Nước Mắm

Dedicated to my tenacious bà ngoại (grandma)

Text by Emili N. Lok

I am a 13-year-old Vietnamese-American living in NYC. I’m also a boba lover, a Korean drama watcher, and a self-proclaimed spice food maniac. I’m currently a 7th grade student and wrote this story to feel more connected to the Vietnamese side of my family. The story below is loosely based on my mother and her family’s journey to America. I learned a lot about my family’s history and a little bit about Vietnam as well. I haven’t been to Vietnam yet but have always imagined what it would be like to finally go and see where a lot of my family was born since I’m so used to NYC life.

***

I try to rock my baby, but the dips of the phthalo sea cradle her instead. It is only 5 pm. It has been an eternity since I have felt the firm, damp, green blades of the fields on my feet, yet it has only been four, almost five days. Four, almost five days, since May 8th, 1979 when we ran to the docks. Four, almost five days, since I had to leave my home in Hue…

The streets of Hue always had a slight stench of fish, combined with dew from the humid fields that surrounded the area. The markets always had a butcher to sell us minced pork, a man that sold rice, and a loud old lady who sold us fruit. I remember when I stole a mangosteen and didn’t even share it. It tasted like sweet juicy flesh with a hint of guilt. Going to the market, I always see about 100 people walking out with sticks on their shoulders, holding bags upon bags on each end, and hear the screams of people farther into the market trying to bargain for a discount. The central area of the main street was always quiet because this was where people would take a break and bow their heads. But, the part I remember most about Hue was the feel of the air. Humidity in the streets, like even the breeze, was trying to hug me. Chilling, calm in the Thien Mu Pagoda, where I would stare at the large marble turtle inside the temple. It would stare back blankly and I would pray to it to bless me with some candy or a good excuse to ignore my chores.

But that, that was before the North became blood hungry, and the town is now just a shell of what it used to be. Hue was only eight miles south of the border, so our once energetic town became a target for heavy fighting. Our buildings looked like they were prepared to crumble from even the faintest whisper from the wind, and every day it was a gamble of who was going to attack us. The only thing that stayed the same was the screams coming from the marketplace. Before we had the chance to escape, we heard from one of my cousins that he was going to leave. When we said goodbye, he tried to convince me to come, but I refused… A week later we found out from our neighbor that he was caught and ‘disappeared’. That was when I realized that Hue wasn’t the same place that I loved, that I could love. Before making plans to leave Hue, I worked my way through the protests around Thien Mu Pagoda and found the turtle of my childhood. But this time I only wished for one thing, that I wouldn’t have the same fate as my cousin. I remember the day before we left, walking down Thien Mu Pagoda’s street and running my hand alongside the buildings, feeling what was left—smooth marble and rough concrete switch under my hand. Crying when I reached the edge because that was it.

…The waves are shaking no more than usual, but the still wide-eyed expression on the boat keeper’s face said otherwise.

It is now 5 pm, 1 minute. That wide-eyed ghostly face has now passed to my husband. Then my brother. My cousin. My daughters. My housekeeper. Me. The hollow feeling inside me allows my stomach to drop, collapse in a moment till it reaches the ground.

I look expectantly at the boat keeper. We can all see the gray streaks of cloud that block the palace of the Jade Emperor, our deity who governs the cosmos. The boat floats for one second only to be caught by the sea and tossed again the next.

It is now 5 pm, 2.5 minutes. I hear a shrill voice next to me. We’re all ear-to-ear yet the screams turn to whispers the second they come out. Then the whispers quiet down to leave room for the shrieks of the baby, only to quiet down and be filled by the nagging of the children. Hanh, my 5-year-old daughter can be seen at my side slowly inching towards me. Hanh’s head brushes against mine for a second, but the next bump of the boat flings her back into her sister, and far away from the comfort. I pull Hanh over to cocoon her into the pit of my arm, and Hien puts on a mask of bravery with underlying envy. Telling me she is fine on her own.

I’m holding my two girls in my arms, with another eyeing me nearby. I’m about to turn my head towards the latter, but in mid-turn, a figure catches my eye—a 172.69cm, dark-haired, stone-faced figure—similarly to Hien, he eyes the silent boat keeper. He can see all 172.69cm of my husband waiting for instruction, but the boat keeper doesn’t acknowledge him or the dilating pupils of my brother’s eyes. My cousin’s. My housekeeper’s. Mine.

The wind is whipping up. The fog is thick. Thick like condensed milk. Thick like the guilt I feel for leaving Hue.

I can still remember sitting on the floor of my house with a small bowl of congee. Sitting next to my sister and hearing her jokes, “A girl named ‘My’ (meaning “beautiful”) shouldn’t eat like a ‘heo’ (pig).” The warm steam of the congee on my face feels like a pillow when it reached my stomach. The golden sunset peeking out of the windows, making everything at that moment peaceful. Hearing her joke they didn’t hurt me back then, but it hurts now knowing I won’t hear it again.

