First published in Issue 93 of the Greensboro Review.
We are leaving Elizabeth City in a week. The bus tickets and a wad of twenty-dollar bills crunch between my thin mattress and the crooked slats of the bed at night. I haven’t told Tuyen we’re going yet. She’s only eight and asks too many questions, and there’s not enough time to prepare Mom’s memorial and explain to her how I am not a thief.
I tried to get a job that summer at Pizza Hut so we could run away. From the storms and the way the gas stove leaked and the mold in the bottom of the sink that stuck beneath my nails and Uncle, pick-pick-picking at the gaps between his teeth. Tuyen wanted me to work in a grocery store because there were whole aisles of candy she said she’d never tried. twizzlers. Mars bars. Swedish fish. But no groceries were hiring.
“Pizza Hut is,” she said between mouthfuls of sour jelly worms.
I said I’d stink of grease and thwacked a fish I’d caught for dinner against the dock where she sat watching me. Tuyen spat on her palm to clean the dirt from the hem of her dress.
“You could catch fish.”
The bass still flopped, so I hit it with a rock. Its belly shivered in the sun. In a bit, I’d slit the stomach, then saw the fish guts free from where they were fixed to bone. The innards would float on the water, pointing down the river bend to where will Johnson lived. Will Johnson played basketball and drove his brother Joe’s sedan.
“When we find Dad, will he buy me glitter shoes?” Tuyen asked.
“That mess on your dress looks like a squashed Milky way,” I said, ankle deep in warm June sludge. It was a clear day, full of stars. In the scales of the largemouth and the mud.
We’re crab-children, tuyen and me. Popped right out of a salt river pot in the swamp. I tell her Uncle Chinh dragged us up from the mud.
“Why?” Tuyen sometimes interrupts. Even though she’s not supposed to speak in my bed. She’s not supposed to poke me with her knobby knees either, but she does.
I make reasons up: “To cook and clean and fix the drains. To sell for lost poker chips. ’Cause he’s a lonely man.” Obviously, Tuyen cooks worse than me and no one would buy me unless they had clogged drains they needed cleaned. “To free himself from a terrible curse.” (This much is true. Our mom once said Uncle was cursed. Though you’d never know it with the crab-luck he’s got.) If I don’t say this last bit, Tuyen gets her stale night breath all over me again asking why.
Really, he fished us up to sort through the crap that litters the yard after the storms. The storms drown the lawn in wooden boards and metal piping that blows across the Pasquotank.
We have to find our father because Uncle Chinh is marrying. We found out on the boat, after school had closed. “The driftwood,” he said, one hand steering the boat, one holding his bánh mi. “Keep it for my wife’s new room.” No please or thank you or what-do-you-think, even though I had a lot of thoughts I could have shared.
“She doesn’t come with her own driftwood?” I asked.
“Shut your mouth.” the pork from his bánh mi spilled onto the motor, which he cut, while me and Tuyen climbed onto a makeshift dock, half hidden by bald cypresses and tupelos. We found the moonshine deeper in the swamp, among the butterwort and Spanish moss that spun out from the trees like floss. From the box, I knocked a nymph whose skin had split, and Tuyen played with the pitcher plants.
“We could use that board that washed up from the Johnsons’ dock for a floor,” she said later as we hauled crab pots in. We. As if she’d hammer the plank to the plywood and mismatched pine boards of our house, too cheap to be stolen by Atlantic hurricanes.
“No point,” I said, before Uncle could agree. “Uncle’s heart will go bust first day of married life. They nag, you know.” Wives. He said he knew and smiled at me and I said shit because when I yanked the motor cord, it didn’t catch. He must have been homesick when he bought the junker. Uncle just lit a cigarette and leaned back, his illegal liquor burning in the sun for anyone to see.
He was marrying after the anniversary of our mom’s death, then three months away. As though he planned to beg for blessings. He’d never held an anniversary for her death before, though she’d died eight years back. Unchristian, he’d said.
