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On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to a
mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his
late twenties, the letter unearths a family’s history that began before
he was born — a history whose epicenter is rooted in Vietnam — and
serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known,
all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation. At once a witness to
the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it
is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity.
Asking questions central to our American moment, immersed as we are in
addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and
tenderness, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is as much about the power of telling one’s own story as it is about the obliterating silence of not being heard.

stunning urgency and grace, Ocean Vuong writes of people caught between
disparate worlds, and asks how we heal and rescue one another without
forsaking who we are. The question of how to survive, and how to make of
it a kind of joy, powers the most important debut novel of many years.
Penguin Press
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Night Sky with Exit Wounds


			An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

			Copyright © 2019 by Ocean Vuong

			Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

			Portions of this book have previously appeared, in different form, in The New Yorker, Guernica, and at

			Excerpt from “Many Men (Wish Death),” words and music by Curtis Jackson, Luis Resto, Keni St. Lewis, Frederick Perren, and Darrell Branch. Copyright © 2003 by Kobalt Music Copyrights SARL, Resto World Music, Universal–Songs of PolyGram International, Inc., Bull Pen Music, Inc., Universal–PolyGram International Publishing, Inc., Perren-Vibes Music, Inc., Figga Six Music and Unknown Publisher. All rights for Kobalt Music Copyrights SARL and Resto World Music administered worldwide by Kobalt Songs Music Publishing. All rights for Bull Pen Music, Inc., administered by Universal–Songs of PolyGram International, Inc. All rights for Perren-Vibes Music, Inc., administered by Universal–PolyGram International Publishing, Inc. All rights for Figga Six Music administered by Downtown DMP Songs. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Reprinted by permission of Hal Leonard LLC and Kobalt Music Services America Inc. (KMSA) obo Resto World Music [ASCAP] Kobalt Music Services Ltd (KMS) obo Kobalt Music Copyrights SARL.


			Names: Vuong, Ocean, 1988– author.

			Title: On earth we’re briefly gorgeous : a novel / Ocean Vuong.

			Other titles: On earth we are briefly gorgeous

			Description: New York : Penguin Press, 2019.

			Identifiers: LCCN 2018046; 290 (print) | LCCN 2018050239 (ebook) | ISBN 9780525562030 (ebook) | ISBN 9780525562023 (hardcover)

			Subjects: | BISAC: FICTION / Literary. | FICTION / Cultural Heritage. | FICTION / Coming of Age.

			Classification: LCC PS3622.U96 (ebook) | LCC PS3622.U96 O52 2019 (print) | DDC 813/.6--dc23

			LC record available at

			This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

			Cover design by Darren Haggar

			Cover photograph by Sam Contis

			Author photograph by Tom Hines

			Illustration by Daniel Lagin


For my mother


			 				 				Also by Ocean Vuong

			 				 				Title Page




			 				Part I

			 				Part II

			 				Part III


			 				 				About the Author

But let me see if—using these words as a little plot of land and my life as a cornerstone—

			I can build you a center.

			—Qiu Miaojin

			I want to tell you the truth, and already I have told you about the wide rivers.

			—Joan Didion


Let me begin again.

Dear Ma,

			I am writing to reach you—even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are. I am writing to go back to the time, at the rest stop in Virginia, when you stared, horror-struck, at the taxidermy buck hung over the soda machine by the restrooms, its antlers shadowing your face. In the car, you kept shaking your head. “I don’t understand why they would do that. Can’t they see it’s a corpse? A corpse should go away, not get stuck forever like that.”

			I think now of that buck, how you stared into its black glass eyes and saw your reflection, your whole body, warped in that lifeless mirror. How it was not the grotesque mounting of a decapitated animal that shook you—but that the taxidermy embodied a death that won’t finish, a death that keeps dying as we walk past it to relieve ourselves.

			I am writing because they told me to never start a sentence with because. But I wasn’t trying to make a sentence—I was trying to break free. Because freedom, I am told, is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey.

* * *


			Autumn. Somewhere over Michigan, a colony of monarch butterflies, numbering more than fifteen thousand, are beginning their yearly migration south. In the span of two months, from September to November, they will move, one wing beat at a time, from southern Canada and the United States to portions of central Mexico, where they will spend the winter.

			They perch among us, on windowsills and chain-link fences, clotheslines still blurred from the just-hung weight of clothes, the hood of a faded-blue Chevy, their wings folding slowly, as if being put away, before snapping once, into flight.

			It only takes a single night of frost to kill off a generation. To live, then, is a matter of time, of timing.

			That time when I was five or six and, playing a prank, leapt out at you from behind the hallway door, shouting, “Boom!” You screamed, face raked and twisted, then burst into sobs, clutched your chest as you leaned against the door, gasping. I stood bewildered, my toy army helmet tilted on my head. I was an American boy parroting what I saw on TV. I didn’t know that the war was still inside you, that there was a war to begin with, that once it enters you it never leaves—but merely echoes, a sound forming the face of your own son. Boom.

			That time, in third grade, with the help of Mrs. Callahan, my ESL teacher, I read the first book that I loved, a children’s book called Thunder Cake, by Patricia Polacco. In the story, when a girl and her grandmother spot a storm brewing on the green horizon, instead of shuttering the windows or nailing boards on the doors, they set out to bake a cake. I was unmoored by this act, its precarious yet bold refusal of common sense. As Mrs. Callahan stood behind me, her mouth at my ear, I was pulled deeper into the current of language. The story unfurled, its storm rolled in as she spoke, then rolled in once more as I repeated the words. To bake a cake in the eye of a storm; to feed yourself sugar on the cusp of danger.

* * *


			The first time you hit me, I must have been four. A hand, a flash, a reckoning. My mouth a blaze of touch.

			The time I tried to teach you to read the way Mrs. Callahan taught me, my lips to your ear, my hand on yours, the words moving underneath the shadows we made. But that act (a son teaching his mother) reversed our hierarchies, and with it our identities, which, in this country, were already tenuous and tethered. After the stutters and false starts, the sentences warped or locked in your throat, after the embarrassment of failure, you slammed the book shut. “I don’t need to read,” you said, your expression crunched, and pushed away from the table. “I can see—it’s gotten me this far, hasn’t it?”

			Then the time with the remote control. A bruised welt on my forearm I would lie about to my teachers. “I fell playing tag.”

			The time, at forty-six, when you had a sudden desire to color. “Let’s go to Walmart,” you said one morning. “I need coloring books.” For months, you filled the space between your arms with all the shades you couldn’t pronounce. Magenta, vermilion, marigold, pewter, juniper, cinnamon. Each day, for hours, you slumped over landscapes of farms, pastures, Paris, two horses on a windswept plain, the face of a girl with black hair and skin you left blank, left white. You hung them all over the house, which started to resemble an elementary school classroom. When I asked you, “Why coloring, why now?” you put down the sapphire pencil and stared, dreamlike, at a half-finished garden. “I just go away in it for a while,” you said, “but I feel everything. Like I’m still here, in this room.”

			The time you threw the box of Legos at my head. The hardwood dotted with blood.

			“Have you ever made a scene,” you said, filling in a Thomas Kinkade house, “and then put yourself inside it? Have you ever watched yourself from behind, going further and deeper into that landscape, away from you?”

			How could I tell you that what you were describing was writing? How could I say that we, after all, are so close, the shadows of our hands, on two different pages, merging?

			“I’m sorry,” you said, bandaging the cut on my forehead. “Grab your coat. I’ll get you McDonald’s.” Head throbbing, I dipped chicken nuggets in ketchup as you watched. “You have to get bigger and stronger, okay?”

* * *


			 			I reread Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary yesterday, the book he wrote each day for a year after his mother’s death. I have known the body of my mother, he writes, sick and then dying. And that’s where I stopped. Where I decided to write to you. You who are still alive.

			Those Saturdays at the end of the month when, if you had money left over after the bills, we’d go to the mall. Some people dressed up to go to church or dinner parties; we dressed to the nines to go to a commercial center off I-91. You would wake up early, spend an hour doing your makeup, put on your best sequined black dress, your one pair of gold hoop earrings, black lamé shoes. Then you would kneel and smear a handful of pomade through my hair, comb it over.

			Seeing us there, a stranger couldn’t tell that we bought our groceries at the local corner store on Franklin Avenue, where the doorway was littered with used food stamp receipts, where staples like milk and eggs cost three times more than they did in the suburbs, where the apples, wrinkled and bruised, lay in a cardboard box soaked on the bottom with pig’s blood that had leaked from the crate of loose pork chops, the ice long melted.

			“Let’s get the fancy chocolates,” you’d say, pointing to the Godiva chocolatier. We would get a small paper bag containing maybe five or six squares of chocolate we had picked at random. This was often all we bought at the mall. Then we’d walk, passing one back and forth until our fingers shone inky and sweet. “This is how you enjoy your life,” you’d say, sucking your fingers, their pink nail polish chipped from a week of giving pedicures.

			The time with your fists, shouting in the parking lot, the late sun etching your hair red. My arms shielding my head as your knuckles thudded around me.

			Those Saturdays, we’d stroll the corridors until, one by one, the shops pulled shut their steel gates. Then we’d make our way to the bus stop down the street, our breaths floating above us, the makeup drying on your face. Our hands empty except for our hands.

* * *


			Out my window this morning, just before sunrise, a deer stood in a fog so dense and bright that the second one, not too far away, looked like the unfinished shadow of the first.

			You can color that in. You can call it “The History of Memory.”

* * *


			Migration can be triggered by the angle of sunlight, indicating a change in season, temperature, plant life, and food supply. Female monarchs lay eggs along the route. Every history has more than one thread, each thread a story of division. The journey takes four thousand eight hundred and thirty miles, more than the length of this country. The monarchs that fly south will not make it back north. Each departure, then, is final. Only their children return; only the future revisits the past.

			What is a country but a borderless sentence, a life?

			That time at the Chinese butcher, you pointed to the roasted pig hanging from its hook. “The ribs are just like a person’s after they’re burned.” You let out a clipped chuckle, then paused, took out your pocketbook, your face pinched, and recounted our money.

			What is a country but a life sentence?

* * *


			The time with a gallon of milk. The jug bursting on my shoulder bone, then a steady white rain on the kitchen tiles.

			The time at Six Flags, when you rode the Superman roller coaster with me because I was too scared to do it alone. How you threw up afterward, your whole head in the garbage can. How, in my screeching delight, I forgot to say Thank you.

			The time we went to Goodwill and piled the cart with items that had a yellow tag, because on that day a yellow tag meant an additional fifty percent off. I pushed the cart and leaped on the back bar, gliding, feeling rich with our bounty of discarded treasures. It was your birthday. We were splurging. “Do I look like a real American?” you said, pressing a white dress to your length. It was slightly too formal for you to have any occasion to wear, yet casual enough to hold a possibility of use. A chance. I nodded, grinning. The cart was so full by then I no longer saw what was ahead of me.

