Lan resented that her children were smart. There were four of them. Each only a year apart. Nathalie and Nathan had been on honor roll since the 9th grade. Her first two had already gone.
She saw Amy four times a year on every holiday break. Singapore was only a five-hour flight away. As for Cory, if she were lucky, he’d come home during summer. He was studying biochemical engineering in Lyon, France. She couldn’t pronounce such a name, nor could she correctly spell the English names they had given themselves. “These days everyone has English names, Ma,” they said. Nathalie’s real name was Nhan, a white flower of an intense fragrance. It bloomed in Winter, usually along a river or near the ocean. Lan was also named after a flower—the orchid.
All of their names had meaning. In changing them to English, her children only kept the first letters of the names Lan had given them. Their new English names never became normal to her. She twisted her tongue over the foreign sounds, mistook the r for l when she tried to ask for her son Cory on the phone. His roommates were Vietnamese too, but they’d refuse to respond to her in their mother tongue. Instead, they nonchalantly told her that there was no one by that name there. ‘Those friends of yours need to learn to respect the elder. A bunch of rootless, uncultured brats,” she complained. “They were born here, Ma. So technically they’re French.” “Do they look French to you?” She laughed mockingly.
These conversations pained her. There was nothing to be done about Cory. Two summers ago, when he walked through the wheat field and tripped over the pecking chickens, she had not recognized him. He was tall, wide, and handsome. No son of hers should be so good-looking. She was a rough, common woman. Her best feature was her heap of silky hair, the color of burning coal—black with strands of bright red from working under the sun. When he stepped onto the wooden porch, even his shadow seemed to tower over her.
“Mama.” He smiled, his teeth straight and shiny. He bent down to kiss her hair. She only reached his chin.
“My god, what do they feed you over there?” She clucked, her throat dry.
“How do I look? What do you think?—engineered milk, Ma. At least that’s what they say.” He spoke in a low whisper.
She looked at him painfully. “Be quiet now. Come inside. I killed a fat pig for you.”
The rest of the summer was quiet. Cory laid in the hammock reading Nietzsche or Dickens. He used to read to her all the time, Vietnamese fables and historical tales, some romances here and there. She asked him to translate his English books to her. He said it was too difficult; some English expressions didn’t exist in Vietnamese. But he did relate Great Expectations to her and she enjoyed it. “It seems their poverty is so similar to ours. Why don’t you write about the suffering of our people? It would make you famous too if that’s the stuff they like.” He frowned at her, then slowly his brows relaxed into a smile. “No, Ma, we don’t need more of that. The only stories ever written about our country are about suffering.”
Lan knew he was right and could not argue with him. These days, she had not been able to respond to her son at all. He was magnanimous in the way he dealt with his less educated mother. She couldn’t take offense because he was being sensitive. But in her throat, she felt as if she had swallowed a bitter fruit. The other siblings looked up to their older brother. Nathan had already decided he wanted to be a doctor and gotten Cory’s approval. Nathalie, however, was a different case. Lan worried about Nathalie. She revered her brother.
In her mind, Lan secretly hoped Nathalie would be the one to stay home. Cory filled Nathalie’s head with wild ideas. You are in charge of your destiny, he told her. Anything you can imagine is real. He told her about the famous American Dream.
But what about the dreams of Vietnamese people? thought Lan. Of simple folks like her and Nathalie? She had dreamed of her children even before they were born.
She had been able to predict all of their genders. It was quite simple, actually; all she’d had to do was sing. Both Amy and Nathalie kicked at songs about the seasons, harvests, or love. Cory and Nathan liked the national anthem.
She would protect Nathalie. Nathalie was at the peak of her beauty. At sixteen, she was a rosy bud whose mild manner, Lan knew, hid deep passions. Lan refused to see her daughter’s blooming beauty, just as she had covered her mouth and looked away when she’d discovered a stain of blood on Nathalie’s underwear. She was only twelve then, much too young for such a feminine secret.
Yet it was hard for her to ignore Nathalie’s late arrivals at night, and the growing whispers behind their banana tree in the garden. Nathalie had started going on long walks after dusk and returning only after the crickets had sung well into the night.
“Where were you?” she asked when she heard Nathalie pushing at their creaky bamboo door.
“I caught a firefly, Ma. Look.” She held up a glass jar. Inside was a glowing winged insect. Her arms were swollen red from mosquito bites. Large beads of sweat rolled from her forehead as if she really had been chasing fireflies.
“Come here,” she gestured and Nathalie lifted the mosquito net to climb onto the bed.
The oil lamp cast a warm light in only one corner of the room. Lan lay on her side and watched the hazy, faraway look in her daughter’s eyes. She considered striking her across the cheek. But instead, she pulled the girl’s bony frame into her chest and held her there so tightly that Nathalie fell asleep from lack of oxygen and the heat passing between their bodies.
She had seen the boy. He walked behind Nathalie along the dirt road. Around here all the roads were merely footpaths of a thick, orange mud. She had peered up from her hat, just barely as to not be obvious. The boy was clumsy, swaying left and right, his jeans crunched up at the knees, his hands carrying two pairs of shoes.
Under the banana tree was a straw mat. The farmers usually gathered there at midday to take naps, share lunch or a piece of gossip. They would break the leaves off the branches to fan themselves. At night, it was a spot far enough away from the marsh and safe from water snakes. She had heard their footsteps crunching on the dry leaves and turned out the oil lamp. Back pressed against the cold cement wall, she pulled her knees to her chest and listened to the succession of suppressed giggles and irregular breathing. For a moment, she felt ashamed as if she were a child herself, caught in the middle of peeking into her parents’ bedroom. She wanted to run out, against the darkness, against her own thumping heartbeats to confront them. She imagined pulling on Nathalie’s hair, dragging her away from the boy, his eyes oscillating, half-fearful, half-mocking. She wouldn’t look at Nathalie because she knew, she knew that her daughter’s eyes would be so filled