The Sound of Snow

snow-933283_1280I know the sound of snow.

Sister taught me how to listen to it whenever Mom and Dad fought. She told me that snow was the sky coming down—Heaven touching the ground with little tip-toes.

Once, I listened so carefully by the window that I didn’t even know the window broke. Sister pulled me from the glass while Mom and Dad threw more things through it. She touched the cuts on my face, she touched the tears on hers, she smeared her cheeks red. She led me to her room and shut the door—the cold reached through under it and tickled my ankles. Sister sang a song while she put clothes in our backpacks. She knew which were my favorite and folded them carefully.

She put everything inside and zipped the bags. She wrapped me in more clothes and closed a coat around me. She called me an astronaut, safe in my suit, and told me we were going to the moon. When she opened her window, we climbed into space and watched the stars fall. She shut the window and erased our tracks while we walked.

We walked until the sky fell faster. The trees turned white and the houses were icebergs. I waited in Sister’s footprints and watched her climb the floating ice. She crawled into its caves. Her flashlight sparkled like an icicle wand.

She waved to me and I followed her inside, brushing our footprints behind me. The cave was big and empty. We found old bottles and boxes, leftovers from other explorers. We found a tub full of mud and a bed full of bugs. They were dead. They fell on the floor like sand.

Sister unrolled her sleeping bag and turned off her light. She put me inside and we shared the bag. I felt her breath on my cheek and her stomach shake. She started to shiver. I turned around but she turned away. I listened to her. She wanted to go home.

“We can go back now,” I said, “we can come again tomorrow.” The moon and the iceberg and the cave were not fun anymore.

Sister was quiet for a long time.

“We can’t,” she whispered.

“Why not?”

“It’s not safe,” she said, “just listen to the snow. Go to sleep.”

I listened.

I woke from deep inside the whale’s belly. The sleeping bag swallowed me. There was enough room now for me to swim, to reach, to wonder where Sister went. I squirmed from the bag like a cocoon. I walked to the window. The sun melted the snow and made it smell like rain.

Sister was in the backyard picking up snowballs. A snowman held her hat in his skinny hand. An igloo sat like a sea turtle on the beach. Sister crawled inside the white shell. I ran outside following her footprints.

“Why didn’t you cover your tracks?” I asked.

Sister stuck her head out from the shell, “Because we’re safe here.” She smiled and tucked back inside. I tucked inside, too. The turtle shell was just big enough for us, and quiet enough for us to hear our breaths and heartbeats—and our stomachs.

“Where are you going?” I asked when Sister ducked out the turtle’s neck.

“Getting our stuff. I brought snacks!”

She disappeared into the brightness outside. I listened to her footsteps munch the snow. Inside, the sun glowed through the shell like a cloudy day. I lied down and tried to guess where the sun was. I listened to it melt the snow. I poked a hole into the ceiling, peeked out, and tried to spot the sun. I knew I found it when a little lightning bolt shot inside.

Then I heard thunder.

I crawled from the igloo and found a mountain. It was black, brown, and made of broken wood. I looked at the other dark houses, but they were not the cave.

I followed Sister’s tracks to the mountain, but she did not come out.

I tried to climb it, but the steps kept moving, the mountain kept breaking. I watched the wood and waited.

Then I heard Sister’s shivers.

I put my ear to the mountain’s side and tried not to breathe.

But her breaths stopped instead, and all I heard was the sound of snow.


©Evan Pham, 2016 (Written Dec. 11-13, 2016)


Hand in the Sand

[Yesterday, January 22nd was the 41st annual March for Life protesting against the legalized massacre of American children, motherhood, fatherhood, sisterhood and brotherhood. In honor and memory of the dead, may I share… Hand in the Sand:]

I thought I found a long lost sister, but it was only her hand. When I crouched down to touch her fingers, they were cold and wet and looked too red – like a steamed lobster.

My friend and I were at the river to skip stones. He said he knew how, but we quit after our arms got tired from trying. We started walking down along the sandy river bank, getting closer to the bridge, searching for more perfect stones while letting our throwing arms rest. That was when I found her hand.

