A birth of a child, after all, is a joyous occasion. But here I am, stuck on a hospital bed and tied to a machine that measures the contractions. I am clad in the simplest of gowns – dry to the skin, like sun-dried fish, and lightest blue of the sky. My beloved’s family – the whole lot of them – insisted on a hospital birth. I wanted to be surrounded by sun-dappled water and plants. To compromise, the midwives carried in pots of ferns, I suspect, from the hospital garden. One of the midwives keeps a tub of water warmed up in the toilet, just in case.
Perhaps I should blame my weakness for rice paddy snails. Oh those plump tasty morsels with glossy black shells my sisters use for jewellery. I was out harvesting and my mouth was watering in anticipation of the feast … when I saw the bluest pair of eyes, like clear water reflecting the sky. They were watching me as if I were a creature rising from the mud. Along with the blue eyes came the palest of skin and dark moss-like hair on the head, cropped close to the skull. It was how I met my beloved.
Of course, my grandmother raised her voice. “A người phương tây ! Oh no!” Grandaunt, her closest sister, retorted: “Don’t you go controlling her life!” They ended in a shouting match. They always quarrel, my grandmother and Grandaunt. They are the closest of sisters, but their teeth are often very sharp and very lethal. Tết is sometimes a difficult festival when they are both around. Mother simply held my hands and said, “Go with my blessings.”
They will not fly in metal tin cans and they will not be at the birth. My beloved is rushing down, according to Senior Midwife Mickey. Don’t worry.
We were wedded just six months, with a lot of camera flashes, laughter and beautiful clothes. I replaced my tail with legs, so that I won’t scare them. At the party, there were women kissing women and men kissing men. My beloved kissed me on the lips, a strange tradition. I would rather touch her nose and speak her name. “Love needs no justification,” I told my beloved with no uncertain terms. But người phương tây are strange. But we are probably stranger. We are river people and the government has just recently recognized us as a legal entity with full rights as an ethnic group. We even have our own identification cards and passports.
“Ethnic group? Ethnic group?!” Grandmother would say all the time, wringing her hands. Grandaunt would shake her head: “At least, we are not classified as fish!”
A few weeks after we were wedded, I felt the faintest stirrings in my stomach, like tiny fry fluttering away. I told my beloved straightaway that my family is descended from the female line, and there is no male line. I had to put it very lightly and my người phương tây words are not that good. Or that I cannot simply translate nuances into foreign words. Things are lost, misunderstood and gradually ignored by them. I did try to read a lot and study their language. My beloved calls it ESL or something. I wonder if we are still strangers. My beloved tries very hard to bridge that gap, that hole. She wants to wear a tail, a fake fish tail, so that she could be with me in the water. I have no heart to tell her, my beloved, that there is a big difference between a river person and a person wearing a costume tail. If I am as sanguine and kind-hearted as Mother.
I had just become pregnant and it would be a daughter.
I longed for home, for the river that was my playground for many years. I make do with a swimming pool. The chemicals make my skin itch and my scales flake. Why must water feel and taste wrong? The first time I swam, the neighbors’ children peered over the wooden fences, two boys about six and nine. I was nude. I mean, I am always nude. That is my natural state. Clothes are itchy and troublesome. I bared my sharp teeth at them and they never peek at me again. And the seasons. Hot, cold, very cold. I can never get used to the weather. I miss the rice paddy fields and the warm sap-filled breeze. There are no tasty snails. There is nothing that reminds me of home.
A sharp pain lances through my body and the machine beeps loudly. I hear the lup-lup-lup of my child’s heartbeat, so strong like fish tails. This one will be a fighter, a biter. Midwife Mickey strides in, purposefully. I wince and try to say something, but another sharp pain – like the fishermen’s nets that cut our bodies – pierces upwards. I double over and tears run down my cheeks. My stomach is clenching and unclenching. Someone is squeezing me from inside with a giant fist.
“That’s a strong contraction,” Mickey’s accent is like mine. She is con người. A human. Her name tag reads “Mickey Nguyen.” Mickey is how the người phương tây pronounces her real name.
She is also a migrant. Like me.
“Of course, it is!” I snap furiously. Mickey places a surprisingly gentle hand on my arm.
“Don’t worry. We will get through this.” Her voice is soft, kindly.
I want to cry.
My beloved takes an opportunity to make an appearance. She has rushed down from her bar. She has her Grateful Dead t-shirt and a pair of black jeans.
“Take me to the water now!” I scream. Bị rất đau! I hurt so much!
Without hesitation, my beloved scoops me up and brings me to the tub, Mickey following behind us. I slip into the warm water – so so comforting nước – and this time, the tail, my true self, returns. Mickey’s eyes widen. Then she swings into action and helps me through the contractions.
A burst of pain and I howl so loudly the room vibrates. Immediately, my body relaxes and I sink into the warm bloody water. I barely notice Mickey reaching in and pulling out something with her gloved hands.
I hear a baby’s cry and I lift my tired head up. A baby, still wet with water and blood, with a silver scaled tail like a river carp, is in Mickey’s hands. The cord gleams like water.
“It’s a …” Mickey says and I interrupt her.
“It’s our child,” I reply firmly and my beloved is crying. Then all of us are crying.