			The time with the kitchen knife—the one you picked up, then put down, shaking, saying quietly, “Get out. Get out.” And I ran out the door, down the black summer streets. I ran until I forgot I was ten, until my heartbeat was all I could hear of myself.

* * *


			 			The time, in New York City, a week after cousin Phuong died in the car wreck, I stepped onto the uptown 2 train and saw his face, clear and round as the doors opened, looking right at me, alive. I gasped—but knew better, that it was only a man who resembled him. Still, it upended me to see what I thought I’d never see again—the features so exact, heavy jaw, open brow. His name lunged to the fore of my mouth before I caught it. Aboveground, I sat on a hydrant and called you. “Ma, I saw him,” I breathed. “Ma, I swear I saw him. I know it’s stupid but I saw Phuong on the train.” I was having a panic attack. And you knew it. For a while you said nothing, then started to hum the melody to “Happy Birthday.” It was not my birthday but it was the only song you knew in English, and you kept going. And I listened, the phone pressed so hard to my ear that, hours later, a pink rectangle was still imprinted on my cheek.

* * *


			I am twenty-eight years old, 5ft 4in tall, 112lbs. I am handsome at exactly three angles and deadly from everywhere else. I am writing you from inside a body that used to be yours. Which is to say, I am writing as a son.

			If we are lucky, the end of the sentence is where we might begin. If we are lucky, something is passed on, another alphabet written in the blood, sinew, and neuron; ancestors charging their kin with the silent propulsion to fly south, to turn toward the place in the narrative no one was meant to outlast.

* * *


			 			The time, at the nail salon, I overheard you consoling a customer over her recent loss. While you painted her nails, she spoke, between tears. “I lost my baby, my little girl, Julie. I can’t believe it, she was my strongest, my oldest.”

			You nodded, eyes sober behind your mask. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” you said in English, “don’t cry. Your Julie,” you went on, “how she die?”

			“Cancer,” the lady said. “And in the backyard, too! She died right there in the backyard, dammit.”

			You put down her hand, took off your mask. Cancer. You leaned forward. “My mom, too, she die from the cancer.” The room went quiet. Your co-workers shifted in their seats. “But what happen in backyard, why she die there?”

			The woman wiped her eyes. “That’s where she lives. Julie’s my horse.”

			You nodded, put on your mask, and got back to painting her nails. After the woman left, you flung the mask across the room. “A fucking horse?” you said in Vietnamese. “Holy shit, I was ready to go to her daughter’s grave with flowers!” For the rest of the day, while you worked on one hand or another, you would look up and shout, “It was a fucking horse!” and we’d all laugh.

* * *


			The time, at thirteen, when I finally said stop. Your hand in the air, my cheek bone stinging from the first blow. “Stop, Ma. Quit it. Please.” I looked at you hard, the way I had learned, by then, to look into the eyes of my bullies. You turned away and, saying nothing, put on your brown wool coat and walked to the store. “I’m getting eggs,” you said over your shoulder, as if nothing had happened. But we both knew you’d never hit me again.

			Monarchs that survived the migration passed this message down to their children. The memory of family members lost from the initial winter was woven into their genes.

			When does a war end? When can I say your name and have it mean only your name and not what you left behind?

			The time I woke into an ink-blue hour, my head—no, the house—filled with soft music. My feet on cool hardwood, I walked to your room. Your bed was empty. “Ma,” I said, still as a cut flower over the music. It was Chopin, and it was coming from the closet. The door etched in reddish light, like the entrance to a place on fire. I sat outside it, listening to the overture and, underneath that, your steady breathing. I don’t know how long I was there. But at one point I went back to bed, pulled the covers to my chin until it stopped, not the song but my shaking. “Ma,” I said again, to no one, “come back. Come back out.”

* * *


			You once told me that the human eye is god’s loneliest creation. How so much of the world passes through the pupil and still it holds nothing. The eye, alone in its socket, doesn’t even know there’s another one, just like it, an inch away, just as hungry, as empty. Opening the front door to the first snowfall of my life, you whispered, “Look.”

* * *


			 			The time, while pruning a basket of green beans over the sink, you said, out of nowhere, “I’m not a monster. I’m a mother.”

			What do we mean when we say survivor? Maybe a survivor is the last one to come home, the final monarch that lands on a branch already weighted with ghosts.

			The morning closed in around us.

			I put down the book. The heads of the green beans went on snapping. They thunked in the steel sink like fingers. “You’re not a monster,” I said.

			But I lied.

			What I really wanted to say was that a monster is not such a terrible thing to be. From the Latin root monstrum, a divine messenger of catastrophe, then adapted by the Old French to mean an animal of myriad origins: centaur, griffin, satyr. To be a monster is to be a hybrid signal, a lighthouse: both shelter and warning at once.

			I read that parents suffering from PTSD are more likely to hit their children. Perhaps there is a monstrous origin to it, after all. Perhaps to lay hands on your child is to prepare him for war. To say possessing a heartbeat is never as simple as the heart’s task of saying yes yes yes to the body.

			I don’t know.

			What I do know is that back at Goodwill you handed me the white dress, your eyes glazed and wide. “Can you read this,” you said, “and tell me if it’s fireproof?” I searched the hem, studied the print on the tag, and, not yet able to read myself, said, “Yeah.” Said it anyway. “Yeah,” I lied, holding the dress up to your chin. “It’s fireproof.”

			Days later, a neighborhood boy, riding by on his bike, would see me wearing that very dress—I had put it on thinking I would look more like you—in the front yard while you were at work. At recess the next day, the kids would call me freak, fairy, fag. I would learn, much later, that those words were also iterations of monster.

			Sometimes, I imagine the monarchs fleeing not winter but the napalm clouds of your childhood in Vietnam. I imagine them flying from the blazed blasts unscathed, their tiny black-and-red wings jittering like debris that kept blowing, for thousands of miles across the sky, so that, looking up, you can no longer fathom the explosion they came from, only a family of butterflies floating in clean, cool air, their wings finally, after so many conflagrations, fireproof.

			“That’s so good to know, baby.” You stared off, stone-faced, over my shoulder, the dress held to your chest. “That’s so good.”

			You’re a mother, Ma. You’re also a monster. But so am I—which is why I can’t turn away from you. Which is why I have taken god’s loneliest creation and put you inside it.


In a previous draft of this letter, one I’ve since deleted, I told you how I came to be a writer. How I, the first in our family to go to college, squandered it on a degree in English. How I fled my shitty high school to spend my days in New York lost in library stacks, reading obscure texts by dead people, most of whom never dreamed a face like mine floating over their sentences—and least of all that those sentences would save me. But none of that matters now. What matters is that all of it, even if I didn’t know it then, brought me here, to this page, to tell you everything you’ll never know.

			What happened was that I was a boy once and bruiseless. I was eight when I stood in the one-bedroom apartment in Hartford staring at Grandma Lan’s sleeping face. Despite being your mother, she is nothing like you; her skin three shades darker, the color of dirt after a rainstorm, spread over a skeletal face whose eyes shone like chipped glass. I can’t say what made me leave the green pile of army men and walk over to where she lay under a blanket on the hardwood, arms folded across her chest. Her eyes moved behind their lids as she slept. Her forehead, lashed deep with lines, marked her fifty-six years. A fly landed on the side of her mouth, then skittered to the edge of her purplish lips. Her left cheek spasmed a few seconds. The skin, pocked with large black pores, rippled in the sunlight. I had never seen so much movement in sleep before—except in dogs who run in dreams none of us will ever know.

			But it was stillness, I realize now, that I sought, not of her body, which kept ticking as she slept, but of her mind. Only in this twitching quiet did her brain, wild and explosive during waking hours, cool itself into something like calm. I’m watching a stranger, I thought, one whose lips creased into an expression of contentment alien to the Lan I knew awake, the one whose sentences rambled and rattled out of her, her schizophrenia only worse now since the war. But wildness is how I had always known her. Ever since I could remember, she flickered before me, dipping in and out of sense. Which was why, studying her now, tranquil in the afternoon light, was like looking back in time.

			The eye opened. Glazed by a milky film of sleep, it widened to hold my image. I stood against myself, pinned by the shaft of light through the window. Then the second eye opened, this one slightly pink but clearer. “You hungry, Little Dog?” she asked, her face expressionless, as if still asleep.

			I nodded.

			“What should we eat in a time like this?” She gestured around the room.

			A rhetorical question, I decided, and bit my lip.

			But I was wrong. “I said What can we eat?” She sat up, her shoulder-length hair splayed out behind her like a cartoon character just blasted with TNT. She crawled over, squatted before the toy army men, picked one up from the pile, pinched it between her fingers, and studied it. Her nails, perfectly painted and manicured by you, with your usual precision, were the only unblemished thing about her. Decorous and ruby-glossed, they stood out from her callused and chapped knuckles as she held the soldier, a radio operator, and examined it as though a newly unearthed artifact.

			A radio mounted to his back, the soldier crouches on one knee, shouting forever into the receiver. His attire suggests he’s fighting in WWII. “Who yoo arrgh, messeur?” she asked the plastic man in broken English and French. In one jerking motion, she pressed his radio to her ear and listened intently, her eyes on me. “You know what they telling me, Little Dog?” she whispered in Vietnamese. “They say—” She dipped her head to one side, leaned in to me, her breath a mix of Ricola cough drops and the meaty scent of sleep, the little green man’s head swallowed by her ear. “They say good soldiers only win when their grandmas feed them.” She let out a single, clipped cackle—then stopped, her expression suddenly blank, and placed the radio man in my hand, closed it into a fist. Like that she rose and shuffled off to the kitchen, her sandals clapping behind her. I clutched the message, the plastic antennae stabbing my palm as the sound of reggae, muffled through a neighbor’s wall, seeped into the room.

* * *


			 			I have and have had many names. Little Dog was what Lan called me. What made a woman who named herself and her daughter after flowers call her grandson a dog? A woman who watches out for her own, that’s who. As you know, in the village where Lan grew up, a child, often the smallest or weakest of the flock, as I was, is named after the most despicable things: demon, ghost child, pig snout, monkey-born, buffalo head, bastard—little dog being the more tender one. Because evil spirits, roaming the land for healthy, beautiful children, would hear the name of something hideous and ghastly being called in for supper and pass over the house, sparing the child. To love something, then, is to name it after something so worthless it might be left untouched—and alive. A name, thin as air, can also be a shield. A Little Dog shield.