Hand in the SandAt first I thought it was some kind of seaweed, or coral. I told my friend but he said people don’t even fish in the river, how could there be seaweed if there’s not even fish? I didn’t know the answer so I ignored him and picked up the red flesh. It fit completely into my left palm. It felt like the strawberry jelly I ate for lunch.

I realized it was a little hand when I saw its small outline mirror my thumb and fingers. My friend realized too and shouted, “Someone lost a hand!”

Not knowing what else to do, I held onto it and looked around the shore. City traffic was above our heads, cars making wind while they hurried over the steel bridge. My friend poked at the hand and pointed to the skinny blue strings inside. They looked like my blue strings, but mine were thicker.

A dead tree stuck its roots out into the river, maybe dead because the bridge hid the sun now. Caught in the tangle of roots was a clump of plastic bags. I wanted to use one to carry the hand home. My friend reached out to snatch a bag but it was filled and tied tight. He grabbed another one that was emptier and dumped the trash out. When he saw hands hit the sand, he dropped the bag and backed away. I couldn’t stop staring.

One time my dad took me to the hospital because my stomach hurt so much. Around my wrist, the nurse put a blue bracelet that had my name, birthday, and numbers I don’t remember anymore. I asked my dad if I could keep it because blue was my favorite color.

I couldn’t stop staring because blue was my favorite color, and there were so many bracelets. I crouched down to look at the bracelets, but they were around little legs. I thought the toes were fingers but now I could see, and I could see names, birthdays, and so many numbers.

The first word my parents ever taught me to write was my surname – Wu. They said it was important, and that anyone else with Wu was long lost family. I was just happy because Wu was easier to write than others.

WuSo Wu was easy for me to recognize on the stained anklet. I found my friend’s name too and told him to come see, but he wouldn’t. He told me to stop touching the babies. I said why would anyone put babies in bags? They’re just hands and legs.

I put down the jelly hand and began to pull the blue anklets off the legs. Now I could finally start wearing mine and not worry about losing it.

After collecting four anklets – all clasped around my arm – I tugged the bag aside to see if there were more legs. I saw a butt and laughed.

“It’s a butt!” I said to my friend. I peeled the thick plastic away and noticed the words on the bag. I asked my friend if he knew what medical refuse meant, but when I looked up he was already running away. I looked back down and saw a pink face beside the pink butt. This time I didn’t laugh. I couldn’t even if it was somehow funny.

I covered the face with the bag and looked in the other bags for more anklets. Before I went home that day I had more than sixteen. I washed them in the river because I knew my mom didn’t like dirty things, but when I showed them to her she still said they were dirty and threw them all away – even the Wu one.

I went back to the river the next day to find more but the police told me to go home. They were busy cleaning up and digging around the dead tree.

An officer from the local health bureau carries dead babies found dumped in a river on the outskirts of Jining, Shandong province, March 30, 2010. REUTERS/Stringer

1st Edition – Mar 31, 2010: Inspired by a true tragedy.

© 2010 Evan Pham

Shoe Box Baby

Momma took us to buy new shoes for the first time. We wandered the building all day looking for the right store when Momma stopped.

I recognized the box. We all recognized it – Momma, Big Sister, and me. The cardboard body, glossy skin, red and white makeup. It smelled like rubber bands. We used to put special things inside, like flowers, feathers, amber.

I remember the last time we saw the box – back home in the desert far away, far from our new home in America. We were pushing dirt over the box, covering it like a bad secret. The falling dirt and rocks made tapping sounds on the lid. Sometimes I think it was him – trying to come back out. But I know it was too late.

I knew when Momma tried to feed him. I knew when he was too quiet. I knew when Momma cried.

After we kissed him goodbye, Momma took one of her dresses and wrapped him inside. He looked like a big red yam. Then she took the special box down from the top shelf. She left everything inside alone and put him inside. He fit perfect.

Big Sister took me outside and we used sticks and our fingernails to open the earth. The ground was dry because the sky stopped sweating – even though it was very hot. We had to scratch hard to tear the hole big enough.

When Momma came outside of our hut, she held the box like she held him. We watched her kneel and listened to her breathe. I know she was singing even though I do not remember the song. Then she put the box into the ground. The sun shined off the lid like it was a puddle. It was wet.

