Fermenting Hearts

Calling Txiv thiab Niam

At six years old, True wrapped his right arm over the top of his head and touched his left ear with his right hand. That was the test to get into primary school in Laos. His fingers inched towards the tip of his ear in hopes of getting into school.

“You are ready to show them tomorrow, tub,” said his mother. And he beamed.

Early at dawn, True’s mother prepared a large bundle of rice wrapped in an emerald-green banana leaf and five pieces of dried fish. His father carried a bamboo chute full of fresh water from the river, and both the packed food and chute of water were stuffed in a kawm, a woven basket. True slipped each arm into the straps of the kawm, now on his back, and looked up at his father: flared nostrils, beady, almond-shaped eyes, sun-spotted freckles. The trek was three hours to his school in the village of Phuu Sa Noi.

Txiv, I am ready,” True said.

His father nodded, walked out the front door of their mud-thatched home, and led the way into the grey skies above the jungle. True followed with his mother and father’s love shifting in the basket hugging his back. He lunged with his little feet in thong sandals to catch up with his father.

As he trailed behind, he thought back to the time when his father first took him to the river. He loved going outdoors, and he loved that his father took him.

Tub, come here. I want to show you something,” said True’s father.

“Yes,” he replied.

“Look into the water. What do you see?”

Minnows dashed around in the shallow water by the bank. True smiled at the fish that were as big as each of his fingers. He giggled and placed his opened palm into the water like a soft, floating leaf. His father looked down at him struggling to capture the fish in his hands. True distinctively remembered his father’s hand, molded into a bowl, take one swift scoop into the water. Suddenly, a minnow dashed in his hand.

On the three-hour journey, True’s father led the way on a narrow track. The two ascended up the mountainsides jumping over fallen trees and found themselves descending towards fresh mountain streams. There were no breaks. No words spoken. True’s father was cautious of mountain tigers and aware of evil spirits lingering in the depths of the jungle. True was afraid too. So they treaded on with a quickened pace.

True and his father arrived in the village where his school was. Because the school was three hours away, True had to stay in the village and couldn’t go home as often as he wanted to. His father had to go back home to take care of the household chores and farming. Three hours back and forth everyday would be a full day’s loss of farming and fishing. True could only watch his father’s back fading into the jungle from the doorway of the bamboo-thatched school.

He ran out the door because that wasn’t his mother and father’s food. Because no one invited him to come eat.

On his first day, he sat in between a Hmong boy and a Laotian boy. The classroom was small and could only fit benches and a large dusty chalkboard. The Laotian teacher, a dark-skinned man with stained teeth, wrote Lao characters up on the board and had the young students sitting in crooked rows repeat after him. For another week and a half, True repeated after the teacher and stayed in one of his uncle’s good friend’s home. The Hmong family was welcoming, but only provided him a place to sleep. That was all he needed. He didn’t borrow anyone’s water to bathe in like his mother told him not to. He didn’t use anyone’s hole in the ground to pee or poop in like his mother told him not to. He had the rice his mother packed him to nibble on when he was hungry. When he ran out of dried fish, he ventured onto empty farm lands for vegetables. When he wanted something sweet, he found a guava tree and picked off a single fruit to munch on.

During evenings, True didn’t have to avoid the family he stayed with. They were always farming past mealtime and had their family meals at the fields. But every morning, True left when the family sat around the food that would carry them throughout the day. Fresh rice sent wisps of steam into the cold air. The spicy smell of Thai chili peppers and lemongrass from the hot fish soup lightly burned True’s eyes. He ran out the door because that wasn’t his mother and father’s food. Because no one invited him to come eat.

I will eat my mother’s rice, he thought.

School in Laos was five days a week, and True had just ended his second week of learning the Lao alphabet. Squatting on the ground by the classroom, True picked at the dirt and wondered when his father was going to come get him. School was out for the weekend. Closing his eyes, he remembered his father’s back, head bobbing into the wilderness. Starting to feel lonely, True decided to walk around Phuu Sa Noi with his kawm. He wandered to a large rock that oversaw the pathways into the jungle. His tiny body protruded on the large rock as he looked out to what he thought was the direction of his home.

Txiv thiab niam. His heart sighed at the thought of his parents.