* * *


			I sat on the kitchen tiles and watched Lan scoop two steaming mounds of rice into a porcelain bowl rimmed with painted indigo vines. She grabbed a teapot and poured a stream of jasmine tea over the rice, just enough for a few grains to float in the pale amber liquid. Sitting on the floor, we passed the fragrant, steaming bowl between us. It tasted the way you’d imagine mashed flowers would taste—bitter and dry, with a bright and sweet aftertaste. “True peasant food.” Lan grinned. “This is our fast food, Little Dog. This is our McDonald’s!” She tilted to one side and let out a huge fart. I followed her lead and let one go myself, prompting us to both laugh with our eyes closed. Then she stopped. “Finish it.” She pointed with her chin at the bowl. “Every grain of rice you leave behind is one maggot you eat in hell.” She removed the rubber band from her wrist and tied her hair in a bun.

			They say that trauma affects not only the brain, but the body too, its musculature, joints, and posture. Lan’s back was perpetually bent—so much so that I could barely see her head as she stood at the sink. Only the knot of tied-back hair was visible, bobbing as she scrubbed.

			She glanced at the pantry shelf, empty save for a lone half-eaten jar of peanut butter. “I have to buy more bread.”

* * *


			One night, a day or two before Independence Day, the neighbors were shooting fireworks from a rooftop down the block. Phosphorescent streaks raked up the purple, light-polluted sky and shredded into huge explosions that reverberated through our apartment. I was asleep on the living room floor, wedged between you and Lan, when I felt the warmth of her body, which was pressed all night against my back, vanish. When I turned, she was on her knees, scratching wildly at the blankets. Before I could ask what was wrong, her hand, cold and wet, grabbed my mouth. She placed her finger over her lips.

			“Shhh. If you scream,” I heard her say, “the mortars will know where we are.”

			The streetlight in her eyes reflecting jaundiced pools on her dark face. She grabbed my wrist and pulled me toward the window, where we crouched, huddled under the sill, listening to the bangs ricochet above us. Slowly, she guided me into her lap and we waited.

			She went on, in whispered bursts, about the mortars, her hand periodically covering my lower face—the scent of garlic and Tiger Balm sharp in my nose. We must have sat for two hours like that, her heartbeat steady on my back as the room began to grey, then washed in indigo, revealing two sleeping forms swaddled in blankets and stretched across the floor before us: you and your sister, Mai. You resembled soft mountain ranges on a snowy tundra. My family, I thought, was this silent arctic landscape, placid at last after a night of artillery fire. When Lan’s chin grew heavy on my shoulder, her exhales evening out in my ear, I knew she had finally joined her daughters in sleep, and the snow in July—smooth, total, and nameless—was all I could see.

* * *


			Before I was Little Dog, I had another name—the name I was born with. One October afternoon in a banana-thatched hut outside Saigon, on the same rice paddy you grew up on, I became your son. As Lan told it, a local shaman and his two assistants squatted outside the hut waiting for the first cries. After Lan and the midwives cut the umbilical cord, the shaman and his helpers rushed in, wrapped me, still sticky with birth, in a white cloth, and raced to the nearby river, where I was bathed under veils of incense smoke and sage.

			Screaming, ash smudged across my forehead, I was placed in my father’s arms and the shaman whispered the name he had given me. It means Patriotic Leader of the Nation, the shaman explained. Having been hired by my father, and noticing my old man’s gruff demeanor, the way he puffed out his chest to widen his 5ft-2in frame as he walked, speaking with gestures that resembled blows, the shaman picked a name, I imagine, that would satisfy the man who paid him. And he was right. My father beamed, Lan said, lifting me over his head at the hut’s threshold. “My son will be the leader of Vietnam,” he shouted. But in two years, Vietnam—which, thirteen years after the war and still in shambles—would grow so dire that we would flee the very ground he stood on, the soil where, a few feet away, your blood had made a dark red circle between your legs, turning the dirt there into fresh mud—and I was alive.

* * *


			Other times, Lan seemed ambivalent to noise. Do you remember that one night, after we had gathered around Lan to hear a story after dinner, and the gunshots started firing off across the street? Although gunshots were not uncommon in Hartford, I was never prepared for the sound—piercing yet somehow more mundane than I imagined, like little league home runs cracked one after another out of the night’s park. We all screamed—you, Aunt Mai, and I—our cheeks and noses pressed to the floor. “Someone turn off the lights,” you shouted.

			After the room went black for a few seconds, Lan said, “What? It’s only three shots.” Her voice came from the exact place where she was sitting. She hadn’t even flinched. “Is it not? Are you dead or are you breathing?”

			Her clothes rustled against her skin as she waved us over. “In the war, entire villages would go up before you know where your balls were.” She blew her nose. “Now turn the light back on before I forget where I left off.”

			With Lan, one of my tasks was to take a pair of tweezers and pluck, one by one, the grey hairs from her head. “The snow in my hair,” she explained, “it makes my head itch. Will you pluck my itchy hairs, Little Dog? The snow is rooting into me.” She slid a pair of tweezers between my fingers, “Make Grandma young today, okay?” she said real quiet, grinning.

			For this work I was paid in stories. After positioning her head under the window’s light, I would kneel on a pillow behind her, the tweezers ready in my grip. She would start to talk, her tone dropping an octave, drifting deep into a narrative. Mostly, as was her way, she rambled, the tales cycling one after another. They spiraled out from her mind only to return the next week with the same introduction: “Now this one, Little Dog, this one will really take you out. You ready? Are you even interested in what I’m saying? Good. Because I never lie.” A familiar story would follow, punctuated with the same dramatic pauses and inflections during moments of suspense or crucial turns. I’d mouth along with the sentences, as if watching a film for the umpteenth time—a movie made by Lan’s words and animated by my imagination. In this way, we collaborated.

			As I plucked, the blank walls around us did not so much fill with fantastical landscapes as open into them, the plaster disintegrating to reveal the past behind it. Scenes from the war, mythologies of manlike monkeys, of ancient ghost catchers from the hills of Da Lat who were paid in jugs of rice wine, who traveled through villages with packs of wild dogs and spells written on palm leaves to dispel evil spirits.

			There were personal stories too. Like the time she told of how you were born, of the white American serviceman deployed on a navy destroyer in Cam Ranh Bay. How Lan met him wearing her purple áo dài, the split sides billowing behind her under the bar lights as she walked. How, by then, she had already left her first husband from an arranged marriage. How, as a young woman living in a wartime city for the first time with no family, it was her body, her purple dress, that kept her alive. As she spoke, my hand slowed, then stilled. I was engrossed in the film playing across the apartment walls. I had forgotten myself into her story, had lost my way, willingly, until she reached back and swatted my thigh. “Hey, don’t you sleep on me now!” But I wasn’t asleep. I was standing next to her as her purple dress swayed in the smoky bar, the glasses clinking under the scent of motor oil and cigars, of vodka and gunsmoke from the soldiers’ uniforms.

			“Help me, Little Dog.” She pressed my hands to her chest. “Help me stay young, get this snow off of my life—get it all off my life.” I came to know, in those afternoons, that madness can sometimes lead to discovery, that the mind, fractured and short-wired, is not entirely wrong. The room filled and refilled with our voices as the snow fell from her head, the hardwood around my knees whitening as the past unfolded around us.

* * *


			And then there was the school bus. That morning, like all mornings, no one sat next to me. I pressed myself against the window and filled my vision with the outside, mauve with early dark: the Motel 6, the Kline’s Laundromat, not yet opened, a beige and hoodless Toyota stranded in a front yard with a tire swing half tilted in dirt. As the bus sped up, bits of the city whirled by like objects in a washing machine. All around me the boys jostled each other. I felt the wind from their quick-jerked limbs behind my neck, their swooping arms and fists displacing the air. Knowing the face I possess, its rare features in these parts, I pushed my head harder against the window to avoid them. That’s when I saw a spark in the middle of a parking lot outside. It wasn’t until I heard their voices behind me that I realized the spark came from inside my head. That someone had shoved my face into the glass.

			“Speak English,” said the boy with a yellow bowl cut, his jowls flushed and rippling.

			The cruelest walls are made of glass, Ma. I had the urge to break through the pane and leap out the window.

			“Hey.” The jowlboy leaned in, his vinegar mouth on the side of my cheek. “Don’t you ever say nothin’? Don’t you speak English?” He grabbed my shoulder and spun me to face him. “Look at me when I’m talking to you.”

			He was only nine but had already mastered the dialect of damaged American fathers. The boys crowded around me, sensing entertainment. I could smell their fresh-laundered clothes, the lavender and lilac in the softeners.

			They waited to see what would happen. When I did nothing but close my eyes, the boy slapped me.

			“Say something.” He shoved his fleshy nose against my blazed cheek. “Can’t you say even one thing?”

			The second slap came from above, from another boy.

			Bowlcut cupped my chin and steered my head toward him. “Say my name then.” He blinked, his eyelashes, long and blond, nearly nothing, quivered. “Like your mom did last night.”

			Outside, the leaves fell, fat and wet as dirty money, across the windows. I willed myself into a severe obedience and said his name.

			I let their laughter enter me.

			“Again,” he said.



			“Kyle.” My eyes still shut.

			“That’s a good little bitch.”

			Then, like a break in weather, a song came on the radio. “Hey, my cousin just went to their concert!” And like that it was over. Their shadows cleared above me. I let my nose drip with snot. I stared at my feet, at the shoes you bought me, the ones with red lights that flashed on the soles when I walked.

			My forehead pressed to the seat in front of me, I kicked my shoes, gently at first, then faster. My sneakers erupted with silent flares: the world’s smallest ambulances, going nowhere.

* * *


			That night you were sitting on the couch with a towel wrapped around your head after your shower, a Marlboro Red smoldering in your hand. I stood there, holding myself.

			“Why?” You stared hard at the TV.

			You stabbed the cigarette into your teacup and I immediately regretted saying anything. “Why’d you let them do that? Don’t close your eyes. You’re not sleepy.”

			You put your eyes on me, blue smoke swirling between us.

			“What kind of boy would let them do that?” Smoke leaked from the corners of your mouth. “You did nothing.” You shrugged. “Just let them.”

			I thought of the window again, how everything seemed like a window, even the air between us.

			You grabbed my shoulders, your forehead pressed fast to my own. “Stop crying. You’re always crying!” You were so close I could smell the ash and toothpaste between your teeth. “Nobody touched you yet. Stop crying—I said stop, dammit!”

			The third slap that day flung my gaze to one side, the TV screen flashed before my head snapped back to face you. Your eyes darted back and forth across my face.

			Then you pulled me into you, my chin pressed hard to your shoulder.

			“You have to find a way, Little Dog,” you said into my hair. “You have to because I don’t have the English to help you. I can’t say nothing to stop them. You find a way. You find a way or you don’t tell me about this ever again, you hear?” You pulled back. “You have to be a real boy and be strong. You have to step up or they’ll keep going. You have a bellyful of English.” You placed your palm on my stomach, almost whispering, “You have to use it, okay?”

			“Yes, Ma.”

			You brushed my hair to one side, kissed my forehead. You studied me, a bit too long, before falling back on the sofa waving your hand. “Get me another cigarette.”

