To save her life, Thu must take his younger sister on a long journey from rural Vietnam to the city
I used to be Grandma’s favorite. She told me it was because when I was born, she was the first to hold me. “No one can replace you, Thu,” she would say, taking me onto her lap and stroking my dark hair. “No one.”
Bao, my older brother, was Grandpa’s favorite. Grandpa’s life had been centered around him, and sometimes it seemed like I was Grandma’s only cháu trai, her only grandson. I loved it.
One humid June day, the gentle waves rocked our house as I docked the sampan boat and skipped inside.
“I’m home from school!”
“Good!” Grandma was sitting in the rocking chair, repairing a fishing net. “Thu, come here.”
I was 12 and almost as tall as she was, but Grandma let me onto her lap. I leaned into her, expecting her to stroke my hair and tell me how no one could replace me. But instead, she took my hands and looked me in the eye. “I’m getting older, Thu. My daughter has two sons and my son has a daughter who lives in America. My husband has long passed, and I’ve done everything I need to do.” She smiled sadly, her Khmer accent slightly lilting the Vietnamese words.
I knew almost immediately what she meant. She was ready to die. “Oh.”
She laughed then patted my hair, a shouting peddler outside breaking the silence between us. A gull cawed, and Má called us to dinner. The moment was lost, and we never spoke about it again.
But in July, Má found out that she was pregnant. I would have a little sister.
When Grandma heard that, she vowed to live until that baby was born.
As Má’s belly grew, so did our responsibilities. I ran errands at the floating market instead of playing katrak behind school with Xuân.
Grandma mended old baby clothes instead of my favorite shirts, the ones she’d promised to patch. Bao went fishing alone or helped Cha with his paperwork. Cha worked extra hours at the sales company, and I took Má to Dr. Accola’s office nearly every week, missing school most Fridays.
Minh was born on a bright February morning, nothing like anyone had expected. And not necessarily in a good way.
She was a sickly child from the start. Her limbs were thin, and she didn’t drink enough milk. I didn’t think she would live, and even Dr. Accola was skeptical. But Grandma loved Minh with all her heart, and I guess that was enough.
* * *
Now Minh can talk and walk, though she’s not steady on her feet. Grandma still loves her, but I think she lost most of her steam after Minh learned to talk. Even she has realized how old she is by now.
On Monday, I stay home from school. Minh has a fever, and Má is peddling vegetables in the south, so I take her to Dr. Accola’s office across the village.
“She just has a cold. Check back with me in two weeks.” Dr. Accola flies around the dim, one-room office like an agitated bird, trying to get everything done at once. She’s had a busy week. I can tell by the way she’s acting.
On the way home, I stop at the floating market and buy a bowl of noodle soup for us to share, and a little plate of coconut pudding from an old man wearing a blue shirt, just for me.
Minh reaches for my full hands, but I lift the plate out of her reach. “Not for you.”
“Thu . . . ” she whines.
She sighs dramatically, and I glare down at her. She sighs again, and I pop the last pudding scoop into my mouth. Ha.
As soon as we start for home, Minh falls asleep. I groan, taking off my krama and using it to tie her to my back. She snores loudly.
Rowing home is slower, carrying an inconvenient, 22-pound bundle like a backpack, but eventually, I get there, dumping Minh into Cha’s hammock. I’m done caring for her for today.
* * *
It’s been three weeks, but Minh hasn’t recovered. Dr. Accola was visiting family in Laos last week, and as far as I know, she hasn’t returned.
Yesterday, Minh’s fever spiked. She refused to drink water, and about halfway through the night, Grandma started to cry. She begged me to bring Minh to the hospital in Battambang. I agreed. It’s a chance to regain my place, to be Grandma’s favorite again. Maybe she’ll find the will to live longer.
Today, I slip out of the house in the dark, Minh tied to my back. Lunch and a snack lies in a wicker basket at my feet, my pockets heavy with riels that Grandma took from her purse to give me early this morning. I can’t help but be a little jealous that she would spend her savings on my sister instead of me, although I know that’s not really fair. Bao drew me a map, highlighting the route I should travel. Everyone is pitching in to help.
My wooden paddle traces patterns in the dark, still water, as the world slowly wakes up. I wave to Xuân as we leave, the sun just barely peeking over the horizon. Minh shifts against my back, sweat dripping into my eyes as the heat becomes uncomfortable.
By the time the docks come into view, the sun is high in the sky and I’m sweltering. I’ve been rowing for many, many hours, and my arms ache terribly.
I sigh. Minh’s hot forehead presses against my neck as I tie our boat to a tree beside the dock, just out of view. Má would kill me if it got stolen. I grab my shirt from the wicker basket, dunking it in the cool water and putting it on.
“Walk about half a mile west to the nearest bus stop,” Bao had told me. “Ride an hour into the city, and disembark at the closest stop to the market. There, someone can give you directions to the hospital.”
