Quyên should not have been on the river that day. Bà nội normally rowed the boat to the floating market at Cái Bè, but she was sick and Ba was working as a day labourer. Although she had only turned 12 last month, Quyên had sense enough to realise the sweet smelling basil they had harvested the day before would wilt and die in the heat. More than that, Quyên longed to trade for something to supplement their daily diet of white rice and greens. She craved for some candied nuts that old Auntie Long would give them for a handful of basil; and she hated being stuck in the hut that was stiflingly hot and smelt of decay. Why should she be nursemaid when she was just as capable as the old woman at steering a boat and bringing supper home for them all?
Carrying her bamboo baskets like scales balanced upon her slender shoulders, Quyên headed down to the edge of the Mekong in the predawn grey. It was cool still before the sun thickened the air into hot clammy fronds. The trees grew dense along the sides of the narrow but well-worn path. Vines snakes all around, filling every available space with tripwires. Her eyes were half-lidded so she did not at first see the water elephant barring her path. Droplets of water scattered all over her face and clothes, making her look up.
The girl saw a long grey trunk poised above her head. The nostrils narrowed as it breathed in and Quyên caught the same smell that was on Ba’s skin when he went fishing. “Elephant!” Quyên said angrily. “Get out of my way! I must get to the floating market before the sunrises. Now move!”
She had been told off before for her unthinking tongue but she did not chide the voice in her head. Quyên tried to sidestep the beast but the trees stood tightly, the mangrove roots twisted so that she knew she would not make it with her precious baskets. The elephant hacked and coughed again, the gills on its neck vibrating with each breath.
The last time she had seen a water elephant, she had been only seven and Má’s belly had swollen up like a watermelon. She had gone to fetch the midwife after the bleeding had started but Ba was already crying by the time they returned. The midwife had touched Má twice: once on her neck and once on her belly. Quyên still remembered how tender the movement was as if she did not want to wake Má from a slumber. No-one would answer her questions, her persistent why, why, why became the screech of a parrot and they pushed her outside to sit with the babies in the dirt. Ba had held his head in his hands and Bà nội had moved in to cook at first, and then to teach Quyên the skills she needed outside of school, and finally just to sandwich the uncomfortable silences between father and daughter with a ceaseless monologue of gossip and complaints.
On that occasion, the water elephant had followed Quyên home on the first day she returned to school after the funeral. It had only been a baby water elephant as tall as her waist but it stayed three steps behind her the whole way until she turned and kicked it hard on the foot. She had said a word she knew was bad as Ba only said it when he thought she was asleep. She had kept saying it, enjoying the harsh sound on her lips that washed out the stones and stagnant water in her chest. Tirade over, Quyên had just stared at the baby. It looked back, impassive and unperturbed by her foul language. When she continued home, she could hear its feet behind her but she did not stop it this time. Bà nội was dozing in the shade when she arrived at the hut and Quyên made her own lunch. She thought about throwing some food out of the window and keeping the baby elephant as a pet but her hand continued to shovel food into her own mouth, cramming it so full she could no longer entertain the notion. In equal parts thankful and disappointed, the baby water elephant had disappeared before her grandma woke up.
Putting her baskets down carefully on the ground, Quyên approached the water elephant balefully. It gleamed wet like fish skin and the fins upon its shoulders and ankles fanned open a little as she neared. This was a full grown adult and it easily stood taller than their village temple roof. The girl held her hand out open and its trunk slipped over her palm and snuffled at her wrist. Up close the skin was more leathery than Bà nội’s and looked as tough as tree bark. Quyên couldn’t stop giggling when the trunk blew warm air in her ears and knocked her hat off her head. “Don’t!” she protested between laughs. “I really must get to the floating market, elephant!”
With those magic words she felt herself being pulled into the air. The trunk had curled firmly around her waist and she felt the ground rush away from her in a blur of green. Quyên saw the splash of dawn in the sky, and then a canopy of leaves and suddenly a floor of grey. She held onto it, belatedly realising she had been dumped atop the water elephant’s back. The trunk came up again and dumped her wares alongside her. Then the world started to shake.
