The Seashell — z.m. quỳnh

 

March, 2015, San Jose, California

Bà Ngoại’s hypnotic song fills the darkness of the room, echoing through the small chamber of the seashell. I pull it close to my head, nestling my ear against it, hearing the tongue of waves lapping on a distant shoreline.

“À Ời ”

The night is still; mother’s heavy breathing is calm. My arms ache from supporting her frail body on walks soothed only by my ability to hold her in the darkness as she sleeps.

À Ời…

Chứ mang nặng đẻ đau cưu mang chín tháng…”

“Bà Ngoại?” I call to her, feeling the edge of sleep simmering at the roots of my hair, enveloping my skin. The sound of my own heartbeat fills my head, intersecting with Bà Ngoại’s notes. A heaviness begins to pull me; I sink into the bed. The weight of a hand presses onto the mattress – then the weight of a body. It feels warm, round, soft. Comforting.

I resist sleep. I always have. I want to wrap myself around her, stay awake long enough to slip into that space between the living and the dead. A body hovers over me; I can feel the thinness of her bones, the softness of a stray gray hair hanging from her bun brushing against my cheek.

“À Ời…

“Bà Ngoại?” I say softly, drifting into sleep.

The sudden sound of a dull thud wakes me. My eyes flick open. The green turbine seashell that was on my pillow has fallen to the carpet. Mother wheezes beside me, reminding me to check on her oxygen. I rise, pick up the rough seashell and lay it back on the pillow next to mother’s head.

#

April, 1975, Nha Trang, Vietnam

My grandmother and I used to sit on top of the roof of our family’s house as the sun rose over Nha Trang and dream of peace. I found her up there every morning chewing away on betel leaves and areca nuts, her teeth gleaming black and beautiful, her eyes far away and wistful.

She was a wiry old woman with legs as strong as buffalos. Clutching the branches of the tall mango tree that bordered the south end of our house, she hopped from limb to limb to reach the rooftop.

I was only six then and she had to help me up, her strong hands pushing the bottom of my bony bum. Once on top, I picked bananas from the tree that hung over the roof for breakfast while Bà Ngoại arranged slices of arena nut mixed with slaked lime on a betel leaf. Her fingers, spiced with clove and cardamom, rubbed the spices deeper into the areca nut before she folded the betel leaf into a small ball and placed it against the inside of her cheek.

“Do you see them?” she asked one morning.

She was talking about the ghosts that circled our city on their perennial walk. I never saw them, but I could hear them, their laughter or their sobs caught in the echoes of the wind.

“Bà Ngoại,” I said, sifting through the orange haze of the morning, “I can’t see anything. Tell me what they are doing.”

“They are visiting. They come down from there,” Bà Ngoại pointed to the highway that connected our coastal city of Nha Trang to the Central Highlands.

“They’re so weary, some of them,” she said, shaking her head as she switched the areca nut in her mouth, “They all died so suddenly and their families’ grief is so great that they just hold onto them, calling for them. They are stuck here, wandering.”

“How many are there?”

“Oh, there are hundreds,” she laughed, “Mothers chasing after children, siblings fighting, pulling each other’s hair, and fathers marching. Now that they are dead, they’re nothing more than tourists.”

“Tourists?”

“Yes, child, just visitors. This is not their home anymore. See up there around the Buddha’s head – the tiny sparks like fire circling in a spiral dance,” she pointed to Chùa Long Sơn in the center of Nha Trang at the foot of Trại Thủy mountain. The pagoda sat high on top of the mountain. At its summit was a giant white statute of the Buddha deep in meditation.

I examined the Buddha, his eyes closed, his massive hands on his lap, his face serene – but I saw no sparks.

“Then they wander out to the beach with their relatives to bathe in the ocean,” Bà Ngoại smiled, the areca nut taking effect, bringing a tranquil expression to her face.

“See how they crowd around that woman selling hot steamed seafood, trying to inhale the essence of the food.”