True knew better than to speak of the sadness in his heart out into the open air of the village. His mother often told him stories of Hmong villagers who had a spirit accompany them and cling onto them because spirits of the dead heard their loneliness. One villager became really sick for disturbing the spirits near his farmland with his devastating cries of abandonment by his deceased wife. When the villager came back home to his family, he was restless and could not swallow a spoon of rice so the family asked the village’s shaman to look into the situation. The shaman saw that a female spirit had clung to his physical body, wanting to take the villager with her. True was too afraid, so he wrapped the small throbbing pain deep inside his heart.

He looked back out onto the pathway of the jungle to take his mind off of ghosts and evil spirits. Up on the rock, True could see an opening into the jungle. He saw a body emerging out of the trees and shrubs and his hunger for love made him indifferent until he saw his father’s face, his back carrying a kawm full of lumps of banana leaves. True immediately jumped out of his silent fears and ran down the rock. His father had finally come for him. His father was here to take him back home for the days off. Feeling completed and full, True raced the wind down to the pathway leading into the jungle.

Txiv!” was all True could make sense of.

 

Only Child

True had been going to school for two years, walking the same pathways into the jungle every two or three weeks. He was turning eight and journeyed to school with his cousin who started school several months after him. One weekend, True came home from the farm with his dad, and his mother was sitting outside the hut mumbling to herself.

“Do you see her?” she mumbled.

True looked around him. “Dabtsi, niam? What do you see?”

“Tell her to go away!” Her voice trembled. She began to throw dirt pebbles towards something, but there was nothing there.

Tub, go get some wood for the fire,” True’s father ordered by the entryway. True ran to the side of the hut, dragging logs that were half the size of his body into the kitchen area. His father stared intently at his wife. He had noticed his wife acting up several times before.

Once, she woke up in the middle of the night as the crickets chirped and cold wind seeped through the holes of the hut. She had been shifting all night next to him.

Koj niam, why are you awake?” he asked. “Go back to sleep now.”

Me koj txiv, something hairy is touching me,” his wife whispered. He looked around their bed with slits of moonlight coming into their hut.

“There is nothing. Do not wake up our son. Wait until the sun rises.”

She silently laid her body back down onto the flat wooden bed. Their son was sound asleep right next to her.

Now True placed the last piece of wood into the fire as his father walked in. He walked calmly, his face showing no sign of worry.

Tub,” muttered his father. True, squatting on the ground by the fire, looked up at his father. “There is your father, mother, and you. Now that your mother is very sick, stay and help me take care of our farms and our home.”

“Mm,” True mumbled for a response.

 

Take My Hands

The wind caressed the opium flowers as True squatted on the ground digging a stick into the dirt. He came from home, looking for his mother. Evening was coming and all the villagers already headed back home for a meal. True placed his bottom on the dirt and allowed the opium field to submerge him. He waited just a bit longer to see if he would hear footsteps crunching on the dirt road next to the fields. Where is mother? She’s too sick to be outside, he thought. Not too long after, True heard singing.

Niam yai…

… came the sweet, melodic voice that buzzed with nature’s harmony. True was alarmed, but he did not feel afraid because the voice was so familiar.

Mother, father… You brought me into a world where the birds and insects do not fill my earth with their crooning for my love… Now that I have parted ways with you both… not able to turn back… no longer your family because of marriage… No one will accept a poj nrauj… accept someone like me who has left and brought shame to my husband and child…

True did not budge. He knew his mother was singing kwv txhiaj, a song chanting to the birds, the grass, and the spirits. The words strung together, sticky like melted palm sugar. True could not understand what his mom was saying. So he listened.

Only in this world where the birds and insects only cry for my sorrow… This home, this village where there is only one way, one life that I must follow… Mother, father you have raised me into a beauty, a young lady but in my heart and my body I differ… I have become a mother now but my husband does not love me… He speaks of a second wife, a younger wife, for I cannot give him more children… Is this really the way to love or is this the way to life’s end…

“Mother…” “Father….” “World.”

True could only catch onto certain words, words that his mother taught him.

“Heart…”

In my heart, there is a friend whose love and understanding, whose sweet voice shines for me… This friend will ruin your names and your faces, mother and father… So I rather have her come to me, take me to a world where there is no broken anger and broken hearts… I want to die with love only… Where you have gone, to the other side of this world, come hold my hands because my mother and father have gone… My love has gone… so I shall be gone too…

“Love.”