Once when they were little, the village children dared each other to ride the old water buffalo Thuận shared by the farmers to plough the paddy fields. It had been a slow ride and Quyên remembered feeling the buffalo’s lank ribcage digging into her flesh. His tail had swung from side to side, batting off flies and smarting on her exposed skin. The other children had cheered her on and despite the misgivings she had stayed atop his bony back with a grim little smile plastered to her face. For the rest of the summer she garnered the respect of the other children for riding the buffalo the longest.
She remembered this one and only ride she had experiences and compared it to the elephant ride. There was nothing frail or thin about the water elephant. With every step, Quyên felt the trees around them quiver and leaves fall from above. She slipped first to one side then the other on that scaly skin. Her hands found nothing to hold on to and she could see her baskets sliding down the elephant’s back towards the tail.
“Stop!” she yelled. Surprisingly, the elephant did. “Well,” Quyên said as she rescued the falling basil baskets. “If you really wanted to give me a ride so badly, then at least give me time to sort myself out!” The elephant’s ears seemed to droop forward dolefully as she set about fixing the baskets. The elephant’s girth was too wide for her short legs so she sat cross-legged on its back and placed both her hands on its fins for support. “I suppose we can carry on now then.”
It was a little easier now as she experimented and learnt to lean into the larger steps as the elephant steered around the mangroves and thick foliage. The beast was surprisingly agile for its bulky shape and as they passed under the shadows of trees, Quyên could see green bananas and mangoes dripping from the branches. As the sun continued to rise, she could hear the world around them singing their wake up calls. The cicada had never stopped for breath but now birds and monkeys joined in with their greetings. Shrieks of alarm followed them more closely as the animals peered down at the sight below but soon, sooner than it would be if she was on her own, the songs reverted to their natural rhythms.
The brown waters of the Mekong were seen as ripples through the trees but the water elephant did not slow its pace. Onwards they plunged into the wide river until they were at its centre. The elephant’s fins had splayed wide and she could see glimmers of silvery blue like the wings of an insect dipping in and out of the water. They were being propelled along at some speed despite the elephant’s ungainly size.
“Are you taking me all the way to the floating market?” Quyên asked. Seemingly in answer, the elephant fanned out its tail like a rudder and steered them sharply around a bend in the river. Now they were in the water, the ride was much smoother and Quyên uncurled herself to lie on her stomach, her chin on the elephant’s head.
Opening her eyes, the bright daylight blinded her. Covering her face she peered out between fingers at the bright blue around her. No longer was there the brown of the Mekong’s waters or the green of the plants that lined and dripped from the banks. It was an endless blue sky and they were flying in it as the sun beat across their faces.
“Elephant, where are we?” she said softly and full of wonder. The elephant keened and there where there had been nothing but air, life came into being with the delicate brushstrokes of a painter. Towards them flew a dragon with jade green whiskers and golden flecked eyes, its undulating path sending a breeze through Quyên’s limbs. She could smell the lingering fragrance of the two dozen durians lashed in nets across its back. A vermilion bird materialized next to a rainbow-crested phoenix. The birds twisted and chattered like gossiping aunties.
As if through cloud although the sky was clear, animals materialised. The smell of fresh fruit and joss sticks filled Quyên’s nostrils in tendrils that were visible to the eye. They curled around the water elephant and tickled the girl’s nose until she sneezed. A giant turtle and a tiger played chess on an invisible board. A family of white-eared monkeys, each carrying a bundle of sugar cane, ran over the top of the chess game causing the pieces to wobble out of place. The tiger half-hearted snapped at their tails. Wild boar and sika deer were trading green vegetables.
The water elephant took Quyên into the heart of the throng and she could see eyes without whites look up at her. They came right up to her, paws upon her hair and snouts at the frayed edges of her clothes. Pupils blacker than charcoal in faces lined with fur and scales, peered at her nakedness. A mongoose climbed right onto the water elephant’s back and stuck its nose into her basket.
“Hey!” Quyên shouted before she could stop herself. “You have to pay for wares!” Her words trailed off as she leaned over and realised the baskets were empty. The leaves must have blown off into the wind.
