Nước is Water

by Agnes Cẩm Ngọc Trần

Illustration by David González

published February 14, 2020

    Nước is water.

         Nước is country.

              The streams and seas of nước

                    that my parents crossed in 1979

                             to reach a new nước.


    When my mom tells me stories of her childhood in Vietnam, the streams and seas of her words flow into veins and a heartbeat. The streams that my great-grandparents floated down to settle in Rạch Giá. The sea that my grandmother caught in her broken fishnets and small hands. The river that saved my uncle. The ocean that brought my family a new life, but took the lives of others.

    After my great-great-grandmother passed into her next life, my great-great-grandfather, heartbroken, took his children and floated down the river in search of their next life. They lived off of the nước until the stream’s fingers carried them to Rạch Giá, where my grandmother would grow up. My grandmother also lived off of the nước, travelling from dock to dock to repair the nets of fishermen with her small hands. She married my grandfather, a lieutenant, and traveled with him across the nước to a small island where he was stationed. When she became pregnant with my aunt, later the eldest of eight, my grandfather gambled away his earnings and drank everything but nước and she stood by the docks and cried and begged to the passing boats until eventually one took pity on her tears and took her across the nước back home to Rạch Giá and she would never go anywhere with my grandfather again. Except once in 1979 across the nước to a new nước called America.

    Now when my grandmother presses her hand against my cheek to snuff kisses against my hair, I can feel the wrinkle of her fishnet fingers, as if she stayed in the nước for too long.

Ma is ghost.


        M is rice seedling.

                M is tomb.

                   Má is mother.

                      Depending on how you let go

                        of your breath,

                 ma can mean life or death.


My family history is submerged in the smoke of hungry     ma and village shamans, in unmarked mả and bony earth, in fields of mạ and leaf houses. My grandfather is still an alcoholic. He comes to California from Ohio every summer and sits in my backyard with all the uncles and drinks everything but nước. As his drawled words mix with the smoke of his cigarette, the smoke begins to flow into the shape of figures, of my grandfather leading his soldiers, of an ambush by the communists, of my grandfather using a grenade to save his men, of my grandfather checking the smoked bodies for anything to send home, of a whole platoon of wispy ma that were only fourteen years old, of a whole platoon of wispy fourteen year old ma that each only owned a fistful of rice to send home. After the smoke of his cigarette and grenade clears, I can begin to understand why he doesn’t drink nước.

    After the war ended, my grandfather took his family deep into rural South Vietnam to escape reeducation camps and persecution. There was still nước, in the form of rivers, but there was more land, stretches of sugarcane fields and graveyards between each home. My má tells me there were more ma than people. I believe her. She tells me of the pebbles that would hit her everytime she passed the leaf house of a widow, where every evening, the widow would sit by the mả and ma in front of the leaf house. She tells me of the legless Cambodian woman that my grandpa pretended not to see while he worked in the sugarcane fields. She tells me of the other shadows and voices that lived in their leaf house with her, my two aunts, my uncle, and my grandparents.

    My aunt died in that house. She was younger than I am now. I don’t even know her name. There is no trace of her, no pictures, no memories, no mả or ma. She only exists in the story of her death. My grandmother asked her if she wanted to return to the city to live with her sister. My aunt whose name I do not know and whose face I will never know decided she would return to the city once the season for her favorite fruit came, so that she could eat it before she left. She died before her favorite fruit ripened. On a day that my grandfather left the leaf house to work in the sugarcane fields, she suddenly didn’t feel well. My mom told me that she sat by her bedside with their older brother and talked and laughed with my aunt like normal. They were in the middle of a conversation when she died with her eyes open.

    My mom told me that my grandfather’s aura is strong, strong enough to repel the hungry ma. When my aunt contracted her illness, my grandfather was gone. But in the early morning, he returned suddenly, on the basis of a bad feeling. By the time he came back, she was already dead.

    They spent the rest of the day breaking the earth. Digging graves. Digging up graves. Digging up graves in search of a grave for her. Digging mả. Digging up ma. Digging up ma in search for a mả for her. Every hole they dug was filled with the bodies and bones of others. Bones streamed through the rotting earth like a river. They had to bury her in the bones of another, of a few others, drown her in the sea of skeletons because there was no land or nước.

    Land broken by an old Cambodian battlefield. Land broken by bodies of nước. Land broken by bodies of hungry ma. I wonder what the Vietnamese and Cambodian fought over. It was probably over who owned the nước. The ma own the land now. They make up the land now, the bones and flesh of the earth. The land owns them now. I wonder if their families lit incense and paper money and put out mangos and tea for them at the altar, honored their memory and fed their hungry souls until their stomachs and hearts were full enough to make the journey to the next life. I wonder if their families didn’t, and if they turned into hungry ma, lost and far away from their nước without even the faintest trail of incense to guide them home or into their next life. They are forgotten and forsaken in both altar and memory, tied in body and spirit to the land that they owned that now owns them. Ma can’t cross bodies of nước. Bodies of spirits, bodies of land, bodies of nước. Bound by bodies in life and in death.

