because she has just finished telling the story of our escape
and needs to draw a comparison, return us safely to the present,
December 2015, we’re back at my sister’s childproofed house,
keeping warm by winter sun, central heating, and our sweatpants;
because some do: “Ghaith joyfully snapped selfies, the Aegean
glimmering in the background. He looked much like a tourist,”
suggests the reporter at large in the New Yorker article I read
about one refugee’s epic escape from Syria, and think of again
when my mother can’t make room in our story for more people;
because my mother never quite has the right words in English,
though to be fair, she said “travelers,” and seemed anxious after;
because she’s not callous, you must understand, just protective . . .
In the blue porcelain bowl on the granite top kitchen island
where we gather faithfully around my mother and the story,
there are three balls of white rice shaped like warm eggs,
and a fourth, forming in her hands, being pressed into service
as she recounts making them before, wrapped in banana leaves
and secreted inside pockets. These are for my nephew, Aidan,
who loves rice like he loves Cheerios, who will be hungry
once his toy train runs off too many tracks, and who just turned
two, around the age I was when we left, a coincidence my mother
points to like a storybook illustration . . . It’s December 1981.
We’re dressed in nice clothes because Christmas Eve is our cover.
The cathedral in Bà Rịa is packed. If anyone asks why we’re out,
we can say we were at Mass. Anyone being the police. The locals
of course recognize us. We stop at one of the popular stalls
for fresh sugarcane juice, trying to act normal. The nước mía
tastes unbelievably good. The young woman operating the noisy,
shiny contraption calms us, and when she spots the Công an
patrolling out front, insists we sit down and just relax in the back.
Our boat is parked at the riverbank behind the road that runs
past the market, hidden by the lush green flags growing there.
Our third attempt. The last time we waited and waited
at the designated safe house, but no boat ever showed up.
This time we are wiser. My father, thanks to his credentials
as a former Navy officer and ex re-education camp prisoner,
negotiated to be boat captain, which means we travel for free—
my mother, my uncle, my cousin, and me—but also means
he can’t stay with us because he must collect more passengers
at the bus stop. Say you are devising plans to flee. There’s a group,
on Facebook, Asylum and Immigration Without Smugglers,
you can trust and rely on. Because to be a refugee, you must know
where to go, what routes save time and money, if the sea today
or tomorrow is fatally dangerous, if the storm is practically over,
what island is best to leave for, what to do if you are stuck
in the middle of the forest, where to cross the border at night . . .
We have to wait until nightfall. The moon is our lighthouse.
When the time comes, we start walking towards the river
that will lead us to the sea—at this point in my mother’s account
a new detail emerges, something small, but not there before:
she loses her sandal like in a fairytale by mistake in the street.
Because she thinks she sees police lights up ahead, she panics,
hurries in the dark, heart racing, bare foot sparking the path
to the boat motionless and obscure on the river’s black mirror . . .
In 1981, the rest of the passengers had to pay two to three
cây vàng, about two to three thousand US dollars then.
I learned that traffickers, in 2014, raised their prices again,
charging at least four thousand dollars to smuggle a Syrian
into Italy. I saw the picture of three-year-old Alan Kurdî
and read one article that tried to describe what his small body
looked like washed ashore, “face down, his head to one side
with his bottom slightly up—the way toddlers like to sleep.”
Waiting in the boat’s hold, the story goes, I won’t stop crying.
My crying is an alarm unnerving and endangering everyone.
Because my father is the only one on board who knows how
to pilot the boat and navigate the waters, I am not harmed.
Still, my crying. Incessant, unappeasable, loud as a siren.
My mother doesn’t know what to do. She has already fed me
the food she brought. The rice balls, the hard-boiled eggs.
She even tried the sleeping pills. Nothing seems to work.
Though it’s risky, she finally carries me up to the deck.
Night air quiets me. Because in my version, her black shawl
covers my head as she hums a song nobody can hear,
all silent, all still, like an island in the Mediterranean.