By Annie Trinh
Featured Art “Vessel” by Byron Armacost
This is you: a thirty-year-old mother who had a miscarriage, a wife whose
husband left her, a daughter who steps into a medicine shop and looks at the
walls of herbs. You press your fingers against glass jars, hoping to find a solu-
tion for a successful birth. A bag of maca. A bundle of chasteberries. A box of
cinnamon. You take these medicines to the owner, asking if these plants will
help with fertility or make your body strong enough to handle carrying a child.
And this is your savior: a Vietnamese woman in her seventies who has wrin-
kles around her eyes and tells stories of her survival through the Indochina
and Vietnam Wars. A mother who understands the importance of obtaining
children. A sister who sees your pain as you push the herbs in her direction,
wondering how much you need. Your savior tells you that you don’t need these
herbs—they won’t help, and she goes into the back room and then comes out
with a wooden box. Your savior opens it up and snuggled within the purple
cloth are twelve large eggs. Brown and spotted with freckles. You place an
egg into your palm, cradling it as if it is ready to sleep. Soft heartbeats thump
against your fingers.
Eat these duck fetuses, your savior says, and it will help you get what you
You show the eggs to your mother: a young girl who escaped the Vietnam War
and traveled by boat. A daughter who, before she left, saw a fog of orange dust
raining down on her country. A mom who had too many miscarriages and has
jars and jars of her unborn children. Jar #1 born in 1964, shaped like a fish with
buldging eyes. Jar #2 born in 1966, a container of blood. Jar #3 born in 1968,
a fetus with a body, but no head. You are child #4, a miracle—this is what she
calls you as she places the egg beside your cold milk. And this is your medicine:
every lunch, you watch as your mother boils the egg, the water’s hot bubbles
burning the animal inside. You take the end of your spoon, crack it open, and
then peel the layers off. Inside, the head is cooked beside the yolk, eyes closed,
beak opened, and you add condiments. A pinch of salt. A dash of pepper. A
couple drops of lemon. And you eat the fetus. The sourness. The bitterness. The
hint of spiciness. You crunch. You bite. You pull out a small bone, its feather
follicles still intact. You place it beside your dish, swirling the eggshell, mixing
the broth while the birds sing outside. You drink it, letting the savory flavors
simmer into your veins, overtaking your body.
Your current obsession is fetuses: a stillborn calf for zinc, an unborn piglet
for protein, a fresh kid from the farm for iron. You buy all the baby animals
and dig your fork into the medium-rare meat as the pink fluid leaks. You eat
them three times a day along with medicine. Every time you’ve finished, your
body yearns for more. It feels different: it becomes stronger. Your skin tight-
ens, younger, and you can see your hair follicles—they thicken and darken,
like a crow’s feather. Your menstrual period finally comes for the first time in
three months. You lie on the bed, holding your stomach as you try to stand
the pain. And sometimes, birds surround you as you walk outside. Quail.
Ravens. Cardinals. They look at you as they spread their wings. Sometimes
you wish you were free and could fly like them. And this is your hope. Maybe
you’ll have children this time. One girl and one boy, possibly twins. Maybe
you will be able to protect the family line and be free from this pressure.
No more deaths. No more contaminated children. No more fears from your
family or their eyes cast down at you, shaking your body, questioning the
heavens and how Americans destroy, use herbicides on their land—and you
know that it’s not your family’s fault for caring, but you sat on the bathroom
floor, crying while your husband wrapped his arms around your body before he left.
You grabbed his wrist, asking him to stay.
I’m sorry. He shook off your hand. I can’t take it anymore. I’m sorry.
Today is your last day. A plate of stir-fried beef. A bowl of rice. A dish of sweet
and sour soup. A scoop of tofu mixed with sugarcane for dessert. And your
egg: you, gulping down the fetus and devouring the body whole. Your mother
is excited. She says she can see the difference compared to two weeks ago. She
says you look healthy. Body is thicker. And you look strong. Strong enough this
time to carry a baby. And your mother is right—maybe for once the child can
survive—and you can feel like you’ve done your job for this family and finally
be free from her demands. Then your mother gives you the phone, tells you to
call your husband to let him know the problem is solved.
You remain quiet, flinging the eggshells.
You have started to wonder if this will work or what happens if this preg-
nancy fails again.
But your mother kneels down to you, grabs your face, and you look at her—
hair in a messy bun while her dark circles stain under her eyes. She tells you that
it needs to work. That things will get better. That your husband will come back,
and your father and mother won’t have to worry. That you will be free from
your family’s eyes, they’ll stop asking, stop begging.
Please have a child, she says. Remember, without you this family won’t exist.
Now this is you. A swelling body. A glowing complexion. A child finally in your
stomach that will pass on the language, the culture, the family blood. But you
grit your teeth while glancing at the bathroom mirror, listening to the muffled
voices from the living room. Your face scrunches, your fingernails dig into the
tiles, and a sharp pain runs through your back. You know this pain too well.
You’ve experienced this so many times before. And you hold your stomach as
blood drips down your leg. Below you a tiny crow sobs between your feet, flap-
ping its wings to dry the feathers from the plasma. You grab a towel, picking it
up and removing all the blood from its body. The bird flutters its feathers as it
cries—its beak poking at your skin, claws digging. You tell it to be quiet, shush-
ing while opening the window. But your mother comes in. Her eyes widen at
the blood. She grabs your shoulders, asking if you took the medicine correctly.
Then collapses and says that this family’s body is broken. It can’t work any-
more. Your mom hugs her legs in a fetal position as she hides her face. And you
tell her it’s not your fault. But all she does is stare at the crow, biting her lips as
she keeps repeating the words, it needs to work, it needs to work.
She buries her eyes into your shoulder as you wrap your arms around her
and try to find the words. You want to tell her many things: that you’re tired
of this and it won’t work, that the chemical will be forever in your body, in the
bodies of future generations, if those generations even come into existence. But
you don’t tell her that. Instead, her cheeks taste like salt when you kiss her, and
you say that you will try again. Your mother takes in deep breaths, whimpering
while you watch the crow flap its already dried wings and jump through the
windowpane, disappearing. And this is what you imagine: a daughter whose
wings spread, a woman becoming light, a mother’s claws curling as she soars,
the wind telling it to come back home, come back to the forest. You fly with the
birds, and you keep gliding, gliding as the breeze rustles against your feathers
until your body melts with the sky, above the toxic orange cumulus clouds, and
over the snow-topped mountains, toward the horizon.
Annie Trinh is an MFA fiction candidate at the University of Kansas. A VONA and Kundiman fellow, she has been published in the Joyland, Passages North, Oyster River Pages, and elsewhere.
Originally appeared in NOR 29