“Ghosts can eat?” I ask, frustrated at my inability to see anything beyond the woman.

“No, but who can resist fresh hot bánh xèo filled with pork and shrimp?”

I nodded in assent.

“Why are there so many?”

“Oh child, don’t you know we are at war? Some of them died fighting.”

“Like uncle?”

“Yes, some of them died while they were playing, like the children, or sleeping, like the elders. If you can’t see them, listen then. Tell me what you hear.”

I craned my neck, twitching my ears, trying to separate through the sounds of dawn in Nha Trang. There were roosters crowing, the sound of grains of rice falling to the ground, the clamor of hens as they pecked for their morning breakfast, and the call of vendors, chopsticks banging against pots.

Then I heard a whirring in the air. It fluttered in the background like the sound of determined bee wings.

“I think I hear them,” I said.

“Good, good,” Bà Ngoại said, moving towards the edge of the roof, “Now come, it’s time to collect these mangos and bananas for sale in the market.”

#

Mother decides late in life that she wants to return to Vietnam to die in her father’s house in the city of her childhood. Her father’s house was a small one story square house with a flat roof upon which Bà Ngoại and I had shared many a morning meal. It was the color of a dirty sidewalk and it had suffered a few stray bullets during the war.

“I was born there, in that very house, I should be able to die there!” she insists angrily, trying to catch her breath between vomiting and complaining.

“Come on now, please calm down. Someone else lives there now,” I say, spoon-feeding her intermittent sips of jasmine tea.

Mother has always been angry. Long as I can remember. Anger seeping out of her pores. Once we settled in San Jose, she had refused to ever step foot in Vietnam ever again. When they reopened the doors and all of her friends and family began to pour back into Vietnam as tourists to their own country, she refused to listen to any discussions about it.

“Oh, Chị Hoa, you should see Đà Lạt now,” her friend, Cô Tấm had said, “It’s still beautiful in the spring time, like a little French villa, and the fragrance of peach blossoms and mimosas are everywhere…”

“I don’t want to hear about it! Don’t say another word about the country they stole from me!” mother had barked.

But I had wanted to hear about the city of mother and father’s romance with its lakes, waterfalls, and evergreen forests. There was something I was missing, I felt, something I left behind when we fled by boat. Something that got mushed up and destroyed in mother’s bitterness.

Now, as the cancer slowly creeps inside her, filling her intestines, and choking her breaths, she wants to return.

“Don’t you remember, Mẹ? Cô Tấm said that your house was given to a communist cadre? The home is different now. A portrait of Ho Chi Minh hangs from the wall where once our ancestors did. Cô Tấm said she saw it through the window…”

“Fine, fine, I know, I know,” she says, “I’ll go stay with my friend.”

“What friend?” I ask.

Mother stammers. Most of our friends are here now. Mother had been so stubborn that she did not even reestablish ties with people once the phone lines were open in the late ‘80s. While mother sulked in the kitchen, fussing over her pot of bún riêu, father and his friends yammered excitedly from the living room, making phone call after phone call to Vietnam.

On the other side of the world, in Vietnam, people lined up at the post office to receive father’s calls on phone lines that were anything but private. It was a very exciting time. Father heard from his sister, Cô Tuyết, after ten years of complete darkness. You couldn’t even get a letter in. For thirty precious minutes, Cô Tuyết rattled off the names of friends and family still alive – and then the names of the ones who were lost.

#

August 1980, Nha Trang, Vietnam

The night before we left Vietnam, Bà Ngoại came to sleep with me. Drifting in and out of sleep, I felt her at the edge of the bed, loosening her bun, letting her long grey hair fall down her back. Her weight on the bed always woke me and I sat up to help her, my childish fingers running through her long hair.

She lay down beside me and whispered tales of the spirits that had lingered in our garden that day, inhaling the essence of ripe mangos that had fallen, crushed on the ground. She smelled like the sea, as if she had just bathed in its waters moments before, her skin salty and sweet. She held me and rocked me to sleep and I dreamed of jumping rooftops and flying from branch to branch on tall trees through Nha Trang.