I can still remember running back home with a pitaya in hand. The light ring of magenta surrounding their lips and Hien’s raven hair stuck to her cheeks. I remember hearing the faint footsteps of my housekeeper rushing to clean them off. I remember brushing her aside because the purple smile on their faces was sweeter than the pitaya itself. I was only 20 years old back then, Hien; four, Hanh; three.

I can still remember the last Tet. I remember the fear in Hanh’s face, scared she would mess up our blessings, but I can better remember the pride in Hien’s face when she helped me prepare offerings. How she said, “I’m going to be the best at this, and make sure everything is perfect!” Her joy was contagious to everyone in the house, and I couldn’t help but smile whenever she cut a carrot or wrapped up rice. Even when she would sneak pieces of candied fruit into her mouth, I could only smile.

Before I get too wrapped into my longing for home, the sky starts to tear apart. One droplet hits the boat. Then another. Then one hits the eye of the boat keeper. Then one giant drop or maybe one thousand little drops hit everything at once. That is when the quiet stature of the boat keeper turns into a fearful slouch. My husband beams at him even harder. I’m not sure if the boat keeper is more scared of him or the fact that the light drizzle turned into a downpour in a matter of seconds.

It is now 5 pm, 6 minutes. The water is not just coming down on us, but from all sides, and through the gaps of the boat.

Swish! Swish! I felt like I was flying as we were floating above the sea, but it was a rude awakening when my teeth dug into my tongue. As quickly as my dreams of flying were crushed, the silence of the boat keeper turned into rapid orders: “Hold all your supplies! Wrap food in waterproof tarps! Gather into the center of the boat! Grab your family’s hands! Tie yourselves together with rope! Quiet the kids, we might get caught if people at the shore see a boat still out!”

I murmur, “Breathe, breathe. Trong và ngoài (in and out).” He only gave us five orders. Five. Five. Five. Not too hard, just five. Hold, wrap, gather, grab, tie, and quiet. Actually six. Six. Six. Six.

“Kids, let’s play a quiet game ok,” I say this as I tiptoe across the boat to not shake it any more than it already is. Easy. I bend over to grab a rope for tying, food for wrapping, and some water bottles. I bring it back and tell my housekeeper to help me with the food. My husband instinctively runs back to us when he sees I’m back. Before anyone else can do anything, I snatch the rope. I start knotting my ankle to the person next to me, and before I even think to look who I’m tying myself to I realize we aren’t right in the center of the boat. I grab all the wrists I can in one hand and pull them closer to the center while I scoot myself in. Suddenly, I forget what else I need to do, but all I remember is that I’m failing.

I start to murmur again, “Breathe, breathe”. I don’t know why but the rain feels like it’s running down in salty streams on my cheeks. I start panting, and before I can calm down, I scream, “BREATHE!” Now the rain on my cheeks is as strong as the rain in the sky, and I can taste it. It tastes like nước mắm (fish sauce). I can barely breathe, and my mouth is filling up with nước mắm. The only thing I could think about was, what the hell is happening? So, I pull myself over to the edge of the boat, and…

I slap the ocean. The nước mắm from my eyes drips on my hands, and I hit it harder. I punch it, I punch it, and I punch it. I punch it.

“DIE ALREADY!” I cry, “die, please, just stop.”

“Leave me alone, please just leave me and my family alone,” it barely comes out in between by panting, but I continue, “Why are you doing this to me?” I can barely muster up the strength for the next strike, but I do, “please, please, please.”

“Please.” In the corner of my eye, I see Hien, continuing my plea. With her scrawny six-year-old arms hitting the waves. She catches my eye and silently says to me, “Look I can help you.”

The salt on my face stops flowing, and I just stare at my daughter. Paralyzed. The image of her hitting at the waves. It feels like static in my head, switching from my desperate punches, to her smile filled strikes.

Hien didn’t drown. Hien didn’t drown but she could’ve. Hien didn’t drown but if the boat rocked forward a centimeter more she would have drowned, and it would have been my fault. Hien didn’t drown but I felt like I had.

When I stopped, Hien stopped. When I stared at her she stared back. She was copying what I was doing because she looked up to me. She saw me as someone worthy of copying, and with that power I almost killed her. I was a threat to my own daughter. I was trying to be our savior when I was just supposed to be a mother. It felt like my heart was ripped out of my own chest and then stabbed with a thousand needles, only to be thrown into the ocean. I wasn’t a good mother; I was just a 22-year-old girl having a meltdown in front of her daughters. And then it became the shock in that realization that filled me rather than pain. What was I doing? I shouldn’t have broken down like that. I shouldn’t have neglected my role as a mother? I shouldn’t have done this. Caused this.

It is now 5 pm, 10 minutes. I grab Hien’s leg and pull her back to the center. Before anyone can say a word about what just happened. I let my eyes close, my thick black hair cover my face, clasp my arms around whoever I can, and let a thin river escape from the cavity of my eye.

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