Chinh means “righteous” in Vietnamese. No feast days for his sister, and selling crabs and booze no tax, and when had I ever seen him go to Mass? Ma Linh called him a good man, and that was the biggest joke.
I wrenched the cord again and again and promised we’d leave before some stepmother tromped all over the Johnsons’ dock with her big feet.
Tuyen means “heavenly.” I brush her hair a hundred times before bed. A hundred times more, nights Uncle has friends around. Those nights she needs just one more glass of water, just a sip of milk. She wears her good pajamas with the bows and through the clapboard walls I nailed together I hear her dance and sing.
Lang means “sweet potato.” But everybody calls me Little Wife.
There’s a story in Vietnam about two girls called Tam and Cam.
A long time ago, before I was born, a mother died leaving a baby called Tam and a father lonely in a house on the edge of foul-smelling fields. The father married a newer wife, then died. Tam was prettier than the stepmother’s brat, Cam, so Tam had to wash the water buffaloes and collect pig ferns and ruin her fingers husking corn.
Tuyen doesn’t like this story much. So I tell her instead how we were fished up on a rough rope that gently spread its seaweed tentacles across the Albemarle.
We weren’t really born out of a crab pot. I tell tuyen we’re crab-children because she can’t remember our mom. Our mom died of the flu. Uncle helped me bathe her body with his heavy foreign hands. Then, not two months in the country, no English to his name, he had me translate state rules on burial. No priests were involved. Only one Catholic church in Elizabeth City anyway, and they didn’t like the look of us. We shoved her in a sack in the backyard.
I’d never known my dad. An American my mother had been searching for when, pregnant with me, she’d boarded a small boat, filled with breathing bodies, that had stilled and stiffened and been tossed into the Pacific, before reaching the United States.
I spent the first month of our summer vacation searching for a job. I even told Ma Linh I could sew. “Good.” Because the girls she paid sewed shit. But she said that everyone could sew, and she kneaded dough on the linoleum, her small counter crammed with condensed milk cans and jars of pickled vegetables.
“I sew better. I got good eyes.”
“You got wandering eyes,” Ma Linh said. Her shoulder blades stuck out from her back, little bird-wings of bone. The knot of muscles beneath her skin like cables tying her to her mobile home. She slapped the dough three times against the floor, then wiped the sweat from her forehead with her arm and plucked a row of dumplings from the Bunsen burner stove. In the heat, Ma Linh’s house stank of the chemicals from the dye she mixed in her bathtub to stain the clothes she sold. “Have some bánh bao before you go.” I slammed the door on my way out.
Ma Linh owned a drinking shack once upon a time, before she took to hawking clothes. The police broke down the tin walls for prostitution, gambling, unlicensed booze. So people said. She’d been my mother’s best friend but had been in jail when we stuffed mom in the ground.
I imagine my mother sometimes, lovely in a summer dress, fitting her small palm into the hands of men who sneaked through the darkened, stopgap door. Pretty, like Tuyen. the type of soft beauty that turns to fat with age.
“We could whack some sense into Uncle with one of these planks,” I told Tuyen one afternoon, hauling a board to a pile of trash. She collected pinecones the trees shook loose.
“Or feed him to the pitcher plants.”
I laughed. Uncle wiggling his toes as he lowered himself into the waxy tube until even the white scar on his skull disappeared.
“Not a pitcher plant big enough for his fat ass,” I said. Tuyen is almost eight and doesn’t always think things through. Not that it matters much. She’s pretty. The sticky eyes of Uncle’s poker friends follow her when she’s in the room.
The pinecones clattered into the fire pit. We made plans for escape. To New York, where the men who worked for Chinh said there were more phở stalls than you could count. And people, too. You could stuff Elizabeth City into just one block. A person could vanish there.
“I’m going to be a secretary for a lawyer when I grow up,” Tuyen said this summer beneath the house, in the thin space between the water pipes we go to when we’re tired of chores.