The next day after dinner, my mother gathered us and swept us into the darkness of the night. Within an hour we had joined father and dozens of other people on a small fishing boat. I didn’t even know we were leaving Vietnam until I awoke the next day and saw nothing but the expanse of the sea surrounding us.

Bà Ngoại lay next to me on the boat, the wideness of the sea reflecting thunders in her wide and fearful eyes. Mother pulled out a compass she had hidden in a hole at the bottom of her flip-flops. While she navigated, all the adults on board pushed thorough the water with their arms. For days it seemed as if the sea had swallowed us and by the sixth day, my stomach raked with hunger and I was so weak that I could not even sit up.

Bà Ngoại and I leaned against each other, dozing in and out of sleep, and I could feel her chewing the areca nuts she had been nursing in her cheek for days. Every now and then, mother’s warm hand would cup my face at an angle, spooning water into my mouth before she hydrated Bà Ngoại.

On the seventh day, I awoke to screams of excitement at the sight of sand and tall coconut trees. Shifting stiffly on the boat, I leaned into Bà Ngoại but her breath no longer warmed my cheek. Lying still beside me, her body was as cold as ice. Mother beat curses into the sand, her sobs swallowed by the rumbling tide as I dragged Bà Ngoại from the boat onto the beach.

“Let her go, let her go,” Mother said, pulling her body from me.

“No,” I cried.

“I’ll always be with you,” the wind whispered.

#

I could not see Vietnam from the refugee camp.

“I don’t see it!” I said in frustration into the green seashell, its translucent blue green swirls mirroring the reflection of the cloudless sky in the water. Since we had arrived on the island, I had clung obstinately to the shell. It had tumbled in the water, caught between the tangles of threads loosening on Ba Ngaoi’s pant legs as I dragged her from the boat. I had held onto the shell as my mother tore my grandmother from my arms – passing me to my father who carried me off the beach, my screams hot against his chest. When I returned the next day, I found not the boat, nor my grandmother.

Shhhh…It’s hard sometimes, when you first close your eyes,” Ba Ngaoi’s voice rang in my head, “Everything is dark at first. But then you will see flickers of our house.”

I lay down on the sand letting the shoreline lap at my toes. I hugged the seashell close to my ears and pressed the heels of my palms flat against my eyes. Slowly images began to swirl.

“Oh Bà Ngoại! I can see you!” I said, her face coming in and out of focus, caressing the leaves of cucumber vines that spiraled in her small garden.

“Are you at home? Is that were you went?”

No child, no.”

“Then where…”

Grabbing sand into my fists and feeling it trickle slowly between my fingers, I saw Bà Ngoại and I dancing in the waves. I saw us playing in the sand, drawing pictures. I saw…

“Trâm!” Mother’s voice came sharp and urgent. I bolted into a sitting position. Mother came running out onto the beach, her face red and angry.

“Its time to eat. We have to get in line. How many times have I told you not to wander off by yourself?”

“But I was visiting Bà Ngoại,” I said, holding up the seashell to show her. She cringed hesitantly.

“Come on child,” she said gently, pulling me towards the food lines, her eyes hardening on the seashell.

“If we lose our place in line, we won’t eat tonight.”

#

It is terminal. She is frail and weak from months of chemo. Travel, especially overseas, the doctor had said, was out of the question.

“I’m going. The doctor can’t stop me – what does she know?” she mumbles, shaking her head, the oxygen tube in her nose wagging back and forth.

“Mother, your doctor is trying to make these last weeks comfortable for you,” I say from the kitchen as I prepare dinner. Despite my protests, mother is crouched in the living room closet, her oxygen tank on wheels next to her.

“No, no no…” she says fussing in the closet, digging through boxes and dusty old jackets. Suddenly she cries out and disappears into the closet.