			When I came back with the Marlboro and a Zippo lighter, the TV was off. You just sat there staring out the blue window.

* * *


			The next morning, in the kitchen, I watched as you poured the milk into a glass tall as my head.

			“Drink,” you said, your lips pouted with pride. “This is American milk so you’re gonna grow a lot. No doubt about it.”

			I drank so much of that cold milk it grew tasteless on my numbed tongue. Each morning after that, we’d repeat this ritual: the milk poured with a thick white braid, I’d drink it down, gulping, making sure you could see, both of us hoping the whiteness vanishing into me would make more of a yellow boy.

			I’m drinking light, I thought. I’m filling myself with light. The milk would erase all the dark inside me with a flood of brightness. “A little more,” you said, rapping the counter. “I know it’s a lot. But it’s worth it.”

			I clanked the glass down on the counter, beaming. “See?” you said, arms crossed. “You already look like Superman!”

			I grinned, milk bubbling between my lips.

* * *


			Some people say history moves in a spiral, not the line we have come to expect. We travel through time in a circular trajectory, our distance increasing from an epicenter only to return again, one circle removed.

			Lan, through her stories, was also traveling in a spiral. As I listened, there would be moments when the story would change—not much, just a minuscule detail, the time of day, the color of someone’s shirt, two air raids instead of three, an AK-47 instead of a 9mm, the daughter laughing, not crying. Shifts in the narrative would occur—the past never a fixed and dormant landscape but one that is re-seen. Whether we want to or not, we are traveling in a spiral, we are creating something new from what is gone. “Make me young again,” Lan said. “Make me black again, not snow like this, Little Dog. Not snow.”

			But the truth is I don’t know, Ma. I have theories I write down then erase and walk away from the desk. I put the kettle on and let the sound of boiling water change my mind. What’s your theory—about anything? I know if I asked you, you’d laugh, covering your mouth, a gesture common among the girls in your childhood village, one you’ve kept all your life, even with your naturally straight teeth. You’d say no, theories are for people with too much time and not enough determination. But I know of one.

			We were on a plane to California—do you remember this? You were giving him, my father, another chance, even with your nose still crooked from his countless backhands. I was six and we had left Lan behind in Hartford with Mai. At one point on the flight, the turbulence got so bad I bounced on the seat, my entire tiny self lifted clean off the cushion, then yanked down by the seatbelt. I started to cry. You wrapped one arm around my shoulders, leaned in, your weight absorbing the plane’s throttle. Then you pointed to the thick cloud-bands outside the window and said, “When we get this high up, the clouds turn into boulders—hard rocks—that’s what you’re feeling.” Your lips grazing my ear, your tone soothing, I examined the massive granite-colored mountains across the sky’s horizon. Yes, of course the plane shook. We were moving through rocks, our flight a supernatural perseverance of passage. Because to go back to that man took that kind of magic. The plane should rattle, it should nearly shatter. With the laws of the universe made new, I sat back and watched as we broke through one mountain after another.

* * *


			When it comes to words, you possess fewer than the coins you saved from your nail salon tips in the milk gallon under the kitchen cabinet. Often you’d gesture to a bird, a flower, or a pair of lace curtains from Walmart and say only that it’s beautiful—whatever it was. “Đẹp quá!” you once exclaimed, pointing to the hummingbird whirring over the creamy orchid in the neighbor’s yard. “It’s beautiful!” You asked me what it was called and I answered in English—the only language I had for it. You nodded blankly.

			The next day, you had already forgotten the name, the syllables slipping right from your tongue. But then, coming home from town, I spotted the hummingbird feeder in our front yard, the glass orb filled with a clear, sweet nectar, surrounded by colorful plastic blossoms with pinhead holes for their beaks. When I asked you about it, you pulled the crumpled cardboard box from the garbage, pointed to the hummingbird, its blurred wings and needled beak—a bird you could not name but could nonetheless recognize. “Đẹp quá,” you smiled. “Đẹp quá.”

* * *


			 			When you came home that night, after Lan and I had eaten our share of tea-rice, we all walked the forty minutes it took to get to the C-Town off New Britain Avenue. It was near closing and the aisles were empty. You wanted to buy oxtail, to make bún bò huế for the cold winter week ahead of us.

			Lan and I stood beside you at the butcher counter, holding hands, as you searched the blocks of marbled flesh in the glass case. Not seeing the tails, you waved to the man behind the counter. When he asked if he could help, you paused for too long before saying, in Vietnamese, “Đuôi bò. Anh có đuôi bò không?”

			His eyes flicked over each of our faces and asked again, leaning closer. Lan’s hand twitched in my grip. Floundering, you placed your index finger at the small of your back, turned slightly, so the man could see your backside, then wiggled your finger while making mooing sounds. With your other hand, you made a pair of horns above your head. You moved, carefully twisting and gyrating so he could recognize each piece of this performance: horns, tail, ox. But he only laughed, his hand over his mouth at first, then louder, booming. The sweat on your forehead caught the fluorescent light. A middle-aged woman, carrying a box of Lucky Charms, shuffled past us, suppressing a smile. You worried a molar with your tongue, your cheek bulging. You were drowning, it seemed, in air. You tried French, pieces of which remained from your childhood. “Derrière de vache!” you shouted, the veins in your neck showing. By way of reply the man called to the back room, where a shorter man with darker features emerged and spoke to you in Spanish. Lan dropped my hand and joined you—mother and daughter twirling and mooing in circles, Lan giggling the whole time.

			The men roared, slapping the counter, their teeth showing huge and white. You turned to me, your face wet, pleading. “Tell them. Go ahead and tell them what we need.” I didn’t know that oxtail was called oxtail. I shook my head, shame welling inside me. The men stared, their chortling now reduced to bewildered concern. The store was closing. One of them asked again, head lowered, sincere. But we turned from them. We abandoned the oxtail, the bún bò huế. You grabbed a loaf of Wonder Bread and a jar of mayonnaise. None of us spoke as we checked out, our words suddenly wrong everywhere, even in our mouths.

			In line, among the candy bars and magazines, was a tray of mood rings. You picked one up between your fingers and, after checking the price, took three—one for each of us. “Đẹp quá,” you said after a while, barely audible. “Đẹp quá.”

			No object is in a constant relationship with pleasure, wrote Barthes. For the writer, however, it is the mother tongue. But what if the mother tongue is stunted? What if that tongue is not only the symbol of a void, but is itself a void, what if the tongue is cut out? Can one take pleasure in loss without losing oneself entirely? The Vietnamese I own is the one you gave me, the one whose diction and syntax reach only the second-grade level.

			As a girl, you watched, from a banana grove, your schoolhouse collapse after an American napalm raid. At five, you never stepped into a classroom again. Our mother tongue, then, is no mother at all—but an orphan. Our Vietnamese a time capsule, a mark of where your education ended, ashed. Ma, to speak in our mother tongue is to speak only partially in Vietnamese, but entirely in war.

			That night I promised myself I’d never be wordless when you needed me to speak for you. So began my career as our family’s official interpreter. From then on, I would fill in our blanks, our silences, stutters, whenever I could. I code switched. I took off our language and wore my English, like a mask, so that others would see my face, and therefore yours.

			When you worked for a year at the clock factory, I called your boss and said, in my most polite diction, that my mother would like her hours reduced. Why? Because she was exhausted, because she was falling asleep in the bathtub after she came home from work, and that I was afraid she would drown. A week later your hours were cut. Or the times, so many times, I would call the Victoria’s Secret catalog, ordering you bras, underwear, leggings. How the call ladies, after confusion from the prepubescent voice on the other end, relished in a boy buying lingerie for his mother. They awww’d into the phone, often throwing in free shipping. And they would ask me about school, cartoons I was watching, they would tell me about their own sons, that you, my mother, must be so happy.

			I don’t know if you’re happy, Ma. I never asked.

* * *


			Back in the apartment, we had no oxtail. But we did have three mood rings, one glinting on each of our fingers. You were lying facedown on a blanket spread on the floor with Lan straddled across your back, kneading the knots and stiff cords from your shoulders. The greenish TV light made us all seem underwater. Lan was mumbling another monologue from one of her lives, each sentence a remix of the last, and interrupted herself only to ask you where it hurt.

			Two languages cancel each other out, suggests Barthes, beckoning a third. Sometimes our words are few and far between, or simply ghosted. In which case the hand, although limited by the borders of skin and cartilage, can be that third language that animates where the tongue falters.

			It’s true that, in Vietnamese, we rarely say I love you, and when we do, it is almost always in English. Care and love, for us, are pronounced clearest through service: plucking white hairs, pressing yourself on your son to absorb a plane’s turbulence and, therefore, his fear. Or now—as Lan called to me, “Little Dog, get over here and help me help your mother.” And we knelt on each side of you, rolling out the hardened cords in your upper arms, then down to your wrists, your fingers. For a moment almost too brief to matter, this made sense—that three people on the floor, connected to each other by touch, made something like the word family.

			You groaned with relief as we worked your muscles loose, unraveling you with nothing but our own weight. You lifted your finger and, speaking into the blanket, said, “Am I happy?”

			It wasn’t until I saw the mood ring that I realized you were asking me, once more, to interpret another portion of America. Before I could answer, Lan thrust her hand before my nose. “Check me too, Little Dog—am I happy?” It could be, in writing you here, I am writing to everyone—for how can there be a private space if there is no safe space, if a boy’s name can both shield him and turn him into an animal at once?

			“Yes. You’re both happy,” I answered, knowing nothing. “You’re both happy, Ma. Yes,” I said again. Because gunshots, lies, and oxtail—or whatever you want to call your god—should say Yes over and over, in cycles, in spirals, with no other reason but to hear itself exist. Because love, at its best, repeats itself. Shouldn’t it?

			“I’m happy!” Lan threw her arms in the air. “I’m happy on my boat. My boat, see?” She pointed to your arms, splayed out like oars, she and I on each side. I looked down and saw it, the brown, yellowish floorboards swirling into muddy currents. I saw the weak ebb thick with grease and dead grass. We weren’t rowing, but adrift. We were clinging to a mother the size of a raft until the mother beneath us grew stiff with sleep. And we soon fell silent as the raft took us all down this great brown river called America, finally happy.

It is a beautiful country depending on where you look. Depending on where you look you might see the woman waiting on the shoulder of the dirt road, an infant girl wrapped in a sky-blue shawl in her arms. She rocks her hips, cups the girl’s head. You were born, the woman thinks, because no one else was coming. Because no one else is coming, she begins to hum.

			A woman, not yet thirty, clutches her daughter on the shoulder of a dirt road in a beautiful country where two men, M-16s in their hands, step up to her. She is at a checkpoint, a gate made of concertina and weaponized permission. Behind her, the fields have begun to catch. A braid of smoke through a page-blank sky. One man has black hair, the other a yellow mustache like a scar of sunlight. Stench of gasoline coming off their fatigues. The rifles sway as they walk up to her, their metal bolts winking in afternoon sun.