The house above us creaked, the nails splitting from the swollen wood. I meant to say, you could be the lawyer, but I didn’t. I closed my eyes and imagined how the walls would rock when Uncle’s wife arrived, the way the spiders would scuttle through the cracks in the boards as the night panted and slapped bone against bone. Lazily, I touched myself, the stuffiness of the dirt in my lungs.
I hadn’t actually minded smelling of fast-food grease. Pizza Hut hadn’t wanted me. I’d failed the personality test. The manager had apologized. Company policy. I’d understood and walked home along the river’s edge, my sandals slapping the concrete bulkhead, the crab pots, glaring in the sun. Our mother’s feast day was five weeks out. I could barely make it to D.C. with the small bills I’d stolen from Uncle’s wallet and hidden in the cracks of the floor. Alone.
I could catch fish. Kids already kept clear of me, the way I smelled of the blood and entrails of the Pasquotank.
So I treaded water and trawled up rope, slippery with weed, fish scales on my skin like silk, the wire of the crab pot cold.
“You can clean my garden,” Ma Linh had said earlier. “Not much money, but I pay. Here.” I’d shoved the knife I held into the dock and took the bánh bao. “Plenty of time to work, Lang. No hurry now.” Ma Linh had squeezed my neck. She’d left three dumplings for Uncle, Tuyen, and me. I ate two and half of a third and tossed the leftovers into the wide sky.
Above the matchstick trees, the moon was pale and half chewed and blind to the thrashing of my legs as I pulled with a yellow rubber dishwashing glove their bodies from the pots, clackity like coins. Raking a thin stretch of soil wouldn’t get me to Delaware, let alone New York. At least a hundred bucks headed that far, the man behind the Greyhound counter had said. Double that with Tuyen.
Joe Johnson from the bait and fish shop said twenty bucks for the crab, rubbing his belly gone loose from beer since he quit school after all that talk of blow. I said OK, because no one else would buy crabs stolen from Chinh’s pots, though I knew he’d sell them for forty plus. Night water spooled at my feet. He watched me, even after I turned to go.
My father was a soldier long ago, sent to Vietnam, sent home. He took the only photo we have of my mom in Saigon. She squints into the camera, smiles uncertainly. As though she’s not sure she recognizes the man behind the lens.
They say New York is everybody’s home, for a time.
Once upon a time, will Johnson drove onto our grass. “Lang,” he said. “Any chance your uncle’s got moonshine I could buy?” He raised his hand to block the July sun that slammed the left side of his face. “Is that a club you’re carving? Cool.” It was a mallet so I wouldn’t have to kill fish with rocks. “You ought to sell them,” he said, though anyone could see they weren’t much good.
“I’m leaving town,” I said. Not that he cared. He was just being polite.
“Good.” He crouched beside me on the step, his white knee almost touching mine. “Ain’t nothing here but losers with nothing better left to do than drink. You’re better than that.”
“So are you,” I said.
He leaned back into the shade. “Why don’t you take me with you when you go, then?”
I gouged out a hole in the wood with my knife and he said we’d make a good team. He smelled of sour grass and smoke and had thick lips that seemed as if some secret, fleshy part of him had been mistakenly exposed. I pretended I was the type of girl will
Johnson would escape with.
“Heard she’s a pretty one, Chinh’s girl. Heard she can cook real fine,” Ma Linh said while I watered her peonies. Tuyen played Go fish with Ma Linh on the cinderblock steps.
“Does she make bánh bao?” Tuyen asked.
“Not so good as mine.” the surface of the river was empty, except for a twisting glassiness of light that slid apart the reflections of houses on the other riverside. I broke them into little pieces with my canvas shoes, and the palmettos, too, and the waterfowl too dumb to fly. “But she knits and cooks and rows.” Ma Linh grinned.
“Time for home, Tuyen.”
“Chin up, lang. She’s ugly as a boot heel and can plait a basket with the hair on her lip. A man has needs. A woman does, too,” she said, patting concrete dust from Tuyen’s skirt.
