Fragments of my mother’s homeland underwater

by Natalie Linh Bolderston

Southern Vietnam will be submerged by 2050.
Saigoneer, Oct 2019

Every place has a name for this.
Here, it is tận thế.

A fortune once told me that rain is worth everything
and so I knew that it held all we had ever burned –
pork skewers, begging letters, hell money,
my great-grandmother’s remains,
her son’s prepared flesh.

In monsoon season, they fused with everything we exhaled.

­­                                •

Once, Vietnamese people were said to be descended from Âu Cơ, a fairy from the mountains, and Lạc Long Quân, a dragon from the sea.

When their forms touched sand, one hundred children climbed out from black eggs.

                                •

When the land disappeared,
we poured our ancestors’ ashes into Aquafina bottles,
let them live in the ghost of our thirst.

                                •

Once, we planted peach trees for Tết,
planned to chop and sour the fruit in jars.

Once, the sun slipped so low
that every peach burst on our palms.

We stayed out until our hair singed,
watched black strands split into dust on the concrete.

                                •

Once, Âu Cơ and Quân spent too long away from home.

Quân tried to hold his human shape but could not stop his tail from growing back.

Âu Cơ tried to cut off her wings and bled a typhoon.

                                •

Once, a river curdled
at the memory of splitting,

the toxins it was fed
still in the bodies of five generations.

In the bombed cities, waves pull apart reconstructions
of every holy building.

My mother does not cry
because she has already lived through this,

because home is swept away
every minute you’re not there.

I hear her voice bend open to red gas,
recede into her mother’s toothless murmurs
like names heard through snow.

When we are afraid, it no longer matters that we never learned
to fully understand each other.

                                •

These days, we are meatless.
My mother still dreams of a pig

fat enough to feed us all for a month,
though we have long since lost our talent for slaughter.

                                •

Once, Quân threatened a flood so that the sea and land might be joined.

Âu Cơ fled with half her children, taught them to plant khoai lang in pockets of warm earth.

Quân carried away all who remained on his back, and they lived as fishermen.

                                •

Once, there was nothing to hold onto
but the prayers that streaked from my mother’s mouth,

her belief that I would live longer if oiled and blessed,
that when she died, there would be someone left

to ask after her bones.

                                •

Once, we wanted to believe that we’d survive the flood
because we were born from a collision of mountain and sea.

Because nothing has ever held us
as closely as water.