			A woman, a girl, a gun. This is an old story, one anyone can tell. A trope in a movie you can walk away from if it weren’t already here, already written down.

			It has started to rain; the dirt around the woman’s bare feet is flecked with red-brown quotation marks—her body a thing spoken with. Her white shirt clings against her bony shoulders as she sweats. The grass all around her is flattened, as if god had pressed his hand there, reserving a space for an eighth day. It’s a beautiful country, she’s been told, depending on who you are.

* * *


			It’s not a god—of course not—but a helicopter, a Huey, another lord whose wind’s so heavy that, a few feet away, a lint-grey warbler thrashes in the high grass, unable to correct herself.

			The girl’s eye fills with the chopper in the sky, her face a dropped peach. Her blue shawl finally made visible with black ink, like this.

			Somewhere, deep inside this beautiful country, in the back of a garage lit with a row of fluorescent lights, as legend has it, five men have gathered around a table. Beneath their sandaled feet, pools of motor oil reflect nothing. On one end of the table a cluster of glass bottles. The vodka inside them shimmers in the harsh light as the men talk, their elbows shifting impatiently. They fall silent each time one of them glances toward the door. It should open anytime now. The light flickers once, stays on.

			The vodka poured into shot glasses, some ringed with rust from being stored in a metal bullet case from the previous war. The heavy glasses thunk on the table, the burn swallowed into a darkness invented by thirst.

			If I say the woman. If I say the woman is bearing down, her back hunched below this man-made storm, would you see her? From where you are standing, inches, which is to say years, from this page, would you see the shred of blue shawl blowing across her collarbones, the mole at the outside corner of her left eye as she squints at the men, who are now close enough for her to realize they are not men at all, but boys—eighteen, twenty at most? Can you hear the sound of the chopper, its dismemberment of air so loud it drowns the shouting beneath it? The wind coarse with smoke—and something else, a sweat-soaked char, its odd and acrid taste blowing from a hut at the edge of the field. A hut that, moments ago, was filled with human voices.

			The girl, her ear pressed to the woman’s chest, listens as if eavesdropping behind a door. There is something running inside the woman, a beginning, or rather, a rearranging of syntax. Eyes closed, she searches, her tongue on the cliff of a sentence.

			The veins green over his wrists, the boy raises the M-16, blond hairs sweated brown along his arms. The men are drinking and laughing, their gapped teeth like mouthfuls of dice. This boy, his lips pulled at an angle, green eyes filmed pink. This private first class. The men are ready to forget, a few still have the scent of their wives’ makeup on their fingers. His mouth opens and closes rapidly. He is asking a question, or questions, he is turning the air around his words into weather. Is there a language for falling out of language? A flash of teeth, a finger on the trigger, the boy saying, “No. No, step back.”

			The olive tag stitched to the boy’s chest frames a word. Although the woman cannot read it, she knows it signals a name, something given by a mother or father, something weightless yet carried forever, like a heartbeat. She knows the first letter in the name is C. Like in Go Cong, the name of the open-air market she had visited two days ago, its neon marquee buzzing at the entrance. She was there to buy a new shawl for the girl. The cloth had cost more than what she had planned to spend, but when she saw it, day-bright among the grey and brown bolts, she peered up at the sky, even though it was already nightfall, and paid knowing there would be nothing left to eat with. Sky blue.

* * *


			When the door opens, the men put down their glasses, some after quickly draining the dregs. A macaque monkey, the size of a dog, is led, with collar and leash, by a stooped man with combed white hair. No one speaks. All ten eyes are on the mammal as it staggers into the room, its burnt-red hair reeking of alcohol and feces, having been force-fed vodka and morphine in its cage all morning.

			The fluorescent hums steady above them, as if the scene is a dream the light is having.

			A woman stands on the shoulder of a dirt road begging, in a tongue made obsolete by gunfire, to enter the village where her house sits, has sat for decades. It is a human story. Anyone can tell it. Can you tell? Can you tell the rain has grown heavy, its keystrokes peppering the blue shawl black?

			The force of the soldier’s voice pushes the woman back. She wavers, one arm flailing, then steadies, pressing the girl into her.

			A mother and a daughter. A me and a you. It’s an old story.

			The stooped man leads the monkey under the table, guides its head through a hole cut in the center. Another bottle is opened. The twist cap clicks as the men reach for their glasses.

			The monkey is tied to a beam under the table. It jostles about. With its mouth muffled behind a leather strap, its screams sound more like the reel of a fishing rod cast far across a pond.

* * *


			Seeing the letters on the boy’s chest, the woman remembers her own name. The possession of a name, after all, being all they share.

			“Lan,” she says. “Tên tôi là Lan.” My name is Lan.

			Lan meaning Lily. Lan the name she gave herself, having been born nameless. Because her mother simply called her Seven, the order in which she came into the world after her siblings.

			It was only after she ran away, at seventeen, from her arranged marriage to a man three times her age, that Lan named herself. One night, she brewed her husband a pot of tea, dropping a pinch of lotus stems to deepen his sleep, then waited till the palm-leaf walls shivered with his snoring. Through the flat black night, she made her way, feeling one low branch after another.

			Hours later, she knocked on the door to her mother’s house. “Seven,” her mother said through a crack in the door, “a girl who leaves her husband is the rot of a harvest. You know this. How can you not know?” And then the door closed, but not before a hand, gnarled as wood, pressed a pair of pearl earrings into Lan’s grip. The mother’s pale face erased by the door’s swing, the lock’s click.

			The crickets were too loud as Lan stumbled toward the nearest streetlamp, then followed each dim post, one by one, until, by dawn, the city appeared, smeared with fog.

			A man selling rice cakes spotted her, her soiled nightgown torn at the collar, and offered a scoop of sweet rice steaming on a banana leaf. She dropped down in the dirt and chewed, eyes fixed on the ground between her coal-shaded feet.

			“Where are you from,” the man asked, “a young girl like you wandering at this hour? What is your name?”

			Her mouth filled itself with that lush sound, the tone forming through the chewed rice before the vowel rose, its protracted ah, pronounced Laang. Lily, she decided, for no reason. “Lan,” she said, the rice falling, like chipped light, from her lips. “Tên tôi là Lan.”

			Surrounding the boy soldier, the woman, and the girl is the land’s verdant insistence. But which land? Which border that was crossed and erased, divided and rearranged?

			Twenty-eight now, she has given birth to a girl she wraps in a piece of sky stolen from a clear day.

			Sometimes, at night, the girl asleep, Lan stares into the dark, thinking of another world, one where a woman holds her daughter by the side of a road, a thumbnail moon hung in the clear air. A world where there are no soldiers or Hueys and the woman is only going for a walk in the warm spring evening, where she speaks real soft to her daughter, telling her the story of a girl who ran away from her faceless youth only to name herself after a flower that opens like something torn apart.

* * *


			Due to their ubiquity and punitive size, macaques are the most hunted primates in Southeast Asia.

			The white-haired man raises a glass and makes a toast, grins. Five other glasses are lifted to meet his, the light falls in each shot because the law says so. The shots are held by arms that belong to men who will soon cut open the macaque’s skull with a scalpel, open it like a lid on a jar. The men will take turns consuming the brain, dipped in alcohol or swallowed with cloves of garlic from a porcelain plate, all while the monkey kicks beneath them. The fishing rod cast and cast but never hitting water. The men believe the meal will rid them of impotence, that the more the monkey rages, the stronger the cure. They are doing this for the future of their genes—for the sake of sons and daughters.

			They wipe their mouths with napkins printed with sunflowers that soon grow brown, then start to tear—soaked.

			After, at night, the men will come home renewed, their stomachs full, and press themselves against their wives and lovers. The scent of floral makeup—cheek to cheek.

			A sound now of dribbling. A liquid warmth slides down the hem of her black trousers. The acrid smell of ammonia. Lan pisses herself in front of the two boys—and holds the girl tighter. Around her feet a circle of wet heat. The brain of the macaque monkey is the closest, of any mammal, to a human’s.

			The raindrops darken as they slide down the blond soldier’s dirt-baked cheeks before collecting, like ellipses, along his jaw.

* * *


			“Yoo Et Aye numbuh won,” she says, urine still dripping down her ankles. Then again, louder. “Yoo Et Aye numbuh won.

			“No bang bang.” She raises her free hand to the sky, as if to let someone pull her right up to it. “No bang bang. Yoo Et Aye numbuh won.”

			A tic in the boy’s left eye. A green leaf falling into a green pond.

			He stares at the girl, her too-pink skin. The girl whose name is Hong, or Rose. Because why not another flower? Hong—a syllable the mouth must swallow whole at once. Lily and Rose, side by side on this breath-white road. A mother holding a daughter. A rose growing out of the stem of a lily.

			He takes note of Rose’s hair, its errant cinnamon tint fringed blond around the temples. Seeing the soldier’s eyes on her daughter, Lan pushes the girl’s face to her chest, shielding her. The boy watches this child, the whiteness showing from her yellow body. He could be her father, he thinks, realizes. Someone he knows could be her father—his sergeant, squad leader, platoon partner, Michael, George, Thomas, Raymond, Jackson. He considers them, rifle gripped tight, his eyes on the girl with American blood before the American gun.

			“No bang bang . . . Yoo Et Aye . . . ,” Lan whispers now. “Yoo Et Aye . . .”

			Macaques are capable of self-doubt and introspection, traits once thought attributable only to humans. Some species have displayed behavior indicating the use of judgment, creativity, even language. They are able to recall past images and apply them to current problem solving. In other words, macaques employ memory in order to survive.

* * *


			The men will eat until the animal is empty, the monkey slowing as they spoon, its limbs heavy and listless. When nothing’s left, when all of its memories dissolve into the men’s bloodstreams, the monkey dies. Another bottle will be opened.

			Who will be lost in the story we tell ourselves? Who will be lost in ourselves? A story, after all, is a kind of swallowing. To open a mouth, in speech, is to leave only the bones, which remain untold. It is a beautiful country because you are still breathing.

			Yoo Et Aye numbuh won. Hands up. Don’t shoot. Yoo Et Aye numbuh won. Hands up. No bang bang.

			The rain keeps on because nourishment, too, is a force. The first soldier steps back. The second one moves the wooden divider, waves the woman forward. The houses behind her now reduced to bonfires. As the Huey returns to the sky, the rice stalks erect themselves, only slightly disheveled. The shawl drenched indigo with sweat and rain.

			In the garage, on a wall of stripped paint, spotted brick underneath, a shelf hangs as a makeshift altar. On it are framed pictures where saints, dictators, and martyrs, the dead—a mother and father—stare out, unblinking. In the glass frames, the reflection of sons leaning back in their chairs. One of them pours what’s left of the bottle over the sticky table, wipes it clean. A white cloth is placed over the macaque’s hollowed mind. The light in the garage flickers once, stays on.