True sprung up from the fields and saw the back of his mother on the other side of the opium field where he was. Purple and pink flowers decorated her body from afar. His mother was standing on a hill, looking out towards a smoky, hazy outline of the mountains. She had completed her song. Turning around to come back down the hill into the opium fields, she saw her son. His hair ruffled by the wind, cheeks dusted with dirt, waving his fingers in the air.

She fell to the ground and the tears pasted dry on her face became wet once more.

 

Letting Go

That night, True went to sleep, and he dreamt of his mother.

He saw his mother leaving their thatched home with a young woman. The woman had glistening silver skin, soft pink lips, and gleaming brown eyes. True saw his mother walk towards a grove of bamboo trees, standing there with the young woman. The bamboo trees blanketed them, and, in hiding and secrecy, the woman took out a sewing needle. She grabbed his mother’s wrist and pricked the needle on her index finger. A bead of blood formed as the woman pricked her own finger too.

From afar, True saw the two women suck each other’s fingers like sugarcane sticks.

“We don’t have to do this. Didn’t you hear this is bad?” True heard his mother say.

Let us see, said the woman’s grin.

From afar, True saw the two women suck each other’s fingers like sugarcane sticks. True’s mother, hesitant, placed her friend’s finger in her mouth. All of a sudden, True was standing in the grove shouting at his mother.

Niam! Tsis txhob mus!” he yelled. “Come ba—”

The bamboo trees started shifting rapidly, turning into joss sticks with ghastly smoke floating in the sky and glowing red embers ashing at the tip. The ground turned into a floor of uncooked rice grains. Looking around him, True was now standing in a bowl of offering. A bowl of uncooked rice with burning joss sticks to appease the spirits. He searched for his mother and the young woman, but both had disappeared with the smoke.

Panting, True broke from the dream, tears creeping down his cheeks. Not sure of what the dream could mean, True became nervous. Why isn’t his father saying anything? Why wasn’t his mother getting any better?

When morning came, True’s father was boiling water in a pot.

Txiv, I had a bad dream.”

“Don’t worry, son. It is nothing.”

True looked at his father staring into the steam that rose furiously to the top of their thatched roof. It is nothing. His mother was sitting outside by the door on a little stool, speaking once again to the morning air.

“Have you come back?” True heard her say. She nodded.

Niam, who are you speaking to?”

She turned around to look at her son, bearing a smile through her strange illness. True saw that her condition had worsened. Dark bags weighed down her eyes and her hair was thinning. True looked to his mother’s frail index finger. No blood on it at least.

“Go back inside, son,” she said. And True listened.

The next day, the village’s shaman came to see True’s father. True was in the kitchen tending the fire for a meal as his father spoke to the shaman outside. His ears were hot from the blaring fire, crackling and blazing red and orange in True’s dry eyes. Why was the shaman here? He wanted to listen but the fire wouldn’t let him.

The shaman, with grey whiskers on a face rough like bark, wore a black jacket-shirt and long black trousers.

Tub, what will you do?” the shaman asked True’s father. “Do you know why she is like this?”

“Yes,” he whispered. The village was small; it was easy to find words from other villagers.

“If you offer me one of your cows and a pig, I will enter the spirit world to find your wife.”

“I do not have anything to offer. My farm is dry and I only have a coop of chickens.”

Tub, because you did not keep watch over her, your family’s teardrops will fill our rivers but your cries will disappear with our mountainous winds.” With the shaman’s last words, he left the hut.

True’s father came into the kitchen area to help his son.

Txiv, what did the shaman say?” True asked.

“You shouldn’t ask,” he replied.

His father’s eyes diverted to their bed where his wife lay. The man let out a remorseful breath and tended the fireplace instead to keep his mind busy. True walked over to his mother who was lying on the wooden bed. His mother was bedridden, her body losing weight as quick as the sun’s disappearance behind the farmlands. True felt his heart beating faster as he saw how much his round and bright mother had changed into such a gray body.

Niam, you must get better, okay?” he said, squatting by his mother’s side, his voice desperate and tiny.

His mother could only cough back in response, slightly turning her head towards him. Calling to him with her eyes.

Me tub, tsis txhob ntshai. Niam nyob ntawm no.” (Son, do not fear. Mother is here.)