We walked back in the middle of the asphalt road, so our shoes stuck to the melting street. Tuyen slipped her hand into mine. “We can feed our new Aunt Truc to the pitcher plants, too,” she said, even though I knew she’d enjoy another pair of hands combing the knots from her hair.
Tuyen became obsessed by pitcher plants the year before, after I’d dropped a mosquito into a leathered tube. The mosquito had crawled down from the lip of the petal, following a nectar so sweet it drowned and then dissolved. Tuyen liked watching the insects disappear.
My mother had said she’d told my dad about me, that night she saw him in Ma Linh’s Good time Bar and made Tuyen. Later, I realized the man must have been just another veteran. She’d only known my father’s Christian name. But I’d believed her at first. As if they’d have had time to talk between the changing of the records on the jukebox, or in the space that separated the cash register’s close and the rising of the sun, which I can see now, breaking like an egg over the bean trees.
The crabs were louder the next night I went out. Chattering, shell upon shell. A motor of a boat somewhere grumbled and I ducked beneath the water. I spoke in sister-talk, told them to be quiet now. One, two—the whirr of the rotor slicing water, which fell away from the blades like cloth. When I breathed again, the crabs spoke of Tuyen. They asked if she was still sweet and beautiful and who’d look after her when Chinh’s new wife came, and I told them to shut the fuck up.
In the morning, noodles dripped into the bowl from Uncle’s mouth. “You girls will need new clothes for the wedding,” he said.
“I get pink sparkly shoes.” Tuyen sucked a crab leg clean.
“Truc will make you something up,” he said. A sackish dress, he meant. At school, Will spoke to girls in too tight jeans with brand names on their butts.
I wanted to say something about the clothes we’d use for the anniversary of our mother’s death, but Chinh’s phone rang and then his face went flat like a slab of stone.
“Fuck.” He talked rapidly, probably to Binh, one of the watchdogs he employed. “I have to go. Stolen crabs.”
I turned on the tap, the pipe water warm, and scrubbed the food from my plate and then the enamel, too.
Tuyen licked clean the last sauce and noodles from Uncle’s bowl.
One day, Tam and Cam were sent to collect fish. Tam waded through paddies, carved out from the mountain in elegant kidney-shaped fields, to fling fat catfish in a basket made of reed.
In my bed, the soles of Tuyen’s feet are moist with sweat. She tells me to stop, but I go on.
Cam plaited daisy chains. She also stole the baskets of fish Tam filled, and Tam, thinking of the whipping she’d get basketless, cried.
“I want to hear about the crabs,” Tuyen kicks me and says.
“Fine,” I say.
So a crab appeared. The crab told tam to feed him, which Tam did. But her stepmother followed her and caught and cooked the crab and ate it whole.
I scuttled through the water, so that the river played across my ribs like a piano, first the left side, then the right. My back in the moonlight almost white, a worn-down carapace.
Crabs have no feelings, I’d been told, as if just because they hide their jelly-bits in a shell, they are immune. I wondered, though, when the males snipped at each other over a female or a deep dark hidey-hole. That’s just fear, Uncle said, which as a feeling doesn’t count, I suppose. Only, I’d seen them climb from the cavities of rock to drum out warnings to each other when they should have been afraid.
That night I didn’t wear a glove and the crabs pinched, drawing me back to the riverbed. But my body was too big and clumsy and it was only my blood they got, which did not sink but swam apart. Tendrils of me unwound. I was not afraid. Of the alligator or the motorboat or Truc or of my father’s face which was mine, blunt and thick.
The saucepan of the sky spread out below me, like oil.
In Vietnamese, Truc means “wish,” but in French it just means “thing” and she’s Catholic, so I think of her like that. Tupperware. Extension chord. Transistor radio. Needle and thread and wool, maybe. Not organza silk.
“Someone’s stealing crabs,” Uncle told Tuyen and me last week. We lay on the dock carefully, so the splinters wouldn’t sting. “She’ll pay,” he said.
