Your mother is back

Excerpt from The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

Photo by Silver Ringvee on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai.

I heard the door closing, moans, footsteps. “Hương,” Grandma called. “Your mother is back. Give us some light.”

My mother? Could this be true? I fumbled in darkness, searching for the box of matchsticks. I struck one and a fire sprang up, wobbled, and died. I tried another. It didn’t ignite. For the third time, I struck three sticks against the side of the matchbox. Holding the fire, I turned.

A woman stood, her head on Grandma’s shoulder. Her eyes were closed. Her face was red and swollen, her hair glued against her skull.

“Hương, your mother is home. She’s home!” Grandma sobbed.

The fire ate into my fingers. I dropped the matchsticks onto the floor. I didn’t feel any pain, for I’d seen the deep anguish on the woman’s face. My mother’s face.

Mẹ.” I struggled against darkness, rushing to her. My cheek was hot against her chest. My hands clung to her bony frame. “Mẹ, mẹ ơi.

My mother’s fingers trembled over my nose, mouth, eyes. “Hương. Oh, my darling. Hương . . .”

The tears that I’d buried inside of me burst. I cried for the years we’d been apart, for Uncle Thuận’s death, for the deaths of my classmates, for myself and the fact that I no longer had any real friends.

Grandma relit the lamp. She pushed the money on the phản aside. I helped my mother lie down, drying her with a towel. She shivered under my hands.

As Grandma went to get a change of clothes for my mother, I kissed her forehead. A fever seared through her skin. She moaned.

“You’ll be better soon now that you’re with us, Mama.” I ran the towel along her legs, wiping away the mud, eyeing the large bruises imprinted on her skin. “How did you get home, Mama? Where’ve you been?” I wanted to ask about my father but feared the answer.

“Hương.” My mother opened her eyes. “Your Papa . . . Did your Papa come back?”

My heart paused in its beat. The lamp stopped flickering. “Mama, you didn’t find him? You didn’t see him?”

A tear slid out of my mother’s eye. As she shook her head, I stood up. I walked to the room Grandma had reserved for my parents, putting my face against its door. My mother had led me to believe that she could find my father and bring him back to me. I had believed she could do anything she wanted to.

“I’m sorry, Hương.” Her voice was a bare whisper.

The door was hard and cold against my forehead. I wanted to break it open.

“Now the war is ending, Hoàng will be back any day. He’ll be back,” Grandma’s voice said.

“Did you ever get a letter from him?” my mother asked.

“Not yet, Daughter. Perhaps he found no way to send it.”

“How about my brothers, Mama?”

“I’m sure they’re fine, and they’ll be home soon.” I turned to see Grandma sitting my mother up, giving her a glass of water. I looked up in the direction of Uncle Thuận’s altar, feeling thankful for the darkness: it had concealed the truth from my mother, for now.

As I helped Grandma change my mother, I eyed her protruding ribs. The bruises were not just on her legs, they marked their presence on her back, chest, and thighs. What had happened to her?

Grandma brought a towel and a pail of warm water. As I cleaned my mother’s face and hands, she lay there, her eyes tightly shut, her body shuddering. I turned away. I didn’t want to look at her, nor pity her. Where had my strong and determined mother gone? She didn’t ask about Grandma and me, how we were doing and how we’d survived the bombings.

“Let her rest,” Grandma whispered, pulling a blanket to my mother’s chest. As she started cooking, I went out to our young bàng tree. The rain had died into the earth. A half-moon dangled from the sky. I closed my eyes and saw myself as a child, my mother combing my hair, her singing voice the wind in my ears.

Grandma came out. She embraced me, her arms felt as solid as tree roots, holding me up. “I’m sorry your Mama isn’t well, Hương. We must be the pillars for her to lean on.”

“She used to be my pillar, Grandma.”

“I know, but you’re a strong woman now. . . . She needs you.”

I looked up at the moon and tried to let its soft light calm me. Perhaps it was wrong of me to feel disappointed at my mother. At least she’d tried to find my father and bring him back. Grandma had said that it was an impossible task.

“Don’t tell her about your Uncle Thuận yet,” said Grandma. “When she sleeps tonight, I’ll bring Thuận’s belongings into our room.”

I nodded and buried my face into Grandma’s hair. Years later, looking back through the journeys of my life, I understood the fear Grandma must have carried, not knowing what would happen the next day to her children. Yet she had to appear strong, for only those who faced battles were entitled to trauma.

That night, after Grandma had fed her a bowl of phở, I sat guarding my mother. I thought that if I watched her closely enough, she wouldn’t disappear again. I believed that if I told her how much I’d missed her, she’d once again be the mother I knew.

But as a fifteen-year-old girl, I couldn’t imagine how the war had swallowed my mother into its stomach, churning her into someone different before spitting her out. I couldn’t understand how she could scream so loud in her sleep, about bullets, shooting, running, and death. There were words I didn’t understand. And I couldn’t understand how my father’s name could sound so sad on her lips.

In the days that followed, several neighbors came to visit my mother. To my surprise, she didn’t get out of bed or sit up. She only nodded or shook her head at their questions, her face sad and empty. She did the same with her friends and colleagues from the Bạch Mai Hospital. After a while, they all left, whispering that she was exhausted and needed to rest.

But I knew it was more than that. Sometimes when I was alone with her, her shoulders trembled. She must have been crying, but still, no sounds emerged. They only came during the night, when she slept, her body shaking with nightmares.

Fearing my mother would hurt herself in her sleep, I moved into her room. She didn’t want me to be on the same bed, so I unrolled a straw mat onto the floor. I’d been a good sleeper, but no longer.

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The Mountains Sing – Summary

With the epic sweep of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko or Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and the lyrical beauty of Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan, The Mountains Sing tells an enveloping, multigenerational tale of the Trần family, set against the backdrop of the Việt Nam War. Trần Diệu Lan, who was born in 1920, was forced to flee her family farm with her six children during the Land Reform as the Communist government rose in the North. Years later in Hà Nội, her young granddaughter, Hương, comes of age as her parents and uncles head off down the Hồ Chí Minh Trail to fight in a conflict that tore apart not just her beloved country, but also her family.

Vivid, gripping, and steeped in the language and traditions of Việt Nam, The Mountains Sing brings to life the human costs of this conflict from the point of view of the Vietnamese people themselves, while showing us the true power of kindness and hope.

Copyright © 2020 by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai.

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

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