			The woman stands in a circle of her own piss. No, she is standing on the life-sized period of her own sentence, alive. The boy turns, walks back to his post at the checkpoint. The other boy taps his helmet and nods at her, his finger, she notices, still on the trigger. It is a beautiful country because you are still in it. Because your name is Rose, and you are my mother and the year is 1968—the Year of the Monkey.

			The woman walks forward. Passing the guard, she glances one last time at the rifle. The muzzle, she notices, is not darker than her daughter’s mouth. The light flickers once, stays on.

I wake to the sound of an animal in distress. The room so dark I can’t tell if my eyes are even open. There’s a breeze through the cracked window, and with it an August night, sweet but cut with the bleach smell of lawn chemicals—the scent of manicured suburban yards—and I realize I’m not in my own house.

			I sit up on the side of the bed and listen. Maybe it’s a cat wounded from a skirmish with a raccoon. I balance myself in the black air and head toward the hallway. There’s a red blade of light coming through a cracked door at the other end. The animal is inside the house. I palm the wall, which, in the humidity, feels like wet skin. I make my way toward the door and hear, in between the whimpers, the animal’s breaths—heavier now, something with huge lungs, much larger than a cat. I peer through the door’s red crack—and that’s when I see him: the man bent over in a reading chair, his white skin and even whiter hair made pink, raw under a scarlet-shaded lamp. And it comes to me: I’m in Virginia, on summer break. I’m nine. The man’s name is Paul. He is my grandfather—and he’s crying. A warped Polaroid trembles between his fingers.

			I push the door. The red blade widens. He looks up at me, lost, this white man with watery eyes. There are no animals here but us.

* * *


			Paul had met Lan in 1967 while stationed in Cam Ranh Bay with the US Navy. They met at a bar in Saigon, dated, fell in love, and, a year later, married right there in the city’s central courthouse. All through my childhood their wedding photo hung on the living room wall. In it, a thin, boyish Virginian farmboy with doe-brown eyes, not yet twenty-three, beams above his new wife, five years his senior—a farmgirl, as it happens, from Go Cong, and a mother to twelve-year-old Mai from her arranged marriage. As I played with my dolls and toy soldiers, that photo hovered over me, an icon from an epicenter that would lead to my own life. In the couple’s hopeful smiles, it’s hard to imagine the photo was snapped during one of the most brutal years of the war. At the time it was taken, with Lan’s hand on Paul’s chest, her pearl wedding ring a bead of light, you were already a year old—waiting in a stroller a few feet behind the cameraman as the bulb flashed.

			Lan told me one day, while I was plucking her white hairs, that when she first arrived in Saigon, after running away from her doomed first marriage, after failing to find a job, she ended up as a sex worker for American GIs on R&R. She said, with barbed pride, as if she was defending herself before a jury, “I did what any mother would do, I made a way to eat. Who can judge me, huh? Who?” Her chin jutted, her head lifted high at some invisible person across the room. It was only when I heard her slip that I realized she was, in fact, speaking to someone: her mother. “I never wanted to, Ma. I wanted to go home with you—” She lunged forward. The tweezers dropped from my grip, pinged on the hardwood. “I never asked to be a whore,” she sobbed. “A girl who leaves her husband is the rot of a harvest,” she repeated the proverb her mother told her. “A girl who leaves . . .” She rocked from side to side, eyes shut, face lifted toward the ceiling, like she was seventeen again.

			At first I thought she was telling another one of her half-invented tales, but the details grew clearer as her voice stammered into focus on odd yet idiosyncratic moments in the narrative. How the soldiers would smell of a mixture of tar, smoke, and mint Chiclets—the scent of the battle sucked so deep into their flesh it would linger even after their vigorous showers. Leaving Mai in the care of her sister back in the village, Lan rented a windowless room from a fisherman by the river, where she took the soldiers. How the fisherman, living below her, would spy on her through a slot in the wall. How the soldiers’ boots were so heavy, when they kicked them off as they climbed into bed, the thumps sounded like bodies dropping, making her flinch under their searching hands.

			Lan tensed as she spoke, her tone strained as it dipped into the realm of her second mind. She turned to me afterward, a finger blurred over her lips. “Shhhh. Don’t tell your mom.” Then she gave my nose a flick, her eyes bright as she grinned maniacally.

			But Paul, shy and sheepish, who often spoke with his hands in his lap, was not her client—which was why they hit it off. According to Lan, they did, in fact, meet at a bar. It was late, nearly midnight, when Lan walked in. She had just finished her work for the day and was getting a nightcap when she saw the “lost boy,” as she called him, sitting alone at the counter. There was a social that night for servicemen in one of the ritzy hotels, and Paul was waiting for a date that would never arrive.

			They talked over drinks and found a common ground in their shared rural childhoods, both having been brought up in the “sticks” of their respective countries. These two unlikely hillbillies must have found a familiar dialect that fused the gap between their estranged vernaculars. Despite their vastly different paths, they found themselves transplants in a decadent and disorientating city besieged by bombing raids. It was in this familiar happenstance that they found refuge in each other.

			One night, two months after they met, Lan and Paul would be holed up in a one-room apartment in Saigon. The city was being infiltrated by a massive North Vietnamese advance that would later be known as the infamous Tet Offensive. All night Lan lay fetal, her back against the wall, Paul by her side, his standard-issue 9mm pistol aimed at the door as the city tore open with sirens and mortar fire.

* * *


			Although it’s only three in the morning, the lampshade makes the room feel like the last moments of a sinister sunset. Under the bulb’s electric hum, Paul and I spot each other through the doorway. He wipes his eyes with the palm of one hand and waves me over with the other. He slips the photo into his chest pocket and puts on his glasses, blinking hard. I sit on the cherrywood armchair beside him.

			“You okay, Grandpa?” I say, still foggy from sleep. His smile has a grimace underneath it. I suggest that I go back to bed, that it’s still early anyway, but he shakes his head.

			“It’s alright.” He sniffles and straightens up in the chair, serious. “It’s just—well, I just keep thinking about that song you sang earlier, the uh . . .” He squints at the floor.

			“Ca trù,” I offer, “the folk songs—the ones Grandma used to sing.”

			“That’s right.” He nods vigorously. “Ca trù. I was lying there in the damn dark and I swear I kept hearing it. It’s been so long since I heard that sound.” He glances at me, searching, then back at the floor. “I must be going crazy.”

			Earlier that night, after dinner, I had sung a few folk songs for Paul. He had inquired about what I had learned during the school year and, already steeped in summer and drawing a blank, I offered a few songs I had memorized from Lan. I sang, in my best effort, a classic lullaby Lan used to sing. The song, originally performed by the famous Khánh Ly, describes a woman singing among corpses strewn across sloping leafy hills. Searching the faces of the dead, the singer asks in the song’s refrain, And which of you, which of you are my sister?

			Do you remember it, Ma, how Lan would sing it out of nowhere? How once, she sang it at my friend Junior’s birthday party, her face the shade of raw ground beef from a single Heineken? You shook her shoulder, telling her to stop, but she kept going, eyes closed, swaying side to side as she sang. Junior and his family didn’t understand Vietnamese—thank god. To them it was just my crazy grandma mumbling away again. But you and I could hear it. Eventually you put down your slice of pineapple cake—untouched, the glasses clinking as the corpses, fleshed from Lan’s mouth, piled up around us.

			Among the empty plates stained from the baked ziti, I sang that same song as Paul listened. After, he simply clapped, then we washed up. I had forgotten that Paul, too, understands Vietnamese, having picked it up during the war.

			“I’m sorry,” I say now, watching the red light pool under his eyes. “It’s a stupid song anyway.”

			Outside, the wind is driving through the maples, their rinsed leaves slap against the clapboard siding. “Let’s just make some coffee or something, Grandpa.”

			“Right.” He pauses, mulling something over, then rises to his feet. “Let me just put on my slippers. I’m always cold in the mornings. I swear something’s wrong with me. It’s getting old. Your body heat retreats to your center until one day your feet are ice.” He almost laughs but rubs his chin instead, then raises his arm, as if to strike at something in front of him—and then the click, the lamp goes out, the room now swept with a violet stillness. From the shadow, his voice: “I’m glad you’re here, Little Dog.”

* * *


			“Why do they say black?” you asked weeks earlier, back in Hartford, pointing to Tiger Woods on the TV screen. You squinted at the white ball on the tee. “His mom is Taiwanese, I’ve seen her face, but they always say black. Shouldn’t they at least say half yellow?” You folded your bag of Doritos, tucked it under your arm. “How come?” You tilted your head, waiting for my answer.

			When I said that I didn’t know, you raised your eyebrows. “What do you mean?” You grabbed the controller and turned up the volume. “Listen closely, and tell us why this man is not Taiwanese,” you said, running your hand through your hair. Your eyes followed Woods as he walked back and forth across the screen, periodically crouching to gauge his stroke. There was no mention, at the moment, of his ethnic makeup, and the answer you wanted never came. You stretched a strand of hair before your face, examining it. “I need to get more curlers.”

			Lan, who was sitting on the floor beside us, said, without looking up from the apple she was peeling, “That boy don’t look Taiwanese to me. He looks Puerto Rican.”

			You gave me a look, leaned back, and sighed. “Everything good is always somewhere else,” you said after a while, and changed the channel.

* * *


			When we arrived in America in 1990, color was one of the first things we knew of yet knew nothing about. Once we stepped inside our one-bedroom apartment in the predominantly Latinx neighborhood on Franklin Avenue that winter, the rules of color, and with it our faces, had changed. Lan, who, back in Vietnam, was considered dark, was now lighter. And you, Ma—so fair you would “pass” for white, like the time we were in the Sears department store and the blond clerk, bending down to stroke my hair, asked you whether I was “yours or adopted.” Only when you stuttered, your English garbled, gone, head lowered, did she realize her mistake. Even when you looked the part, your tongue outed you.

			One does not “pass” in America, it seems, without English.

			“No, madam,” I said to the woman in my ESL English. “That’s my mom. I came out her asshole and I love her very much. I am seven. Next year I will be eight. I’m doing fine. I feel good how about you? Merry Christmas Happy New Year.” The deluge was exactly eighty percent of the language I knew at the time and I shivered in pure delight as the words flew out of me.

			You believed, like many Vietnamese mothers, that to speak of female genitalia, especially between mothers and sons, is considered taboo—so when talking about birth, you always mentioned that I had come out of your anus. You would playfully slap my head and say, “This huge noggin nearly tore up my asshole!”

			Startled, her perm throbbing, the clerk turned and clacked away on her heels. You looked down at me. “What the hell did you say?”