I quit kicking my legs in the water.
Uncle makes his money on booze. He said, the theft isn’t a matter of cash for him.
Sprats nibbled my toes.
“It’s about family,” he said.
Then he said we ought to get up off our lazy butts and go to church, because we had organizing to do. Food had to be bought and made for our mom’s anniversary and his wedding, and that was about family, too.
“No buying from Ma Linh, though,” he added. “She’s the one in the pots.”
The turkey oaks wilted in the heat, the air warping like cellophane.
“She’s too old,” Tuyen said. “And she doesn’t make much.”
“Now she’ll make less.” The dry blades of grass crackled under Uncle’s feet. “Don’t stay out in the sun too long,” he said. “You’ll get dark.”
As if it mattered. Will liked girls white as the inside of a lily, or a tub run through with bleach. He invited me to a party once. The teacher had sat him next to me in math because he needed help. I’d tried to explain to him the law of exponents but the formulae got all muddled in my mind.
No one buys from Ma Linh. Tuyen told me this late last night in bed. “She had to let her sewing girls go.” Her skin beneath my arms was soft and wet, her back against my belly, slippery as a fish. “She’s gotten thin. Skinny as a daddy longlegs. We could watch the river and find out who really stole,” Tuyen said.
“If you aren’t scared you can sleep in your own goddamn bed,” I said and pulled her tighter to my chest.
Then I told her how we slipped from our shells, still gunky with slime and hardened into girls beneath the fire Uncle built.
Ma Linh’s house is quiet. No click-clacking of pedals on sewing machines. The electric fans in every room are unplugged. She extends her legs down the steps, her shoes hanging from her ankles like weights. “Bastards,” she says.
“They think you stole crabs,” Tuyen says, and picks a card from the deck.
Ma Linh laughs, exposing the sunless strip of her neck. “Given them plenty of crabs in my time,” she says. “But stolen them? Lord, no!”
I rip yellow flowering weeds from the rim of the road and Tuyen asks, “Who’ll make bánh bao for Mom’s feast day now?”
“Ma Linh will,” I say. “We don’t need to tell Uncle. I’ll pay.” The crickets whine in the soya bean plot across the way.
Ma Linh curls and uncurls her toes. I can tell from the leathered puckering of the skin around her mouth, that stretch of a mean smile, that she knows. She knows but she won’t say. She won’t give up the child of her dead best friend, no matter the cost. I promise myself I’ll stop. There’s only a week now to go, and I’ve hidden money enough for us to catch a Greyhound to New York, Boston, the moon and back.
But I steal more crabs that night. Shove shell after shell in my sack. Legs bend, sometimes break as I stuff handfuls inside. The burlap bags I hide behind cucumber trees, which in the night jut from the ground like buttresses to keep earth and sky apart.
Two bags, four bags, seven, nine. I swim until my muscles shiver beneath my skin and I cannot lift my arms. The last crabs spill from the hessian into the deep.
Joe wants to pay me three quarters of the price. They haven’t sold the last crabs I brought, he says. My t-shirt sticks wet to my breasts.
“Why do they call you Little Wife?” he asks, leaning on the shop door, “when you’re just fourteen?”
“They’re fat crabs,” I say. “They’re worth more.”
“How much?” he asks.
I fold my arms across my nipples and he laughs with that whiskey breath of his, white powder like sodium leaked from lamplight still dusting his nose. I take the money, even so. New York is expensive, they say.
The first time I talked to Joe had been at a party Will had thrown the year before. Joe had poured a cloudless liquor he’d probably bought from Uncle into a plastic cup for me, then turned away and grinded against a girl, his hands stroking the inside of her thigh, beneath her undies, while he stared at a death metal poster on the wall. A blonde with a toothy mouth had been blowing Will in the shower. When a boy with bad breath from the year below me had groped at my flat chest, I’d kissed him back. I was happy someone’s hand spread hungrily across my skin. Even afterwards, when he didn’t zip up his pants he’d never taken off and he vomited on the floor.