“Mẹ!” I say and clamor into the closet just in time to be bumped by mother’s bottom as she backs out of the closet, knocking me down. I fall back on the floor shocked.

She is holding something wrapped in a brown bag and her chest heaves excitedly as the oxygen tube twists dangerously among fallen hangers, jackets, and ribbons leftover from past Christmases.

“I found it!” she says and then she winces in pain as she lets out a loud sneeze.

“You should not be crawling around in that dusty closet. You could have asked me for help.” I carry her to the large brown couch in the living room.

“Whatever packing needs to be done, I can do,” I say as I lay her down and examine the tubes in her nose. Oblivious, she claws noisily at the brown bag until she pulls a craggy seashell from it. I freeze. I have not seen that seashell for years.

“My seashell,” I say reaching for it.

Slapping my hands away, mother brings the seashell to her ears, listening intently into it.

“What are you doing?” I ask her.

“You know what I’m doing!” she replies.

“But you told me it wasn’t real.”

“Well, maybe I was wrong.”

I am taken aback. My mother rarely admitted being wrong. In the kitchen the water begins to boil over.

“Okay, I’ll be right back,” I say, heading into the kitchen, my eyes glancing back at my mother as she shakes the seashell and then presses it against her ears. Right when I reach the kitchen, I see her whisper into it. Nostalgia grips my heart and I remember long nights sleeping with the shell cradled against my ears. At night when it’s time for bed, she sandwiches the seashell in between us.

“Bà Ngoại is dead, child, let her go,” mother had said to me when I was a child, disapprovingly.

“That seashell disappeared suddenly one day when I was twelve!” I say. She blinks guiltily before she pulls the covers over her shoulders.

“I remember now! I went away for sixth grade camp and when I came back, I couldn’t find it. Did you take it? I don’t remember wrapping it in that brown bag.”

“You were obsessed with it. I wanted you to grow up. I wanted you to let her go.”

“But she was here. There I mean. In there,” I say, pointing to the shell.

“No, that’s impossible. She couldn’t have been. She still isn’t. Ah! We’re just a bunch of ninnies listening into this seashell.”

Mother turns away, pretending to fix something on the table beside her bed. Anger and guilt grows in silence between us as I huff my way into the bed, pulling roughly at the blankets, remembering how much I had cried, turning the house upside down trying to find the seashell. Suddenly a distant humming breaks the silence.

I turn to mother expectantly, my jaw agape. Mother stares back at me, her own fingers frozen in the air.

We both turn to the seashell. Edging slowly downward, we gingerly lay our heads on our pillows. Mother reaches out to pull the seashell closer to her.

“It’s too far away from me!” I reach to pull it back.

She slaps my hand.

“I’m dying, let me listen.”

Sighing, I lean over the seashell uncomfortably, resisting the urge to roll my eyes. We both listened.

A Oi,” came the sound of Bà Ngoại’s lullaby.

“Mẹ!” mother says.

“Bà Ngoại!” I say.

#

“Do you live in there?” queries my mother into the shell.

“Of course she doesn’t live in there!” I say, even I knew that.

“Well? She’s been in there all this time.”

Bà Ngoại does not answer.

“Where did you go? Where will I go?” mother asks into the shell.

When it was time to eat dinner, mother places the seashell on the table between us as if Bà Ngoại is joining us.

“She does not answer, only sings,” mother complains.

“Maybe she can’t anymore.”

“What do you mean, ‘can’t’? Didn’t you speak to her when you were little? Talk to her, call her out, make her talk,” mother demands, sounding desperate.

I hesitate. “She told me spirits get stuck sometimes if we keep calling for them. They get tired, exhausted, lost. Maybe we shouldn’t call for her. Maybe we should let her rest.”

“Oh damn,” mother sighs in exasperation.

We eat in silence. When she finishes her meal, she reaches for the shell and carries it close to her heart into the bedroom.

Later that night, despite my own words, I call for Bà Ngoại as I slip into sleep, feeling the weight of her body at the end of the bed and the sound of her lullabies in my ears.