* * *


			In 1966, in between his two tours in Vietnam, Earl Dennison Woods, a lieutenant colonel in the United States Army, was stationed in Thailand. There, he met Kultida Punsawad, a Thai native and secretary for the US Army office in Bangkok. After dating for a year, Earl and Kultida moved to Brooklyn, New York, where, in 1969, they got married. Earl would return to Vietnam for one final tour, from 1970 to 1971, right before American involvement in the conflict began to decline. By the time Saigon fell, Earl officially retired from military service to begin his new life, and most important, raise his new son—born only six months after the last US helicopter lifted from the American embassy in Saigon.

			The boy’s birth name, according to an ESPN profile I read a while back, was Eldrick Tont Woods. His first name a unique formulation of the E in “Earl” and ending in the K in “Kultida.” His parents, whose home in Brooklyn was often vandalized due to their interracial marriage, decided to stand at each end of their son’s name, like pillars. Eldrick’s middle name, Tont, is a traditional Thai name given to him by his mother. However, shortly after his birth, the boy obtained a nickname that would soon become famous across the globe.

			Eldrick “Tiger” Woods, one of the greatest golfers in the world is, like you, Ma, a direct product of the war in Vietnam.

* * *


			Paul and I are in his garden harvesting fresh basil for a pesto recipe he promised to teach me. We successfully avoid talking about the past, having brushed by it earlier that morning. We talk, instead, of cage-free eggs. He pauses from his picking, pulls his cap over his brow and lectures, with steeled intensity, on how antibiotics cause infections in commercially farmed hens, that the bees are dying and how, without them, the country would lose its entire food supply in less than three months, how you should cook olive oil on low heat because burning it would release free radicals that cause cancer.

			We sidestep ourselves in order to move forward.

			In the next yard, a neighbor starts up his leaf blower. The leaves flutter and land in the street with a series of little clicks. When Paul bends to tug at a braid of ragweed, the photo in his pocket falls out, landing faceup on the grass. A black-and-white Polaroid, slightly larger than a box of matches, it shows a group of young people with faces smeared by laughter. Despite Paul’s quickness—sticking it back in his pocket soon as it lands—I make out the two faces I know too well: Paul and Lan, their arms around each other, eyes burning with an exuberance so rare it looks fake.

			In the kitchen, Paul pours me a bowl of Raisin Bran with water—just how I like it. He plops down at the table, takes off his cap, and reaches for one of the already rolled joints lined, like thin sticks of packaged sugar, inside a porcelain teacup. Three years ago, Paul was diagnosed with cancer, something he believed was brought on by his contact with Agent Orange during his tour. The tumor was on the nape of his neck, right above the spinal cord. Luckily, the doctors caught it before it invaded his brain. After a year of failed chemotherapy, they decided to operate. The whole process, from diagnosis to remission, took nearly two years.

			Leaning back now in his chair, Paul cups a flame in his palm and pulls it through the joint’s length. He sucks, the tip intensifying as I watch. He smokes the way one smokes after a funeral. On the kitchen wall behind him are colored-pencil drawings of Civil War generals I had made for a school project. You had sent them to Paul months earlier. The smoke blows across the primary-colored profile of Stonewall Jackson, then fades.

			Before bringing me to Paul’s, you sat me down on your bed back in Hartford, took a long drag on your cigarette, and just said it.

			“Listen. No, look at me right here, I’m serious. Listen.” You put both hands on my shoulder, the smoke thickening around us. “He’s not your grandfather. Okay?”

			The words entered me as if through a vein.

			“Which means he’s not my father either. Got it? Look at me.” When you’re nine, you know when to shut your mouth, so I did, thinking you were only upset, that all daughters must say this, at some point, of their fathers. But you kept going, your voice calm and cool, like stones being laid, one by one, upon a long wall. You said that when Lan met Paul that night in the bar in Saigon, Lan was already four months pregnant. The father, the real one, was just another American john—faceless, nameless, less. Except for you. All that remains of him is you, is me. “Your grandfather is nobody.” You sat back, the cigarette returned to your lips.

			Up to that point I thought I had, if nothing else, a tether to this country, a grandfather, one with a face, an identity, a man who could read and write, one who called me on my birthdays, whom I was a part of, whose American name ran inside my blood. Now that cord was cut. Your face and hair a mess, you got up to flick the Marlboro into the sink. “Everything good is somewhere else, baby. I’m telling you. Everything.”

			Leaning into the table now, the photo safely tucked in his shirt pocket, Paul starts to tell me what I already know. “Hey,” he says, eyes glazed with reefer. “I’m not who I am. I mean . . .” He dabs the joint into his half-full glass of water. It hisses. My Raisin Bran, untouched, crackles in its red clay bowl. “I’m not what your mamma says I am.” His gaze is lowered as he tells it, his rhythm cut with odd pauses, at times slipping into near-whisper, like a man cleaning his rifle at daybreak and talking to himself. And I let him run his mind. I let him empty. I didn’t stop him because you don’t stop nothing when you’re nine.

* * *


			One evening, during his final tour in Vietnam, Earl Woods found himself pinned down by enemy fire. The American fire base he was stationed at was about to be overrun by a large North Vietnamese and Viet Cong contingent. Most of the American GIs had already evacuated. Woods was not alone—beside him, hunkered down in their two-jeep caravan, was Lieutenant Colonel Vuong Dang Phong. Phong, as Woods described him, was a ferocious pilot and commander, with a ruthless eye for detail. He was also a dear friend. As the enemy poured in around the abandoned base, Phong turned to Woods, assuring him they’ll live through it.

			For the next four hours, the two friends sat in their jeeps, their olive uniforms darkened with sweat. Woods clutched his M-79 grenade launcher as Phong held the jeeps’ machine-gun turret. In this way, they survived the night. After, the two would share a drink in Phong’s room back at base camp—and laugh, discussing baseball, jazz, and philosophy.

			All through his time in Vietnam, Phong was Woods’s confidant. Perhaps such strong bonds are inevitable between men who trust each other with their lives. Perhaps it was their mutual otherness that drew them close, Woods being both black and Native American, growing up in the segregated American South, and Phong, a sworn enemy to half of his countrymen in an army run, at its core, by white American generals. Whatever the case, before Woods left Vietnam, the two swore to find each other after the helicopters, bombers, and napalm had lifted. Neither of them knew it would be the last time they saw each other.

			Being a high-ranking colonel, Phong was captured by the North Vietnamese authorities thirty-nine days after Saigon was taken. He was sent to a reeducation camp where he was tortured, starved, and committed to forced labor.

			A year later, at age forty-seven, Phong died while in detainment. His grave would not be discovered until a decade later, when his children unearthed his bones for reburial near his home province—the final gravestone reading Vuong Dang Phong.

			But to Earl Woods, his friend was known as none other than “Tiger Phong”—or simply Tiger, a nickname Woods had given him for his ferocity in battle.

			On December 30, 1975, a year before Tiger Phong’s death and across the world from Phong’s jail cell, Earl was in Cypress, California, cradling a newborn boy in his arms. The boy already had the name Eldrick but, staring into the infant’s eyes, Earl knew the boy would have to be named after his best friend, Tiger. “Someday, my old friend would see him on television . . . and say, ‘That must be Woody’s kid,’ and we’d find each other again,” Earl later said in an interview.

			Tiger Phong died of heart failure, most likely brought on by poor nutrition and exhaustion at the camp. But for a brief eight months in 1975 and 1976, the two most important Tigers in Earl Woods’s life were alive at once, sharing the same planet, one at the fragile end of a brutal history, the other just beginning a legacy of his own. The name “Tiger,” but also Earl himself, had become a bridge.

			When Earl finally heard news of Tiger Phong’s death, Tiger Woods had already won his first Masters. “Boy, does this ever hurt,” Earl said. “I’ve got that old feeling in my stomach, that combat feeling.”

* * *


			I remember the day you went to your first church service. Junior’s dad was a light-skinned Dominican, his ma a black Cuban, and they worshipped at the Baptist church on Prospect Ave., where no one asked them why they rolled their r’s or where they really came from. I had already gone to the church with the Ramirezes a handful of times, when I’d sleep over on Saturday and wake up attending services in Junior’s borrowed Sunday best. That day, after being invited by Dionne, you decided to go—out of politeness but also because the church gave out nearly expired groceries donated by local supermarkets.

			You and I were the only yellow faces in the church. But when Dionne and Miguel introduced us to their friends, we were received with warm smiles. “Welcome to my father’s house,” people kept saying. And I remember wondering how so many people could be related, could all come from the same dad.

			I was enamored of the verve, torque, and tone of the pastor’s voice, his sermon on Noah’s Ark inflected with hesitations, rhetorical questions amplified by long silences that intensified the story’s effect. I loved the way the pastor’s hands moved, flowed, as if his sentences had to be shaken off him in order to reach us. It was, to me, a new kind of embodiment, one akin to magic, one I’d glimpsed only partially in Lan’s own storytelling.

			But that day, it was the song that offered me a new angle of seeing the world, which is to say, seeing you. Once the piano and organ roared into the first thick chords of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” everyone in the congregation rose, shuffling, and let their arms fly out above them, some turning in circles. Hundreds of boots and heels hammered the wooden floors. In the blurred gyrations, the twirling coats and scarfs, I felt a pinch on my wrist. Your fingernails were white as they dug into my skin. Your face—eyes closed—lifted toward the ceiling, you were saying something to the fresco of angels above us.

			At first I couldn’t hear through the sound of clapping and shouting. It was all a kaleidoscope of color and movement as fat organ and trumpet notes boomed through the pews from the brass band. I wrested my arm from your grip. When I leaned in, I heard your words underneath the song—you were speaking to your father. Your real one. Cheeks wet with tears, you nearly shouted. “Where are you, Ba?” you demanded in Vietnamese, shifting from foot to foot. “Where the hell are you? Come get me! Get me out of here! Come back and get me.” It might have been the first time Vietnamese was ever spoken in that church. But no one glared at you with questions in their eyes. No one made a double take at the yellow-white woman speaking her own tongue. Throughout the pews other people were also shouting, in excitement, joy, anger, or exasperation. It was there, inside the song, that you had permission to lose yourself and not be wrong.

			I stared at the toddler-sized plaster of Jesus hanging to the side of the pulpit. His skin seemed to throb from the stamping feet. He was regarding his petrified toes with an expression of fatigued bewilderment, as if he had just woken from a deep sleep only to find himself nailed red and forever to this world. I studied him for so long that when I turned to your white sneakers I half expected a pool of blood under your feet.

			Days later, I would hear “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” coming from the kitchen. You were at the table, practicing your manicurist techniques on rubber mannequin hands. Dionne had given you a tape of gospel songs, and you hummed along as you worked, as the disembodied hands, their fingers lustered with candy colors, sprouted along the kitchen counters, their palms open, like the ones back in that church. But unlike the darker hands in the Ramirezes’ congregation, the ones in your kitchen were pink and beige, the only shades they came in.