The mongoose stood up on its hind legs, ears alert as it inspected her. Then it ran under the elephant’s belly. Quyên started to lean forward to see where it had gone when it reappeared behind her and came upon her shoulder with something in its mouth. Automatically her hands caught the item that was dropped and she found herself holding a jade bangle shaped like a snake. It was the most beautiful piece of jewellery Quyên had ever seen. It was lovelier than Má’s golden wedding necklace that she would look at when no-one else was in the house. It chattered at her like one of the aunties trying to make a good deal.
“I have nothing to trade,” she said in dismay. The mongoose jumped onto her head and for a moment she felt a little dizzy as if something was pushing at her temples, squeezing her skull so that the pressure built and—
She remembered her hand on Má’s stomach and a frown upon her face. It was weird there was a creature growing in there. There was a lump just under her hand, round and firmer than the rest of the belly. Quyên poked it hard with a finger. Má gasped in pain and looked down at her daughter.
“I thought it moved,” she explained innocently.
“You have to be carefully, Quyên. Em trai will be very small and delicate when he emerges into the world. You have to help protect him.” Má said as she continued sewing the holes in Ba’s shirts. Quyên made a face when Má wasn’t looking
“How do you know it’s a boy?”
“I feel him sometimes, in my dreams,” Má said with a smile. Her fingers never stopped knitting the two frayed edges of the fabric together.
“I don’t want an ugly boy! I don’t want Em at all! What’s wrong with the way things are now?” Quyên said, staring at the ground.
“Oh Quyên, you’ll feel differently when he’s here. I know you, my little stubborn one, your heart will melt.”
“No it won’t, it won’t, it won’t! I won’t ever love him!”
Quyên found herself rocking forwards and put her hands out just in time to stop her head hitting the water elephant’s. The mongoose jumped from her shoulder holding a golden orb filled with opaque liquid that warped and writhed uncomfortably. It held the orb up for her to inspect and Quyên could just about see her infantile face shouting defiantly at her pregnant Má. It must’ve only been weeks later that Má died.
“Take it,” she said. The mongoose nodded and gobbled down the memory like it was a snake’s egg. Quyên pulled the bangle around her wrist but all she could feel was the grip of a manacle.
A kỳ lân stepped forward with its horn of green and gold. It had delicate hooves that danced on the air and a tail made of fire that swung round and kept others at a distance. Despite all this, Quyên could only stare at the beautiful dress it held carefully in its mouth. It was an áo dài in sky blue silk with silver lotuses embroidered around the hem and matching white trousers. She took it carefully from the kỳ lân’s grasp and felt the soft fabric flowed like water from her touch. The kỳ lân’s mouth was upturned like the merchant who knew he had a captive customer. Quyên didn’t even attempt to haggle, reaching out her hand willingly to make the exchange.
She remembered scuffing stones into a corner. The sole of her sandal had started to split like a panting dog’s mouth but Bà nội said she would have to be patient until next month or go barefooted. Quyên wouldn’t have minded going without shoes except the other children already teased her about having no Má and she didn’t want another reason to be mocked at school.
“Pass me the string please,” her Ba said from behind her. She huffed and stalked across the room to his tin of repair tools and back. Ba didn’t look up once, just put his hand out and mumbled thanks when she slapped the reel of string into it with all of her strength. He just kept on searching the fishing net for gaps.
“I’d be more useful on the boats with you anyway,” she began as if they had never stopped for dinner and for bed the night before. “I don’t see the point in school. Mr Truong just drills us and then falls asleep.”
“Mr Truong cycles an hour a day to teach our children and all the payment he is given is a free lunch.”
“Well if I don’t go to school, you won’t have to feed him and we’d all be better off!”
“Quyên,” Ba warned.
“If I was a boy you’d let me come!”
“Quyên!” Ba looked up this time and she knew he was angry. Still she refused to take it back. She just stood there with her shoulders and fists all clenched up, wanting him to hit or shout at her so she’d have a reason to push back. “One day you’ll understand,” he finished finally. He returned to the net and she knew then what she would do that night when they were asleep. She would cut through those carefully mended gaps, just enough so that it would seem like bad luck rather than malicious work. She would do it even though it meant a hard week for them all.