#

When I booked the flight to Vietnam, I didn’t even bother to buy a return ticket for mother.

Mother spends the majority of the flight drugged up. Bà Ngoại is silent throughout the trip. I hold the seashell to my ears, lonely to hear her lullaby.

“Promise me, if I die,” Mother sits up suddenly in the middle of a snore, startling me, “Promise me that you will bring me out to the ocean and let me join my mother in the sea.”

Horrified, I asked her, “What do you mean?”

“We let her go,” she says, her voice strong, but rattling at the edges, trying not to be moved over something that happened over thirty years ago. “We landed in Malaysia and she was gone. We had no money and we didn’t want the Malaysians to take her body. We had to let go of our boat or else the Malaysians would force us back out to sea. So we left her on the boat, put a hole in it and sank it.’

A searing pain erupted from my chest.

“Bà Ngoại,” I choke and lean back trying not to imagine her body at sea, lost, unable to find rest, captured in my seashell, at the foot of my bed at nights, forever lingering.

“Promise me…”

#

When the pilot announces our entrance into Vietnamese airspace, mother grips my arm so ferociously that her nails nearly draw blood. Leaning to peer into the window, her eyes get wider and wider at the blue green coastal shorelines below.

“I’ve never seen Vietnam from the sky,” she says, tears in her eyes.

Below us a long meandering river sweeps up and down the country like the elongated body of a dragon dancing. When we land, a young Vietnamese man, barely out of his teens, is waiting at the gate with a wheelchair ready. Mother is surprised at the sight of the wheelchair.

“Good afternoon grandmother,” he bows respectfully, helping her into the chair.

The humidity of Nha Trang hits us immediately.

“They have wheelchairs in Vietnam now?” mother asks under her breath.

The young man laughs politely, “We have many things in Vietnam now, grandmother.”

We collect our baggage and make our way out to the street to hail a taxi. Mother brushes her foot back and forth on the asphalt as if she is doing round de jambes.

“The ground,” she mumbles.

I examine the ground below her feet.

“The ground, it’s so smooth, so clean…”

This is mother’s general reaction for the entire ride. Mother’s old house is occupied by strangers and she had refused to stay with any relatives or friends so we made our way to a hotel. In the taxi, she gazes dumbfounded at the streets, so wide and clean, the rows of newly built houses, hotels, and motels. Modern shops line the streets and the closer we get to the hotel, the more foreigners outnumber the denizens.

In the hotel, after I tip the busboy and order food for lunch, she sits still and quiet on the plush bed, smoothing out the duvet cover.

“I don’t even have one of these in San Jose,” she says.

Suddenly her face deteriorates, crumpling into a grimace and she begins to sob, her words becoming choked in her throat. I rush to hold her. She sobs for long minutes until she finally pushes me away and rolls onto her side, her eyes red-rimmed and weary. She pulls herself under the covers. Holding the seashell close. I make my way towards the door to go get her lunch. As I leave, I hear her whisper into the seashell.

“Oh mother, where is our Nha Trang?”

#

Mother demands to go to her father’s house so I take her. We park in front of it in the cyclo I had hired for the day. Mother’s face is set hard as stone. The walls of the house, no longer dirty, were a dazzling bright white, and the windows, once unadorned, had been converted into French windows framed by dark mahogany wood.

Two additional stories had been added to the house and it now sits sandwiched between two other houses that must have been built more recently. I blink away tears, preventing myself from searching for the mango and banana trees that once adorned the sides of the house. “Who lives here now?” asks mother, her voice irritable.

“A merchant, grandmother,” replies the cyclo driver, his fingers nervously playing with a cigarette in his pocket.

“Look what they’ve done to your house mother!” she says loudly into the green seashell, crossing her arms weakly in front of her breasts.

Not a peep from the seashell.

“Mother, lets go visit your friends,” I say, trying to change the subject, “They are probably excited to see you.”

