on which the boat bobs and rolls and splinters. Rising on crests of waves, the boat’s deck meets the early summer sun. The captain, a man with a face leathered from years of fishing, opens the hatch. He leans his wrinkled brown face into the hull and tells the huddled bodies there, “We have reached international waters.” With the help of the fisherman’s strong arms, the passengers ascend from the dark heat of the hull. On deck, these people maintain their clustered formation. Binh pulls away from them and leans over the lip of decaying wood at the bow. There is no hazy shape of his country in the distance. He sees dolphins gliding alongside the boat but does not tell the unfamiliar faces on board. Instead, he watches a smooth gray back arc to the surface before disappearing below again. Binh wonders if there are sharks in these waters, wonders what he cannot see. He is alone.
The dark-skinned boy with whom he went to war was killed in Sài Gòn. His friend’s blood, Binh remembered, gurgled from his stomach wound like water at a rapid boil. He missed his mother. He had not seen or smelled her in three years. She existed for him only in memory and in the faded picture he kept pinned inside the breast of his shirt. Binh rested his hand on his friend’s stomach until the boy died. Blood stayed crusted under his nails for weeks as he crept through jungle and marsh until he reached Mũi Né, one hundred miles north of Sài Gòn. At the fishing village, Binh traded in his guns and the đồng he had stolen from the men he had killed for a space on a boat that would leave at night, its passengers concealed and its fishing poles displayed.
The dolphins fall from view. Binh looks over his shoulder at the people who have now dispersed across the deck. Their faces are alien to him. These people—some elderly villagers, some children, others the pregnant girlfriends of American GIs full of promises—have not spoken to him. Binh cannot tell if it was out of reverence or shame that he became a soldier. A woman with dark hair and light skin sews a Japanese flag. Her hands are thin. A dark girl with the face of a pig watches the light-skinned woman and sips cháo with unblinking eyes.
Before last night’s departure, Binh sat in the kitchen of the fisherman, waiting for darkness with the others. While the fisherman stood watch at the window, his daughter kneeled next to a pot of cháo heating over the fire pit dug into the concrete floor. Binh’s legs had fallen asleep from squatting on the hard surface, so he pulled them to his chest as he watched the girl stir the cháo, a south Vietnamese flag wrapped around her bicep like a proud soldier. Her white dress pooled around her still body, only her fingers seemed to move as the flames and smoke lapped at them. Binh’s legs tingled.
But now, the fisherman strides up to Binh at the bow. The older man leans next to him silently for a moment, searching. Binh scans the empty horizon, pretending to have purpose. And then the fisherman tells him, “You are no longer bound.” He pulls the line on his fishing pole taut. “There is no reason,” the fisherman says, “for you not to find yourself in different waters.” He hands the pole to Binh. “Let me show you how to fish.”
Feeling the man’s strong hand pat his back, Binh misses his mother again. Last night as he lowered himself into the crowded hull, he looked up to see the fisherman’s daughter on the shore, her white dress flowing in the steady night wind. She had pulled the flag from her arm and was waving it above her head. The curve of her small bicep looked silver and wet in the moonlight.
Binh casts the line into the water.
Cam straps herself into the seat of a military cargo plane. She holds her infant daughter to her chest, but the girl is gaining strength. Cam has named her Sáng—light, the sunrise. She had decided it didn’t matter that the name is usually intended for boys. Sáng holds her head up on her own, wriggling around in her mother’s arms to look at the activity in the plane around her. While soldiers anxious to return home load supplies, the girl’s father, Robert, kneels next to the pilot, who is checking gauges in the cockpit. Robert nods and scribbles in his notepad as the pilot explains the evacuation route. Robert believes in the stories he has to tell.
As the plane takes off, Cam feels nausea rise in her throat. The tension in her heart spreads through her body. Nerves constrict. The mother clutches her daughter too tightly. She presses the girl’s head to her chest and focuses on the feeling of her wriggling baby’s spit on her shoulder. The plane tilts. Through the window, Cam can see Sài Gòn, the big city, growing smaller. She searches the landscape. It bears no indication of Binh, her son lost to the war. Cam fights building tears with a deep exhalation.
As her mother relaxes, Sáng pushes her head up and looks around the plane. Her eyes are drawn to the light from the window. The plane ascends higher. Sáng sees the ocean for the first time.
The cháo is running low when the fishing boat rumbles to a Malaysian shore. A uniformed militiaman meets the fisherman at the dock. The two exchange words in a language unfamiliar to Binh. He eyes the soldier’s pressed uniform, the patches and medals that adorn the breast of his shirt.