The kỳ lân looked at her as it swallowed the memory and for the first time Quyên felt shame. She clutched the dress to her breast and buried her face in it until the creature left. Over her head and round her waist she tied the new clothes that were too big for her twelve year old frame and besides, there was no mirror up here to see herself in, no-one she knew to show off too.
Still the floating market gravitated towards her with their wares but she shook her head. Quyên was tired now and urged the water elephant to take her home. Her new jewellery jangled like she was a queen and she longed for a mirror to gaze at herself in. The elephant ignored her, standing as immovable as a forest giant. A catfish larger than a dog sallied towards them with a red dancing fan dangling from its whiskers.
“I’m not sure there’s anything sweet to find in here but you can look anyway,” she said subduedly. With that the fish brought up an unencumbered whisker and touched her forehead with it.
She remembered the basket of coconuts was heavy but every time she let them drag on the ground, Bà nội shouted at her and she had to heft the strap further up her shoulder. She glared at her grandma’s back and resented the beads of sweat pouring down her face and neck. So the old woman was carrying two baskets to her one, she had decades of experience! If only Quyên could be allowed one of those coconuts and its sweet water to enjoy in the shade, she would be able to walk at double the speed with enthusiasm, of that she was certain. But they were all earmarked for market and Bà nội had looked horrified when she had suggested it earlier.
They had cleared most of the jungle and were on one of the dirt paths when they could see a commotion in the village. A crowd of people had gathered and some of them were shouting at each other. Bà nội seemed unfazed, plodding on and taking a route that would detour them around the throng. Quyên strained to hear the crux of the argument but her grandma had gained a sudden spurt of energy and was practically sprinting to their hut.
Quyên was not therefore expecting her to stop suddenly. She bumped up against the old woman’s back and was surprised not to be greeted with the usual curt comment. Bà nội stared down at the ground, muttering very softly as she shook her head. Quyên peered around her and saw Thuận lying on his side, heaving shallowly. Flies buzzed around his nose and eyes but the beast didn’t care and let them crawl over his face. Those ribs she remembered from the bruising on her thighs, were nothing more than bare branches and the girl knew straight away that the water buffalo was dying.
One of their neighbours walked unhurried towards the buffalo with a pan of water. “He collapsed at midday,” she explained as she crouched beside the beast and coaxed it to drink. “Dương had already told us to rest him because of the sprained leg but ah, on his last legs and only 10 years old? Maybe the sky will bring us the money to replace him because harvest is going to be difficult this year.”
Bà nội made a sympathetic noise and shook her head. “Well someone must’ve decided he could work just a little bit more eh? It’s always the way of selfishness to destroy a community. Quyên?”
The girl blinked at her name, fearing she had been given away. But no, grandma was just querying why her feet had been subconsciously shuffling away.
Quyên blinked and saw the memory in front of her in a bubble of golden viscous dew at the end of the catfish’s whisker. The fish teased it out as simply as brushing her hair and curled it close to its mouth. Another whisker curled out and dropped the fan on her lap.
“Yes,” Quyên said. “Have it!”
The catfish inhaled her memory through its gills. Quyên waved the fan before her face but the breeze it mustered did little to cool the red of her cheeks. “Water elephant, take me home now please.” But the elephant was distracted by a baby elephant that wove clumsily in between its feet and reached a trunk up to be petted. It was one and the same baby water elephant she had met before. Quyên knew this to be a fact not simply because they looked the same, but because her heart knew. She just knew with certain dread although she could not explain what she feared.
The baby elephant butted the older elephant playfully until the adult gave a gentle kick. It uncurled its trunk and offered Quyên a carved lacquer box. Curiosity overcame the girl and she took it, opening the lid to find a treasure trove that made her salivate. There was spiced pork bao, tapioca and coconut pudding; sticky sweet rice and sesame balls; rice flour dumplings and candied nuts. All of the sweet things she loved that her grandma had neither the time nor money to prepare for them. It was a glorious feast that she had half-eaten with her eyes already. And the box was magical, she knew without being told. It would give her desserts and sweets freshly made whenever she desired. Quyên held out her arm for the trade.
She remembered Bà nội tripping over the pot of water. The clatter of plates and pans that fell as she tried to keep her balance. The way her sandal did a little flip backwards as it fell from her foot. Quyên ran to her grandma’s side and put her hand on the woman’s arm.