I’d pulled up my panties across the bruise that stretched between my legs and smoothed down my skirt and thought how nymphs slit their skin and became dragonflies and how tadpoles slit their skin and became frogs and how snakes slit their skin and stayed the same.
Oh, I could tell Tuyen stories of our mom instead of crabs. But that’s all they’d be. I was eight when she died and I don’t remember anything.
So I say instead how Tam buried the bones of the crab. Prayed to their memory. And when the prince held a ball in search of a wife and Tam had to remain behind, the crab rose, Jesus-like, to life, with a dress of diamonds and a glass slipper in claw. Just reward for her faith. So better than Jesus, actually. Jesus didn’t come with diamonds, just baptismal fire and a hunger for a straight-up meal. Of course, Tam lost one of her slippers in the river, evidence that Jesus was right. You can’t give humans pretty things. They ruin it all.
Ma Linh makes the bánh bao for our mom’s feast and we buy chickens from the store. Ma Linh’s have been strung from the gutters above the windows by her bed, their innards cut out and left to rot where I’d hidden the crabs too small to be sold.
“It starts with chickens,” Ma Linh says. “And then.” She scrubs the gutters with a dishcloth, chipping at the paint on the steel pipes.
“They wouldn’t do anything to you,” I say. Then I add that in New York all chickens come plastic-wrapped.
The soya beans in the field across the street sweat in the sun, thick leaves unfurled like unwrapped gifts beneath a darkening sky.
“There are fresh-dead chickens everywhere,” she says, throwing the sponge in a bucket by the ladder legs. We leave her to hack chicken thighs and wings and breasts and necks. I have to start on the phở and com chiên. We aren’t sure what you feed the dead, so we figure we might as well make what we like.
“We have to tell Uncle about the chickens,” I say.
Tuyen shrugs. “She stole.” She unties her plaits and shakes loose her hair and waits for me to join her on the bed with the brush, the torn gizzards and stretched elastic necks already fading. I scrunch my fingers into fists, my nails slicing flesh. She wants to hear about Tam and Cam instead. Specifically, how the prince fell in love on first seeing Tam.
I sit before the guests arrive with one hand on my knee, the other palm against the wall and stare into the sun, like my mom in the picture. But all I see is light like shale, in slivers, bending with the enormity of the weight of atmosphere.
“I’m going out,” I tell Tuyen. Uncle’s friends won’t trickle in for our mother’s memorial for a while yet and I have things I need to finish before I leave. My bag is packed beneath the bed with all I’ll need the next day when I leave, alone. Tuyen will be happier here. She pulls her party dress over her head, laying the pile of pink material that bunches and droops neatly on the bed, careful that the pleats don’t crease. She trades it for an old t-shirt of mine that’s too big for her. I want to tell her to go back.
We walk blind to the dock, the rain hammering the grass. If we looked back, we’d see the house sink a little in the mud. Buckle beneath the weight of a heavy sky. We lower ourselves into the river. When the rain slaps the water, it ricochets and stings. We swim.
We paddle to where the river widens though thunder hacks into the earth. Paddle past the first buoy, second, third, marking crab pots emptied nights before. The clouds clot, and shoes and keys and hats and balls and tackle and bait and condoms and crack and never-you-mind amongst the seaweed and the rocks and the fishes suckle our skin. The river is a storehouse of lives. The river is a storehouse of lives. This is how it feels to be kissed by a ghost.
The sky cracks apart in white strings. Tuyen gulps at water and the thunder rips holes in the rain. Before us, behind us, white rods slip and shatter into sound. At the fourth buoy I find, I pull on the rope, hauling out a wire mesh pot. I unlatch the side panel, so the crabs spill into the Pasquotank, and cut the rope. I do this at the fifth buoy, too, and the sixth, though lightning comes faster. We swim farther and farther, and my arms ache and my fingers cramp and the knife falls from my palm and would have been lost if Tuyen did not catch the handle as it sank.