A young man from the boat approaches Binh at the edge of the deck. Though Binh continues to focus on the rising sounds of the fisherman and the rigid stance of the uniformed soldier, he recognizes the sound of deck planks creaking under the limp of the young man who comes to stand beside him. This young man is not but a few years younger than Binh, yet he says that he has never before ventured from home, that his mother was all he knew. Binh can see that the inexperienced man thinks the dark-skinned, pig-faced girl is beautiful—his posture shifts in an effort to level himself, his admiring glances fall into rhythm with the quickening of heart. Comforted by the resilience of hope, Binh’s body does not tense when this young man stands unbalanced beside him.
For a moment, these two young men stand shoulder-to-shoulder, watching the Malaysian soldier’s stoic expression tighten. “Do you have medals like that?” the young man asks, shifting the weight to his stronger leg before resting back into his natural lean. Binh does not answer the young man. The soldier is shaking his head now. “Do they shine?” The young man limps another step towards Binh. The hairs on their arms almost touch. “My mother is proud of me,” the young man tells Binh.
On the dock, it is evident that the soldier is growing irritated with the fisherman who uses his language to plead with him. Switching to the English that he knows, the soldier announces to the fisherman, “All camp full. No more.” The fisherman pushes money at the soldier and points to the expectant bodies crowding the deck of his boat. The soldier puts up his hands and backs away. “No more,” he says. “No more.” The soldier points toward a gas station at a dock further down the shore.
Still clutching the money in his hands, the fisherman returns to the boat. “We will try for Thailand,” he says into Binh’s ear as he crosses the space where the boat bumps against the dock. The fisherman does not look at any of his passengers’ confused faces as he goes to restart the engine. As the deck vibrates with the motor’s efforts, the people on the boat drop their bags. Binh turns to the young man. “Your mother should be proud. You are a traveler now.” The young man smiles and limps over to a spot in the sight-line of the dark-skinned girl. Binh remains on the edge of the boat and watches the uniformed solider shrink in the distance. The sea widens.
In their new home, Cam bounces baby Sáng on her lap as Robert clears his writings off his desk. In the center of the table, he places a stack of forms whose words are typed clean and straight, unlike her husband’s handwritten stories about Việt Nam. He motions for Cam to sign her name next to the Xs on many different pages. When he hands the pen to her, it is the first time they have touched in months. Before they part, Cam asks Robert to teach her how to write their baby’s name. “Everyone will misunderstand,” he says as he writes it down for her. “It looks like ‘sing’. But in the past.” She nods and takes the paper from him.
The apartments Cam applies for are smaller than some of the hotel rooms she cleans. Together, she and her growing baby learn the language of their new life.
When the girl no longer needs diapers and sleeps through the night, Cam begins graveyard shifts as a seamstress in a factory. These days of work leave her body more tired than her days as a maid.
Arriving home to the small bed they share, Cam nestles against her daughter’s warm sleeping body and whispers to her memories of Việt Nam—the dog that she had when she was little, the smell of fried squid and the taste of salty air in Nha Trang, and the fog in Đà Lạt that made her skin so smooth. Cam rubs her face against her daughter’s, breathing in the girl’s skin and feeling the heat of her body radiate.
This is the last time they will be themselves. Like this.
The sun grows hotter as the boat approaches Thai waters. The old people have emerged from the stuffy hull to sit in the shade of the captain’s bridge. The seamstress uses a fishing pole to lower her hand-sewn dresses into the water. Pulling them up dripping wet, she hands each one to a child to put across their foreheads. The dark girl sits in direct sunlight, edging her brown toes towards the young man with the uneven legs. He plays cards with her after they eat their daily rations. The young man playfully taps her white toenails. Even she is beautiful when she smiles.
Binh tries to catch fish to make up for the empty cháo pot. Since they left for Thailand, he has not been able to catch anything. He searches the water for other fishing boats that might be casting nets. Nothing. Soon they will have to eat the dry ramen noodles and hope for a summer rainstorm to replenish their water supply.
Binh’s shoulders burn. His eyes tear from the brightness of sun against water.
He rests, leaning against the bow with the fishing pole. Binh fevers into a sleep and dreams of the fisherman’s daughter in her dress white like the hot sun.
Binh is woken by the seamstress’s protests. The fisherman is trying to stop her from waving her arms at an oncoming ship. “No,” she cries as the fisherman wraps his strong arms around her, binding her own to her sides. “It’s the flag. They see my flag. They will save us. We are lost.”
“Shut your mouth,” the fisherman says through his teeth. He wrestles her into the hull where she continues to shout. The fisherman ushers the old people and children below deck as well, leaving only the young man, the dark girl, and Binh in the sun with him. “Grab poles,” he tells Binh and the young man who has grown to love the dark girl.
