remembered that day. She had been waiting for Cory’s letter. But instead the mailman had handed her a red package. She’d ripped it open, and inside was another red envelope with the golden letters Happy New Year in three languages, French, Chinese, and Vietnamese.
Just the week before, she too had sent him a red envelope. She didn’t know what five hundred thousand dong would amount to in euros but it was all she could scrape together. She accompanied it with a letter saying she hoped he could buy something nice. She sent the same amount to Amy. Nathalie and Nathan got fifty thousand dong each, enough for a textbook and perhaps a new shirt.
She counted the colorful, foreign bills. Nathalie said that was enough to buy a new calf, or groceries for many years. Lan couldn’t believe it. She wrung her hands together and wept. Her eyes would stay red for the whole day. Nathalie thought she was overcome with happiness. The girl kept looking at her mother and smiling. But Lan was more confused. She had never possessed such a large sum of money. Before, she used to sit and dream about how Cory spent his days, what he picked out from the market, how he may eat with a book open in front of him. But she couldn’t imagine anymore. She couldn’t know or understand what life was like for him. They were in separate worlds.
“Is there anything I can do for you, Nam?” she finally asked the boy.
“No—I wanted to see how you were doing. The baby—”
His eyes lit up as if he had not expected the confirmation this early on. He swallowed. “Can I come see you both, sometimes? I want to marry Nhan one day—I will be able to lift such a burden from you. I don’t mean that you don’t love the baby, just that it wasn’t your responsibility. It is mine. I’m so grateful—I will figure something out, I promise. I won’t dare to ask for Nhan until then. I won’t bring the subject up again, only, I only wanted for you to know— My intentions—” He stumbled. She studied his youthful face. His cheeks still round and full, his lashes long and batting—a dreamer, she thought. His voice was cracking, the rhythm went up and down, sometimes low and raspy, others high and singsong, out of control. He was only a child, barely transitioning into manhood.
“You’re an insolent child, coming here after this much time has passed. But I forgive you because this isn’t easy. And here you are.”
Nam bowed his head. His tense shoulders loosened. “What is the baby’s name?”
“An.” She beamed.
“I like it. Simple and universal. Anyone could pronounce it.”
“Yes, he certainly won’t need to change it to an English or French name. It would suffice.”
Two years passed. Now, Nam never neglected a single weekend of visiting Lan and baby An. At first, she was cautious about Nam’s presence, hushing the baby’s nascent questions and growing attachment to the only man in their life. But as she watched the boy hunched over his homework at the kitchen table like her children had once done, she felt her heart contract painfully.
“Why don’t you go out with your friends? Live your life. Youth does not last forever,” she told him.
“I like being here. It feels natural to me.” He smiled the smile of a child who has lost his innocence and is pleased with it.
“I just don’t want you to feel obligated,” She offered.
“I give myself the obligations. I know I don’t have to. But that’s why it feels even better to do what is right, knowing in my heart it is and without being told.”
“You have become a bright young man. Nhan would be pleased.”
Being in a foreign land, Nathalie missed her mother more than her own son. She remembered baby An as she would a younger brother. But she never told anybody about her life back home. There would be too much to explain from her past, and too much they would assume. It was also the first time she heard her English name uttered by strangers as if it encompassed the whole of her identity. She liked being free that way, like a newborn, with nothing attached to the name Nathalie.
That was until she met Quang. Part Chinese, he was tall, wide-framed, and had slanted eyes that looked cold and intelligent. His parents had purposefully chosen a name that sounded both Chinese and Vietnamese. With a slight accent, he insisted on calling Nathalie by her Vietnamese name. And just like that her whole life spilled out in front of her. She spoke without restraint and collapsed into Quang as if he were the carrier of her secrets, as if he were responsible for them as much as she.
“All the beautiful people have a past.” He pulled her head closer to his broad chest.
The wedding news echoed over the phone. Lan received the words with quiet, resigned anger, like hot coal still burning but not enough for flames. Nathalie explained that it would be best for everyone if Lan and the baby moved to Singapore. “He’s kind enough to offer to adopt An,” she said. But Lan did not feel that it was kindness; it was coercion, a clever cloy to uproot Nathalie’s past, the only thing that wasn’t under Quang’s thumb. Of course a baby implied that there was a father too, that Nathalie wasn’t alone. “He would own you. It is a charity. Nothing would be ours. Do you want to be a charity?” Nathalie wept. Lan tried to understand her daughter’s slurred words but the line had gone blank. Nathalie had hung up.
The worst thing was that none of the other children thought it was a bad idea. She had immediately telephoned Cory, Amy, and Nathan on the same day and gotten voicemail for all three. She spoke into the vacant recorder, persuading them that if she left, they would no longer have a home to return to. When they called her back, it was to express how wonderful it would be for her to be looked after, to finally enjoy her life and not have to bend her back under the scorching sun. Nathan was the only one to show any sign of regret. The more she tried to convince them that she loved her work, that she didn’t know any other life, the more she felt the aching in her back. Her hand trembled to hold the receiver in place. She hung up and wept silently, letting her tears traverse the many wrinkles on her face, not bothering to wipe them away.
She understood that she was the only one to fight and protect this home, this pocket filled with memories of her children and her husband, opening and closing the door each day. Her husband had fixed the hinges right before he’d fallen ill. After the bamboo creaked for the thousandth time, he took a half-breath and never exhaled again, leaving Lan unable to sooth Nathalie’s sharp cries. She was only a little girl then.
How tired she was. She would not fix the fractures in the cement wall that had started as a single fissure and now branched into a spidery pattern over the entire house. She would not ask her neighbor to weave her a new roof of banana leaves, because fresh ones would attract more bugs, which were worse than the dry, crumbling roof.
She was lifted and scattered into the air like the million seeds of dandelion. When she looked back, the banana tree had diminished into a single dot, but she could still see Nam underneath a leaf’s shadow, his boyish face contorted in pain and accusation. He waved his arms violently, mouthing something she could only guess to be “Don’t let my son forget me.” But even with his youthful strength, he couldn’t change the course of the wind.
Nathalie and Quang picked her and An up from the airport and apologized for taking so long—a full fifteen minutes to get there. Quang said “Burlington square. Bencolin Street” to the taxi driver. He nodded and declared “Okay la!” with enthusiasm then drove without a word for the rest of the trip. The building was a high-rise, with green tinted glass window all the way to the top.
Lan nervously stepped inside the elevator, which took them to the fifteenth floor. She was glad to see the house was small like back home, except divided into three separate bedrooms with a shared area of the living room and kitchen. Out the window, houses and buildings toppled over each other in want of space. “Like weeds in a field,” she murmured.
Quang showed her to the bedroom and excitedly informed her that he had removed the mattress and replaced it with a straw mat.
“Nhan told me that the mattress would hurt your back,” he said.
“Thank you,” said Lan. She sat down on the mat, felt the familiar hard pack of straw beneath her.
An squirmed in Nathalie’s arms. She let him down to the ground.
“How big he’s gotten,” she said. An took tentative steps toward the bed. He crawled into his grandmother’s lap and lay his head against her shoulder. Lan felt his breath on her neck and began to sway him to sleep, singing long, yearning notes. Nathalie sat beside her mother and hummed softly to her song. Together, the sounds of their voices draped the whole room with memory and carried them away.
An fell asleep instantly.
Abbi Nguyen is both a perpetual foreigner wherever she goes and a citizen of the world. She writes best at six in the morning before sunrise.