* * *


			1964: When commencing his mass bombing campaign in North Vietnam, General Curtis LeMay, then chief of staff of the US Air Force, said he planned on bombing the Vietnamese “back into the Stone Ages.” To destroy a people, then, is to set them back in time. The US military would end up releasing over ten thousand tons of bombs in a country no larger than the size of California—surpassing the number of bombs deployed in all of WWII combined.

			1997: Tiger Woods wins the Masters Tournament, his first major championship in professional golf.

			1998: Vietnam opens its first professional golf course, which was designed on a rice paddy formerly bombed by the US Air Force. One of the playing holes was made by filling in a bomb crater.

* * *


			Paul finishes his portion of the story. And I want to tell him. I want to say that his daughter who is not his daughter was a half-white child in Go Cong, which meant the children called her ghost-girl, called Lan a traitor and a whore for sleeping with the enemy. How they cut her auburn-tinted hair while she walked home from the market, arms full with baskets of bananas and green squash, so that when she got home, there’d be only a few locks left above her forehead. How when she ran out of hair, they slapped buffalo shit on her face and shoulders to make her brown again, as if to be born lighter was a wrong that could be reversed. Maybe this is why, I realize now, it mattered to you what they called Tiger Woods on TV, how you needed color to be a fixed and inviolable fact.

			“Maybe you shouldn’t call me Grandpa anymore.” Paul’s cheeks pinch as he sucks the second joint, killing it. He looks like a fish. “That word, it might be a bit awkward now wouldn’t it?”

			I think about it for a minute. Ulysses Grant’s Crayola portrait quivers from a breeze through the dimming window.

			“No,” I say after a while, “I don’t got any other grandpa. So I wanna keep calling you that.”

			He nods, resigned, his pale forehead and white hair tinted with evening light. “Of course. Of course,” he says as the roach drops into the glass with a sizzle, leaving a thread of smoke that twirls, like a ghostly vein, up his arms. I stare at the brown mash in the bowl before me, now soggy.

* * *


			There is so much I want to tell you, Ma. I was once foolish enough to believe knowledge would clarify, but some things are so gauzed behind layers of syntax and semantics, behind days and hours, names forgotten, salvaged and shed, that simply knowing the wound exists does nothing to reveal it.

			I don’t know what I’m saying. I guess what I mean is that sometimes I don’t know what or who we are. Days I feel like a human being, while other days I feel more like a sound. I touch the world not as myself but as an echo of who I was. Can you hear me yet? Can you read me?

			When I first started writing, I hated myself for being so uncertain, about images, clauses, ideas, even the pen or journal I used. Everything I wrote began with maybe and perhaps and ended with I think or I believe. But my doubt is everywhere, Ma. Even when I know something to be true as bone I fear the knowledge will dissolve, will not, despite my writing it, stay real. I’m breaking us apart again so that I might carry us somewhere else—where, exactly, I’m not sure. Just as I don’t know what to call you—White, Asian, orphan, American, mother?

			Sometimes we are given only two choices. While doing research, I read an article from an 1884 El Paso Daily Times, which reported that a white railroad worker was on trial for the murder of an unnamed Chinese man. The case was ultimately dismissed. The judge, Roy Bean, cited that Texas law, while prohibiting the murder of human beings, defined a human only as White, African American, or Mexican. The nameless yellow body was not considered human because it did not fit in a slot on a piece of paper. Sometimes you are erased before you are given the choice of stating who you are.

			To be or not to be. That is the question.

			When you were a girl in Vietnam, the neighborhood kids would take a spoon to your arms, shouting, “Get the white off her, get the white off her!” Eventually you learned to swim. Wading deep into the muddy river, where no one could reach you, no one could scrape you away. You made yourself an island for hours at a time. Coming home, your jaw would clatter from cold, your arms pruned and blistered—but still white.

			When asked how he identifies his roots, Tiger Woods called himself “Cablinasian,” a portmanteau he invented to contain his ethnic makeup of Chinese, Thai, Black, Dutch, and Native American.

			To be or not to be. That is the question. A question, yes, but not a choice.

* * *


			“I remember one time, while visiting you all in Hartford—this must be a year or two after you landed from Vietnam—” Paul rests his chin on his palm and stares out the window, where a hummingbird hovers at the plastic feeder. “I walked into the apartment and found you crying under the table. No one was home—or maybe your mom was—but she must have been in the bathroom or something.” He stops, letting the memory fill in. “I bent down and asked you what was wrong, and you know what you said?” He grins. “You said that the other kids lived more than you. What a hoot.” He shakes his head. “What a thing to say! I’ll never forget that.” His gold-capped molar caught the light. “‘They live more, they live more!’ you shouted. Who the hell gave you that idea? You were only five, for Christ sakes.”

			Outside, the hummingbird’s whirring sounds almost like human breath. Its beak jabs into the pool of sugared water at the feeder’s base. What a terrible life, I think now, to have to move so fast just to stay in one place.

			After, we go for a walk, Paul’s brown-spotted beagle clinking between us. It’s just after sunset and the air’s thick with sweetgrass and late lilacs frothing white and magenta along the manicured lawns. We veer toward the last bend when a plain-looking lady, middle-aged, hair in a blond ponytail, approaches. She says, looking only at Paul, “I see you finally got a dog boy. Good for you, Paul!”

			Paul stops, pushes his glasses up his nose only to have them slide back down. She turns to me, articulates, “Welcome. To. The. Neighbor. Hood.” Her head bobs out each syllable.

			I hold tight the dog’s leash and step back, offering a smile.

			“No,” Paul says, his hand raised awkwardly, as if waving away cobwebs. “This is my grandson.” He lets the word hover between us all, until it feels solid, an instrument, then repeats it, nodding, to himself or the woman I can’t say. “My grandson.”

			Without a beat the woman smiles. Too widely.

			“Please remember that.”

			She laughs, makes a dismissive gesture before extending her hand to me, my body now legible.

			I let her shake my hand.

			“Well, I’m Carol. Welcome to the neighborhood. I mean that.” She walks on.

			We head home. We don’t speak. Behind the row of white town houses, a column of spruces stands motionless against a reddish sky. The beagle’s paws scrape the concrete, its chain clinking as the animal pulls us home. But all I can hear is Paul’s voice in my head. My grandson. This is my grandson.

I’m dragged into a hole, darker than the night around it, by two women. Only when one of them screams do I know who I am. I see their heads, black hair matted from the floor they sleep on. The air sharp with a chemical delirium as they jostle in the blur of the car’s interior. Eyes still thick with sleep, I make out the shapes: a headrest, a felt monkey the size of a thumb swinging from the rearview, a piece of metal, shining, then gone. The car peels out of the driveway, and I can tell, from the smell of acetone and nail polish, that it’s your tan-and-rust Toyota. You and Lan are in the front, clamoring for something that won’t show itself. The streetlights fling by, hitting your faces with the force of blows.

			“He’s gonna kill her, Ma. He’s gonna do it this time,” you say, breathless.

			“We riding. We riding helicopter fast.” Lan is in her own mind, red and dense with obsession. “We riding where?” She clutches the flip-down mirror with both hands. I can tell by her voice that she is smiling, or at least gritting her teeth.

			“He’s gonna kill my sister, Mama.” You sound like you’re flailing down a river. “I know Carl. It’s for real this time. You hear me? Ma!”

			Lan rocks side to side from the mirror, making whooshing sounds. “We getting out of here, huh? We gotta go far, Little Dog!” Outside, the night surges by like sideways gravity. The green numbers on the dash read 3:04. Who put my hands in my face? The tires squeal at each turn. The streets are empty and it feels like a universe in here, an everything hurling through the cosmic dark while, in the front seat, the women who raised me are losing their minds. Through my fingers, the night is black construction paper. Only the frazzled heads of these two before me are clear, swaying.

			“Don’t worry, Mai.” You’re speaking to yourself now. Your face so close to the windshield the glass fogs a ring that spreads in equal measure to your words. “I’m coming. We’re coming.”

			After a while we swerve down a street lined with Continentals. The car crawls, then stops in front of a grey clapboard town house. “Mai,” you say, pulling the emergency brake. “He’s gonna kill Mai.”

			Lan, who all this time had been shaking her head from side to side, stops, as if the words have finally touched a little button inside her. “What? Who kill who? Who die this time?”

			“Both of you stay in the car!” You unbuckle your belt, leap out, and shuffle toward the house, the door left open behind you.

			There’s a story Lan would tell, of Lady Triệu, the mythical woman warrior who led an army of men and repelled the Chinese invasion of ancient Vietnam. I think of her, seeing you. How, as legend goes, armed with two swords, she’d fling her yard-long breasts over her shoulders and cut down the invaders by the dozens. How it was a woman who saved us.

			“Who die now?” Lan swings around, her face, made stark by the overhead light, ripples with this new knowledge. “Who gonna die, Little Dog?” She flips her hand back and forth, as if opening a locked door, to indicate emptiness. “Somebody kill you? For what?”

			But I’m not listening. I’m rolling down the window, arms burning with each turn on the handle. Cool November air slips in. My stomach grabs as I watch you mount the front steps, the nine-inch machete glinting in your hand. You knock on the door, shouting. “Come out, Carl,” you say in Vietnamese. “Come out, you fucker! I’m taking her home for good. You can have the car, just give me my sister.” At the word sister your voice cracks into a short, busted sob, before regaining control. You bash the door with the machete’s wooden butt.

			The porch lights turn on, your pink nightgown suddenly green under the fluorescent. The door opens.

			You step back.

			A man appears. He half lunges from the doorway as you backpedal down the steps. The blade locked at your side, as if pinned in place.

			“He has a gun,” Lan whisper-shouts from the car, now lucid. “Rose! It’s a shotgun. It shoots two eaters at once. They eat your lungs inside out. Little Dog, tell her.”

			Your hands float over your head, the metal clanks on the driveway. The man, huge, his shoulders sloped under a grey Yankees sweatshirt, steps up to you, says a few words through his teeth, then kicks the machete to the side. It disappears in the grass with a flash. You mumble something, make yourself small, cup your hands under your chin, the posture you take after receiving a tip at the salon. The man lowers his gun as you back away, shaking, toward the car.

			“It’s not worth it, Rose,” Lan says, cupping her mouth with both hands. “You can’t beat a gun. You just can’t. Come back, come back in the helicopter.”

			“Ma,” I hear myself say, my voice cracking. “Ma, come on.”

			You edge slowly into the driver’s seat, turn to me with a nauseated stare. There’s a long silence. I think you’re about to laugh, but then your eyes fill. So I turn away, to the man carefully eyeing us, hand on his hip, the gun clamped between his armpit, pointed at the ground, protecting his family.

			When you start to talk, your voice is scraped out. I catch only parts of it. It’s not Mai’s house, you explain, fumbling with your keys. Or rather, Mai is no longer there. The boyfriend, Carl, who us