“You,” the fisherman calls to her. “Clean something. Pretend you’re Cambodian if you need to.”
The fisherman squints at the ship’s growing figure. It bears no nation’s flag. It belongs to no waters.
Living in a small unit of a large apartment complex, Cam becomes a mother, one of many adapting to America. The fluorescent lights in the supermarkets are so bright that she does not pocket the extra apple she feels she is owed for the price. She samples grapes instead, pushing one into her five-year-old Sáng’s mouth as the girl squirms in the seat of the shopping cart. In this country, people talk to Cam slowly. People think she is crazy or retarded or incapable of learning English. Frustrated that her daughter is not yet old enough to translate for her, the mother can only laugh at the holes and puckers that the Americans’ mouths make. They turn to her wide-eyed daughter, who appears to understand their language, and tell Sáng she looks like a doll. The girl smiles, not knowing this response will begin the slow separation between her and her mother.
The mother works two jobs but doesn’t yet understand why her money is taxed before she can even finger the corners of dollar bills. She buys bell-bottoms on sale and fake gold hoop earrings that Sáng tugs at when she is in her mother’s arms. Together, the mother and daughter eat instant ramen noodles. A Mexican girl from an apartment upstairs suggests they try the noodles raw. When Cam is tired, they do. Cam tells Sáng that they can save more money by not flushing the toilet so much. She repeats the American words “dirty” and “yuck” and “no touch” at the little girl’s wide eyes. In between shifts, the mother comes home to listen to the radio station that broadcasts names of boat people who have recently arrived and are looking for their families. As if exhausted by waiting for Binh’s name, the name that she never hears, Cam often falls asleep with the radio on. Waking from a nap one afternoon, the mother finds her toddler leaning in the toilet bowl, splashing the unclean water.
A man who looks like the lead actor in one of Binh’s favorite operas pushes him into line with the fisherman, the young man, and the dark girl with white toenails. He knocks the fishing poles from the three men’s hands, not noticing that the line is missing from Binh’s pole as it slides across the deck.
The seamstress screams for help from the hull, her voice hoarse from thirst. The opera man yells something in Thai over his shoulder. As a man with decaying teeth from the Thai ship boards the boat, the soprano pirate clutches the fisherman’s neck. The fisherman whispers in Vietnamese that they do not have anything, not even rice or water. When the pirate reaches into the fisherman’s pocket and finds the bound wad of money intended for the Malaysian refugee camp authorities, he pries open the fisherman’s mouth with a knife and cuts his tongue out. It drops to the deck between the fisherman’s feet where it lies limp and thick and wet. The young man and Binh watch their captain sink to the deck and bleed.
The seamstress’s cries from the hull cease.
The pirate on deck checks Binh’s pocket and, finding them empty, rips the picture of his mother from the inside of his shirt. He licks his lips at the picture and shakes his head at Binh. He calls to the man below deck in Thai. The pirate with decaying teeth emerges from the hull wearing the gold and jade necklaces of the old women. He wipes his blood-spattered hands on the legs of his pants and walks, his eyes never shifting, to the dark girl.
Binh watches as the pirates bind ropes around the writhing legs and arms of the fisherman and the young man who loves the dark girl. The girl looks to Binh to do something. She believes that the solider can save them. Her lover and the fisherman are laid face down on the hot deck. The young man calls to his dark girl, “You have to fight.”
Binh has not been tied up—a means of invitation to join the pirates. He does not move except to shift the coil of fishing line in his mouth. He pretends to be scared for his life. The man with decaying teeth and the opera man each grab one of the dark girl’s arms as she abides by her lover’s request and kicks her legs, spits at the pirates. They laugh at her as they pin her jerking body to the deck and undo their pants. The man with decaying teeth points at Binh with his knife and says in broken Vietnamese, “You like fuck ugly dark bitches, so you enjoy watch this.”
In the war, Binh taught himself discipline. He learned to watch and wait, as he used to do during cricket fights in Đà Lạt. He feels that sense of control exert itself again while watching the men rape the dark girl with white toenails. He doesn’t move when they both enter her. He doesn’t intervene when she stops fighting back. He scoots himself only an inch at a time across the deck as it tilts on rolling waves. He is close enough to the men now. The soprano clutches the girl’s legs so hard as he fucks her that his fingertips make white marks on her skin. This man’s face is turned to the sun. The man with decaying teeth sits on the girl’s chest, cutting lines across her breasts. Between his knife and thumb, her plum-colored nipples are sliced off. The crying girl goes unconscious. In the moment before the men can grow bored with a body that does not struggle, Binh uncoils the fishing line from between his dry lips and pulls it tight around the soprano pirate’s neck. Binh tugs back hard, pulling the man out of the dark girl and creating a line of blood across his neck. The man begins to choke as his partner rises from the girl’s bloody chest and turns towards Binh.