“Humph!” mother snorts.

The cyclo takes us away from the house, biking leisurely along the cleaned streets of Nha Trang, the rough roads of the past a distant memory. Taking the scenic route along the highway that borders the beach, our driver humbly cycles behind speeding mopeds and motorcycles that zoom all around us. Mother glares unappreciative at the tall looming hotels and resorts that have cropped up in the past thirty years.

Along the way, the street vendors that once dotted the sidewalks where patrons could squat or sit low to the ground and enjoy a meal are replaced by businesses with chairs and tables that allow the feet to dangle.

“See mother, the noodle shops are the same,” I say, pointing to a woman boiling water under the open air with only a small podium to separate her tiny kitchen from the patrons eating soup nearby.

“No they aren’t,” mother sighs crossly. Moments later, she gapes in amazement at a half-naked blonde women in a bikini walking along the sidewalk, her sarong waving in the humid breeze.

“It’s just like Huntington Beach here!” she says, pointing. I shrug and resign myself to ride the rest of the way in silence as mother utters angry comments along the way. I try to picture the dry grass that once dotted the ground where now there is a lush green layer of manicured grass.

As we round the curb, vendors run alongside us offering rentals for chairs on the beach.

Mother’s eyes open in surprise and she shouts loudly, “You’re trying to rent me a chair? To sit along the beach? My beach where I grew up?” They trail away, surprised at the harshness of her tone.

My stomach growls as we pass by a woman wearing a conical hat waddling alongside the beach with two large pots balanced on a bamboo stick across her shoulders.

“See mother,” I point at the woman, who must have been in her sixties, “Some things are still the same.”

Mother looks at the woman, her thin legs strong and muscular despite her age.

“Yes, yes,” mother says, reaching out a gnarled finger to point at the woman.

“Cyclo driver, can we stop a moment to eat?”

The driver stops and mother calls the woman over. Smiling at us from under her hat, her teeth bares black and shiny and instantly I think of Bà Ngoại. She runs toward us and lays down her two heavy pots on the sidewalk to reveal steamed and salted crab and shrimp. Their sweet scent fills the air.

“Little sister,” mother says, “Do you remember Thầy Nguyễn Thúy, the schoolmaster, my father?”

“Oh that was your father?” the woman replies, pulling crab and shrimp onto two plates, “Yes he was a kind man. My brother was his student.”

“For the cyclo driver too,” I say and the woman prepares a plate for the driver who happily grabs his plate, smiles broadly, stretching his tan leathery skin, and retreats to a corner of the beach where he immediately pulls out his cigarette.

The woman haggles with mother over the price of the crab and shrimp, interjected with stories of how harsh life had been for the poor woman after the communists took over, and mother’s clearly lucky ability to escape to America. The woman pulls aside her shirt to show us shoulders that were calloused and red ridged from years of balancing the bamboo sticks. Then the woman studies me sidelong, assessing my towering height (5’4”) and my softened Americanized tan and uses my health to barter for a higher price.

By the time we settle on a price, another street vendor joins us, her rounded cheeks red from carrying a heaping basket filled with durian, dragon fruit, and mango.

“What are these?” mother points to the red dragon fruit with their spotted white interiors.

“Oh dragon fruit grandmother. You’ve never had these?” the woman whistles.

“We didn’t have these when I grew up,” Mother says.

“Oh they were brought here during the war by Americans. Trees were planted. They’re pretty and tasty grandmother.”

Mother lets out an exasperated groan but accepts the fruit nonetheless. The vendors join us in our meal, sharing tales about times long past and their lives in the new Vietnam. For the first time since our arrival, I see mother relax…and smile.

#

Our stay in Vietnam slips from the two weeks we had expected into four weeks. Each day, mother softens more and more. We spend most of our time on the beach on our rented chairs, vendors swarming around us as mother listens to their stories of shattered dreams.