I wonder where my aunt is now, wonder if her bones are under some new private resort construction or if they’re still there, drowning in the sea of skeletons and spirits in a place where there is more bone than land or nước.    


                          Digging m.

               Digging up ma.

      Digging up ma

                in search for a m for her.


    On the same night of her death and burial, my uncle suddenly got the same illness. My grandfather took his family away to the nước that the ma couldn’t cross. He put them all on their little boat and they went down the nước, away from the sea of skeletons. They were in the middle of the river when the boat’s motor and my uncle’s breathing stopped.

    My grandmother screamed and cried for help as they drifted. My grandfather cursed and swore and told Ông Trời -- the Man in the Sky -- that he would give his life for his son’s. Fate had it so that a woman, in a place where there were more spirits than people, found them drifting in the nước and told them about the famous herbalist who just happened to live nearby.

In the broken yellow light of his home, the herbalist submerged my uncle in a tank of nước.

    My má remembers vividly when my uncle started     to breathe again. He broke out of the nước and out of death and spluttered, chest heaving again with life.

    After coming back to life, my uncle would tell my grandmother that the hungry ma wouldn’t stop following him. My grandmother sought out the help of a shaman.

    “Let me take him as my godson,” the shaman told my grandparents. They obliged.

For years after this incident, my uncle would remain at     a state of sickness. But whenever his godfather came up the alley that led to their new home, his illness would immediately clear. But my grandfather’s promise to the Man in the Sky was neither forgotten nor forsaken. For decades after, when one of them became ill, the same illness would haunt the other, regardless of the nước that separated them.


                                  Nước is water.

                               Ma is ghost.

                           Ma nước is water ghost.


    My grandfather decided they would cross the nước before they became ma and couldn’t. He decided this on a night when he hadn’t drunk nước. “We are leaving this nước tomorrow,” he promised. Come with us and cross the nước or stay here until the ma of you is bound to this nước forever. Die for this nước, die in this nước, die because of this nước.

    Only the really desperate believed him and came the next evening. My grandfather, true to his drunken word, stole a small fishing boat that the new government had claimed ownership of. They had to leave those that were bound to the warm land or sweet thunderstorms, those that were bound by too much age or too little age, those that could not or would not swim in uncertain nước to a foreign nước.

    My grandfather took his children and my grandmother and a few other families. They floated in the nước for days, weeks. Pirates circled them but left when my grandfather brandished his only grenade. Not all boat people are as lucky. My father’s fishing boat was ransacked by pirates who took generations of wealth and left them nothing but nước. My godmother fell off her family’s fishing boat and drowned and when she was hauled back up from the nước and from the dead, she asked her mother why she could suddenly see so many people on the boat—the boat people who had not been as lucky and had become ma nước, the unfortunate that had died watery deaths, that are bound to the nước, that cannot cross to land.

    My má’s fishing boat floated in the nước for weeks until the nước looked like land, like an island in the Philippines. When they crossed the nước to the refugee camps, they could have been mistaken for ma. They were hosed down with clean nước because they stank so badly from their time floating.

    They spent months on that island, unable to cross the nước like ma because they had nowhere to go, no trail of incense smoke to follow. The only smoke came from black clouds above burning boats in the middle of the nước. Occasionally they saw small boats almost make it to shore, only to be reeled back into the nước by Thai pirates. They saw those boats pulled all the way to the horizon where nước and sky were indistinguishable. For days, those boats would stay trapped at that blur between nước and sky. There was nothing to be done until the pirates left and those boats slowly drifted back to the shore that they were so close to days earlier. The women had to be carried off or limp to land with broken bodies, and no men ever made it past the nước. Ma cannot cross nước, but the living can, and oftentimes, the living are to be more feared.


                                            Nước is water.

                                     Nước is country.

                  Nước is where


            then and now,

                     here and there,

                          are bound to.


    Some of us are floating, drifting down the streams of nước as we get from here to there or from there to here and try to make here or there home. Some of us are drowning, struggling to stay afloat in the heavy waves of foggy nước as neither there becomes here nor here becomes there. But some of us are swimming in the nước, almost grounded in the new nước, as here and there become one. Nước has become both home and the space between home and here, or home and there. We are the ma nước, forever bound to the nước, haunted by the ma of aunts whose names we do not know whose faces we will never know, haunted by hot summer smoke and fistfuls of rice, haunted by the histories of our families. We are the ma nước, forever bound to the nước between here and there, with Vietnam’s streams and seas and rivers and oceans surging through our veins.


                                   Nước is water.

                                Ma is ghost.

                    Ma nước is water ghost.

                                    Ma nước is us.