Binh pushes the choking man overboard. He approaches the man with decaying teeth as he has many other men before. They fight. Binh feels the man’s ribs dig into his body. He wonders how long this man has been at sea. Binh kills the man with his own knife. The body is dumped into a heaving wave.
Still tied up, the young man whimpers as blood from between his lover’s legs slides down the deck towards him. Binh surveys the wide expanse of water around them.
There is silence.
At school, the daughter does not speak in class. She also does not enjoy recess. She spends much of it getting out of handball and tetherball lines to slurp from the arcs of water at the drinking fountain that is set away from the noise. The other girls in her class have named each of the four spigots iced tea, lemonade, soda pop, and pee, from left to right. Although Sáng does not like the girls or care to play with the new Chinese jump ropes their mothers have bought them, she never drinks from the pee fountain, making sure to remember that it switches to the left on opposite day.
On one particular day, the girl is thirsty and abandons an aggressive round of four square to drink iced tea. Mexican girls sucking on plastic containers of chili powder come up behind the girl as she is drinking and knee her in the butt, pour their spicy candy in her hair. The girl stops drinking but stays bent over the fountain, waiting for the girls to bore themselves and pass.
The fattest girl, Ana, drops an empty bag of Cheetos, ready to put her licked fingers to other uses. Ana grabs Sáng’s hair with her fat brown fingers and puts her round sweaty face next to hers. “Look at me, stupid,” Ana says. Sáng does not look, only focuses on the water that spirals down the drain of the drinking fountain. “What, puta,” Ana prods. “Can’t you see me with your Chinese eyes?” The other girls chant, “Ching chong, ching ching chong.”
With the fat girl’s face panting next to hers, Sáng remembers something she once heard her mother scream at her father before he left. Sáng repeats it, not understanding that she has told the girl to go fuck some other whore. Her comment is met with silence, and, for a second, she thinks it has worked.
“You stupid fucking chink,” Ana says, her breath rank with the smell of cheese-flavored dust. She pushes the girl’s face into the drinking fountain. Ana’s big arm is strong. Sáng walks alone to the nurse’s office, holding a hand over her bleeding split lip. Once there, she hands the nurse her tooth and asks, “Can I call my mother?”
The phone only rings. The girl carries her tooth in a fist throughout the rest of the day, keeping her lips pressed together to conceal the empty space. When the school bell rings at the end of the day, the girl waits at the school’s entrance where she can usually find her mother’s face smiling from the passenger seat of a friend’s car. Recently, her mother’s drivers have been arriving later and later. The girl does not like the smell of these men’s colognes.
The girl’s patience has grown larger than herself, and so she waits. She presses the dirty imprint of her sneakers against walls; she adjusts and readjusts her backpack straps as other children are taken home; she kneels and drags her broken tooth across the sidewalk; she paces back and forth until the sun falls lazily. She decides to walk home and tosses what is left of her tooth into the street.
When she arrives, home is quiet and empty. The girl sits with a box of chocolate chip cookies that she hopes will combat the lingering smell of cologne in the small apartment. She waits.
The sun burns angrily into the end of summer. Sweat and blood dry into wood. It darkens.
All of the bodies were dumped, the dark girl two days after she bled to death because her lover didn’t want to let her go. Together, the young man and Binh have attempted to navigate the Pacific, letting the boat drift when the waves seem to push them in the right direction. They share the remaining dry ramen noodles.
Binh lies on the deck. His lips are crusted with salt, burned, and bloody. Having floated through only a few, brief rainstorms, Binh drinks his urine. His stomach has sunk. His vision is hazy. He and the young man do not bother speaking.
Waves move. Time passes.
Worn of its color, the boat nudges a shore unfamiliar.
On a shore, the girl, now almost fully grown, meets the ocean again. Her mother told her once that she was born of the hour of this great body of water. A pack of barebacked boys sprints to the wave as it sprays up white, but reverse their formation before water settles into foam. She wonders what man her mother has left her for today.
Sáng digs her toes into the wet sand. The water is cold here. In Việt Nam, her mother always tells her, the water is warm. Regardless of its lack of borders, water, in her mother’s language, means nation, is self. Tapping her tongue against salty lips, the girl stands out of the waves’ reach and searches for signs of herself in the ocean