Lightning drops just beyond our fingertips and I grit my teeth and wait for the electric burn.
But nothing happens. Water washes over the crowns of our heads.
Hours later, I carry Tuyen up the steps to our house. She shivers in my arms but her head is hot. The guests are already drunk, loudly arguing over the fifth ace on the table.
I never asked her to swim. This is what I want to say when Uncle looks up.
He grabs my arm and pulls me into the bedroom, his blunt fingernails biting into that space between muscle and bone. I never asked her to swim and Tuyen’s only ever done what she wants. He takes Tuyen from me and lays her down, neat, her limbs in straight lines. His body moves with military precision, though the American War was a lifetime ago, he says, a lifetime he has already forgot. He strips the wet clothes from her skin, practiced at this.
I want to tell Tuyen that Tam marries the prince. Escapes to a palace of marble and gold.
Tuyen moans. It’s the incense. Cinnamon and cloves mixed with cigarette smoke and wet grass. I cough, too. I am shivering and cold, and I push past Uncle to the cupboard and peel off my shorts and shirt and underwear. The knife falls from my pocket and clatters on the floor. In the window, I watch Chinh. He does not turn even once in my direction to peek at my body, unclothed.
“Beautiful woman,” Quan says to me when I sit at the kitchen table, dressed again, nodding at the shrine we’d made for our mom. It is a sad thing: a piece of plywood nailed to the wall with that one photo of my mother pinned to the board.
“Smart, too,” Binh says.
“Then why’d she die from some dumb flu?” Ash falls from Binh’s cigarette into the platter of rolls.
“Here,” Quan hands me a hell note to burn. Money prayers Tuyen and I had made for our mother to use in the other world, although we both knew there weren’t any worlds for us beyond the Albemarle. Our fathers were not waiting for us anywhere.
Rain pelts the roof, like nails. Quan fingers the cash, as though it’s real.
Tam married the prince. Fat lot of use he was. She went back to that house in the watery fields, and her stepmom broke her neck so Cam could be princess for a while. When Tam returned as a nightingale and the prince fell in love with her song, Cam just caught and killed her again. Tam finally turned into a tree that bore a single fruit an old woman plucked, out of which Tam stepped new and naked once more. She lived with the old woman and every day brought her joy just by being alive, and that’s where the story should end.
But the prince found Tam and made her his wife and Cam gave up, finally. Before she left, Cam asked how her sister captured a man’s heart, how she was so pretty, so white. Tam told her it was by purifying the soul, by bathing each day in water that boils.
Then, tam sent the poached body of Cam to her stepmother in a porcelain pot to eat.
I clean up the debris the next day. Broken branches and downed power lines. Uncle sets me to pick up planks for the renovation, which along with the wedding has been postponed. He knows about the money. He saw the knife. But he doesn’t say anything. He thinks I’m like him: born to pick up after storms.
“In the future, we’ll find Dad,” I tell Tuyen, sick in bed.
“Where?” Tuyen asks, because time is just places we make. Riverbeds and shacks and photographs and New York, movements in directions we’re not headed.
I throw a garbage can of ash into the trash. Hell notes and crab notes and useless butts of cigars. In the bedroom, Tuyen groans with a cold compress of frozen peas on her head. And at the station the Greyhound pulls away, sleek and long and beautiful with its many little windows open like the ribs of a great fish. I don’t care. Because there never was going to be enough space between my skin to break free, to crack like a crab from my shell, and besides, I’m happy here. If I stretch out on the grass, the sky above me like a bowl, there is space enough between the tupelos and pitcher plants to dream. The trash settles in the plastic bin, soundless, as my mother’s laugh.
Later, a mother of two myself, growing old fast in my second marriage, I will look back at this moment fondly, having no use for regret. I will see the giant pitcher plant imagined by Tuyen, who vanished ten years later behind the wheel of a Volvo headed west on I-64.
Uncle’s body deep in the plant’s tube, the white scar on his skull stretching into a toothless grin. The seed of escape, without its weight.