Before dawn, on the morning of the fourth week, I wake to find the green seashell rolled under the bed, coiled in the tubes of Mother’s oxygen tank. My first reaction is alarm and I collapse at mother’s side, grabbing her pale cold hand. But no tears come – just a calm quiet feeling.

If tomorrow, I don’t wake, take me out to the sea so I can join my mother,” she had said every night before bed, both of us looking longingly at the silent seashell between us.

Reluctantly, I lift my mother into my arms and carry her out to sea. The water is warm and the air is light. I smooth back her hair and kiss her weathered face – peaceful, thin and gaunt, but reflective of a long lifetime. A part of me finally breaks then and I begin sobbing, not wanting to let her go.

“Promise me…”

Trembling, I slowly ease her out of my arms. I tug at the oxygen tank that trails behind me, its tubes tied across my waist. Transferring the tubes to mother’s waist, I allow the tank to pull her under the water. My heart feels as if it’s crumbling as I gently pushed her out to sea.

After what felt like hours wading in the water, the sun begins to rise and the sound of motorcycles, buses, and early morning taxis rolling over the newly paved streets in Nha Trang swallow the chirping agendas of morning birds. With a heavy heart, I make my way back to the hotel. Once in our room, all I can do is collapse on the bed, listless and weary.

I do not move from the bed until midday when the sound of distant laughter coming from the seashell fills me with a sharp pang of fear…and hope? I reach for the shell and bring it to my ears.

“Oh mother, how young you are,” I hear my mother say, her voice clear and crisp, unencumbered by illness.

“Don’t worry, daughter,” came Bà Ngoại’s reply, “Where we are, you age backwards. In time, your wrinkles will disappear too and soon your knees will be full of the scars of childhood.”

“Bà Ngoại! Mẹ!” I say into the seashell. But they do not reply. The sound of their reminiscing fills my ears. Such lightness in their voices. A sudden thought grips me.

Promise me.

Leaving the hotel room, I make my way briskly back to the sea with the seashell. Jumping into the water, I swim out until I cannot feel the sand beneath my feet anymore. I scream into the seashell one more time.

“Bà Ngoại! Mẹ!”

But all I hear is the sound of footsteps echoing in the seashell moving farther and farther away from me. It is not the footsteps of one solitary person but of two, their steps clumsy as if their hips are bumping into one another.

Looking out into the expanse of the sea, I recall the sensations of freedom: sea salt dried on my skin, days of hunger and thirst in a small boat, and my grandmother dying at my side. I think of my mother’s life and how she must have missed my grandmother whom she had to sacrifice to the sea for our freedom.

And then, I think of how I had I held onto Bà Ngoại for years, anchoring her soul to me, afraid to let her go. Afraid even now to let my mother go. Bringing the seashell to my lips, I kiss it before pitching it out as far as I can. It arcs gracefully into the air, carrying the laughter of the two women I most adored in the world away from me. The shell dips soundlessly into the calm ocean waters surrounding Nha Trang.

With a lighter heart, I begin a slow paddle back to the shoreline, missing already the rhythm of my mother’s breath in bed next to me, lulling me to sleep, and the heaviness of Bà Ngoại’s body as she climbs into my bed in those moments right before sleep gathers me, reminding me that, even in death, we carry weight.

***

z.m. quỳnh huddles in a room tinged with blue nursing calloused hands worn down from the chronic transcription of restless dreams. past lives have included scattered jaunts through urban minefields with each misstep hinting at a life less easily mapped out by this amateur cartographer. irrationally drawn to moving mountains one stone at a time, quỳnh has tackled the tasks of labor organizer, juvenile hall literacy coordinator, artistic director of a guerrilla feminist theatre troupe, mother, mentor and best friend (all rolled up in one), civil rights advocate, guardian ad litem for foster care youth, waitstaff at one too many late night diners (hey…free food – what?), slam poet, urban horticulturalist, visual junk artist, passionate lover, and cocktail server/candy salesperson at all night rave parties (hungry people pay $5 for candy bars!).