True stared back at his mother’s dim eyes and nodded. But he felt his insides shrivel up like burning joss paper.

 

Passing

True knelt beside a cold, pale body. A white cloth string was tied around his head to signify that he was the immediate family of the deceased. His face was swollen with tears from a child who realized that he no longer had a mother. A sharp, sweet voice will no longer call out his name to come eat. Strong, slim hands will no longer pack his rice or sew the holes in his clothes. Round, bright eyes will no longer show him what love should look like.

True looked at his mother and saw a lonely woman. There were no cows to sacrifice.

His mother’s body laid on a mat woven from dried cogon grass. Her lips glued shut to the skeleton of her gums. Her eyeballs bulging through skin, round like marbles. Her skin turning green. Dead people can only be left out for ten days or they would start rotting from inside out. True looked at his mother and saw a lonely woman. There were no cows to sacrifice. There were no shamans or elders to guide his mother’s spirit back to the place she was born. There was only his father and several aunts and uncles. There was only True.

 

Erasing These Nightmares, Ancestors

True’s father had continuous nightmares after the burial. Two weeks had passed, and he could not say a word.

Koj txiv!” a woman screamed miserably.

He searched for the woman’s voice and the darkness around him was suddenly lit up by flames. Large, tenacious flames burning not only his mind but the figure that was desperately waving for help in the flames. The woman gave out another screeching yell. Her voice scorched by the fire.

“You gave me an improper burial!” her voice strained.

His eyes widened and sweat formed rapidly all over his body. Was it the fire? Or was it fear? Guilt? But he was a man, the father of a household. His shivering thoughts of being shamed were interrupted by this woman.

“You could have saved me!” Screams reverberated around the growing flames in darkness.

“But you did something bad. It couldn’t be helped,” his frightened voice responded adamantly.

The woman had on traditional funeral clothes: a long, black, robe-like coat embroidered with blue, green, and yellow threads along the edges. Her hair fell to her feet and strands glued to her face. Her red lips maliciously revealed sharp, yellow teeth against her pale skin. Her eyes were beautiful, like shiny silver coins. The woman’s hands, dripping with blood, kept reaching from the fire that was devouring the lower half of her body. She let out immense, painful cries and suddenly her arms expanded, covering the distance between her and True’s father.

“Let us go together. We are husband and wife!”

Right when her hands stretched to his face, the flames turned into a soft flickering flame. True’s father was staring into an oil candle, a roped wick burning black. When he inhaled a breath of relief, he broke from the dream, eyes wide in bed. True’s father sat up. He wanted to go back to sleep, but his body began to ache. His lower back and his shoulders tightened up, and the rooster crowed for the new day.

True’s father washed up at a small tub of water and went to work on a morning meal. Shortly after, True woke up to his father’s rustling and moving about. His sleepy eyes watched his father’s back, scooping out rice into a bowl. The steamy rice filled half the bowl, and he became numb inside all at once. True stared into the dirt floor from the bedside, wanting to avoid the bowl.

Tub,” his father called. “Wash up, and come eat.”

True did not want to hear his father. He wanted to dissolve into the dirt like his tears did.

“Tub!

“Mm, Txiv,” he uttered.

True walked to the round bamboo table on the ground, rice and boiled greens only. His father ignored that his son did not wash up. The two sat quietly at the table and swallowed a spoon of rice pooled in water. True’s father cleared his throat.

“Prepare for farming when you’re done eating,” he said.

True nodded. He got up from the table, washed his face, and placed a scythe in his kawm. He went outside and filled two bamboo chutes with water from the water jar. His father cleaned up the dishes and placed lumps of wrapped food into his own kawm. Both father and son slid on their flip flops and closed the entryway to their hut. Walking down the dirt road, True looked at the grey sky with droopy eyes while his father kept his eyes on the pathway, looking straight ahead.

They bottled their hearts like fermenting rice wine and walked on.

 

Maxie Moua graduated from UC Berkeley in May 2017 with a bachelor of arts in English and a minor in creative writing. Her work has been featured in several anthologies, such as Scholastic’s Open a World of Possible: Real Stories About the Joy and Power of Reading. She has also performed spoken word for the White House Initiative on AAPIs in Washington, DC. Moua has been writing poetry since high school and enjoys personal narratives. She aspires to become a literary voice in her community and deeply appreciates her family.