Big Sister and I helped bury the box. We watched the red rectangle disappear under the ground, like a sunset. We stopped when Momma stopped.

Momma went to the shelf of red boxes – so many of them, all new, all the same. She picked one and stared at it. I saw her hand tremble when she touched it. She took it from the others and kneeled down. Big Sister and I stood still. We watched her open the box, then another, then another.

“Ma’am? Ma’am!” a woman said, “Can I help you find something? What’s your size?”

Momma did not stop. She searched more boxes and left more new shoes everywhere. I was embarrassed when the woman became angry and told Momma to stop. Everyone in the store watched us.

Then Momma told Big Sister and me to help her, “Help me find your brother. Help me find him.”

© 2013 Evan Pham

Stored in Stomachs

All I can remember is Mother eating my necklace.

I do not remember leaving Vietnam. I do not remember the boat, no matter how small and stinky everyone said it was. I do not remember the night we hid in the jungle, even though everyone said to watch out for scorpions. I do not remember anything except that the necklace was my favorite thing in the world. Its slender body of flat gold links always caught the sun – tracing a halo around my neck. Dad said it made angels jealous of me.

After Bà had given me the necklace for my twelfth birthday, Mother took a stainless steel wire and twisted it through the clasp. She had said it would keep me from ever losing Grandmother’s necklace.

“Hurry, go call Anh Bình and Chị Phôi.” Mother told me. I ran out into the field and found my older brother and sister busy pitting their crickets against each other.

“Má said to come home.” I said to my brother. He pushed me aside and shouted at his cricket to kick more butt. My sister caught me by the arm so I would not fall over. She reached out to snatch my brother’s ear. He yelped and I laughed as she pulled him away.

Inside the house, we watched as Mother rushed about, throwing all of the jewelry onto the kitchen table. Some of the rings and bracelets I had never seen before. My sister helped Mother sort the jewelry into smaller piles.

“Children, do as I say. Men are coming, and they do not like people to have nice things like gold. We are leaving with Daddy when he comes home. We can only bring some of these with us.”

“Má, are we going to Nha Trang?” I asked. I loved Nha Trang. I learned how to swim there and can still remember how the warm Eastern Sea washed my young skin.

“No.” Mother said.

“Is Bà coming with us?” I worried about Grandma.

“No. We are going on a boat and it will take us to a better place.”

I looked around our home and tried to imagine the better place. Would it have crickets for us to catch? Monsoons for us to play in? Red dirt to stain our feet? Was it Nha Trang?

Then Mother filled some glasses with water and set them on the table. She picked up a ring, put it into her mouth and drank it down with a few gulps of water. I thought she was taking medicine until my sister and brother did the same.

I watched them eat gold and jade, and I started to cry.

Mother swallowed a short necklace and coughed, spitting water out from between her pressed lips. Her eyes became red and her face became purple. She drank a whole glass and breathed heavily.

When my brother took a necklace, Mother grabbed it out of his hand.

I touched the necklace around my throat. Mother noticed and tried to unwind the steel wire. Although she barely touched my skin, I could feel her rough hands struggle. The necklace tingled me as it squirmed in Mother’s fingers. When I was younger, I had felt a little snake slip over my bare foot. I began to panic and had to remind myself there was really no snake over my collar.

The wire had cut some of Mother’s fingertips. At first I squealed and thought they were snakebites, but then reminded myself again. She wiped the blood off onto her pants and washed my halo in a shallow dish basin. It felt strange to have nothing tug at my neck anymore. I rubbed my throat – looking for gold. Then Mother looked at me. She tore the wire off the necklace and beckoned me over.

“Will you let Má keep this for you?” She asked.

I could not say anything. I just stared at it, and at the blood dripping out of her fingers into the basin.

“Má will keep it safe until we are safe again.” She promised. I nodded and watched her head lean back. Her hand dangled the shimmering string over her lips, and then she dipped it into her mouth.

That is all I can remember.

I do not even remember the storm that drowned Mother in the sea, even though everyone said I watched and cried.


Copyright © 2009 Evan Pham