“Stupid girl...leave... floor?” Bà nội continued muttering under her breath as she sat up, hand pressed against her right hip. The right side of her face looked like it had been melted into place and had stopped moving.
“Are you okay?” Quyên asked, biting back the retort about how neither she nor Ba had managed to fall over the pot.
“Yes, yes... you... fall I never.” She did not however, brush off Quyên’s arm a second time as she gingerly came to her feet. Bà nội was crooked and she trailed her right leg like a lame bird who’d managed to escape from the jaws of a dog. She had to go lie down for a moment, then an hour, then the rest of the day until Quyên had done all the chores and made them dinner as well. When Ba came home Bà nội tried to get up but she wobbled halfway across the room in a drunken stagger before Ba forced her back to bed. He made Bà nội show him bump that caused her right hip to swell up. Ba talked about going to the herbalist but the old woman shook her head, took his hand and smiled the way old people did when they thought youngsters were being silly.
Quyên remembered tiptoeing around the house, carrying water from the river, burning meals and putting up with the incessant low tone moaning that came from the back of the room. At first she checked on grandma every hour with some water and a query until the old woman snapped at her to leave her in peace. So it became twice a day to wipe her brow with a cold towel and coax her to eat a little rice soup. The back corner of their hut seemed to darken even on the sunniest days. A shadow lingered there along with a growing smell of mould and sourness.
Ba had held Quyên’s hands for the first time in years and explained that there was a strong chance it would just be the two of them soon. She asked if that meant she would have to do the foraging, harvesting, cooking and cleaning all by herself. She asked him if she could quit school now. She asked him if he would miss Bà nội as much as Má. She asked him it was her or grandma that stopped him getting remarried. Ba had slapped her.
And she remembered looking over grandma as she slept that morning. In that cocoon of sheets she was not intimidating, strong and fierce as Quyên always saw her. Her face was still crooked and a silvery saliva trail escaped down the side of her mouth. She was grotesque, Quyên realised. Like a baby who needed to be cared for except she would never grow up now.
What would it be like just end it peacefully for them all? She was certain Bà nội would thank her really. Who wanted to get old and infirm and have to raise a child a second time when you are already done with your own? Who wanted to carry heavy bags on stooped shoulders every day until they slowly grind you into the ground? She looked at her hands and wondered if they were strong enough to grip around grandma’s neck until the air stopped filling her body. Or take one of the kitchen knives and make a clean slit like Ba gutting fish. She stared at the lines in her palms and the calluses forming on her fingertips and noticed as they started to shake.
Then Quyên grabbed her hat and the baskets of basil and left the hut. She turned her back on the rasping breath and thought in a tiny voice, deep inside her where no-one would ever discover it: perhaps, if she stopped keeping watch, the old woman would just go and leave them alone.
The baby elephant held the memory at the end of its trunk. This one was larger than any of the previous orbs. And whilst the rest had glittered golden and dewy, this one was cloudy and lacklustre. The baby elephant brought it closer to inspect and Quyên grabbed onto its trunk suddenly. She slipped off her elephant’s back and wrestled with the baby.
“No, no you can’t have it, I take it back! Please, let me take it back!” The box of sweets spilled off her lap and fell down into the endless blue, vanishing like it had never existed. Still the girl struggled with the water elephant. It had opened its mouth and was curling the trunk in to consume it. “Em!” Quyên yelled. The water elephant stopped and gave her its full attention. “I’m sorry em, I’ve not been the best sister, daughter or granddaughter. But I want to try. Please, let me try!”
The adult water elephant’s trunk came down softly and patted Quyên on the head. Then it knocked the baby gently until the memory orb dropped down from the sky. Without thinking, Quyên jumped down after it.
She woke to the sound of water. Quyên opened her eyes and found herself lying in the shallows at the side of the Mekong. The sun was high in the sky and the basil leaves were spread around her in the water, dancing on the surface like lily pads.
“Bà nội!” she shouted, not caring who heard her. She stood up and the water dripped from her like unshed tears. In the distance she thought she heard the sound of trumpeting.
Quyên ran home.