Sure enough, after walking for about half a mile, the three-walled bus shelter comes into view. Written in large Khmer script is a schedule:
Morning Bus: 6:00 AM
Afternoon Bus: 3:00 PM
Night Bus: 9:00 PM
It’s only 1:00 now, so we’ll have to wait. I should’ve known that such a rural bus stop would only have three boarding times.
Minh shifts against my back, slowly waking. Sheltered from the sun, I take off my shirt and use it as a pillow, getting comfortable for the two-hour wait. Some sleep would do me good . . .
The hour-long bus ride blends into brown farmlands and chipped barn paint, and we eat our lunch on the way. Getting off with a group of noisy tourists, we slip away into the market.
“Excuse me, sir? Do you know how to get—”
He pushes past me, disappearing into the crowd.
“Ma’am? Can you give me directions to—”
She’s on her cell phone, engaged in a heated argument.
I hold tight to Minh’s hand, determined to find someone.
“Miss? Can you help me find my way to the nearest hospital?”
She continues to hang up acrylic paintings as if I hadn’t spoken.
Someone grabs my arm. I whirl around, fist raised, but it’s only an old woman, hunched over a wooden cane.
“Where is it you want to go?”
“Uh . . . the hospital.”
She takes Bao’s map from my hands, tracing a route with her finger. “Go to the end of the street and turn right. Walk a little ways down and the hospital will be on your left. Good luck.” She smiles, turning away, letting herself be swallowed by the crowd.
I carry Minh on my hip as I shoulder my way towards the intersection. Bustling people press against me as I focus on putting one tired foot in front of the other, turning right, and watching the rough cobblestone street blend into white hospital linoleum.
A nurse greets me. “Can I help you?”
“Yeah. My sister has a fever that hasn’t gone away for three weeks.”
“Ah. Right this way.”
“Thanks.” I follow her down a clean hallway and into a spacious exam room, where she removes a little pink bottle from the shelf.
“You’re welcome. I have to test her before I can give you anything, though.”
The moonlight streams through the window, lighting up his tearstained face.
“Okay.” I take a seat in one of the plastic chairs, resting my head in my hands.
Minh gags on the flu test, and when it comes back positive, I’m not surprised. The little pink bottle goes in the wicker basket, and Minh and I eat our snack in the hospital waiting room.
The rest of the day passes in a blur. We catch a different bus that goes all the way to the docks, saving us an extra mile. My arms are so sore I can barely move them, and it’s long after dark by the time I reach Xuân’s house at the edge of the village. I’m too tired to wave, anyway.
When I dock the boat at our little yellow house, Cha runs out to meet me, scooping me up just as my legs give way. I reach shakily into the wicker basket and set the little pink bottle on the table. Má whoops with joy, something I haven’t seen her do in a long, long time. Bao pats me on the back and Grandma hugs me, kissing Minh’s face.
I stumble back to my hammock near midnight, falling into a deep, blissful sleep.
* * *
Bao is shaking me awake, shouting. The moonlight streams through the window, lighting up his tearstained face.
“Bao! What’s going on?” He pulls me out of my hammock, dragging me to Grandma’s cot.
No. Tears spring to my eyes, but I don’t bother blinking them away. No. I failed her. IfailedherIfailedherIfailedher. No. I kneel by Grandma’s side, and weakly, she reaches towards me. Almost automatically, I move aside so she can see Minh, but instead she grabs my hand.
“Grandma?” I whisper.
“Thu. . .” She gasps. “Thu, I—”
But then her hand goes slack, her
“No! Grandma!” I’m yelling now, tears streaming down my face.
Today, I don’t even want to leave my hammock. Cha covered Grandma’s body with a sheet, but other than that, no one has moved. I’m exhausted anyway.
I planned on staying in my hammock again like yesterday, but then I heard a peddler outside.
“Coconut pudding! Fresh coconut pudding!” The Vietnamese words fill my head and bounce inside my skull, a twisting pain bubbling up inside my rib cage.
I jump out of bed, forcing myself not to look at the sheet-covered body in the corner.
“Hey, Minh, you wanna go for a boat ride?”
“Shhh . . . Má’s sleeping.”
“Where we going, Thu?”
“But I wanna know now!”
I smile, ruffling her hair. “Kiên nhẫn.” Patience.
The old man is wearing a red shirt today.
“Two small pudding cups, please.”
“Here you go!” He speaks in Khmer, grinning wider all the while.
“Thank you!” I hand one to Minh. She cradles it carefully, eyes wide. “Coconut pudding!” She squeals, scooping it into her mouth at lightning speed.
“Careful,” I laugh. “Don’t choke!” She beams up at me, cup empty, face covered in pudding. “Thank you!” She wraps her arms around my leg and squeezes.
A hug. I don’t think Minh’s ever hugged me before. It’s nice. I crouch down, wrapping my arms around her shoulders. I hug her back.