A Line of Wings by Uyen Phuong Dang
Uyen Phuong Dang’s “A Line of Wings” is the second-place winner of the 2023 Short Fiction Prize, guest judged by Nana Nkweti.
I forgot I was reading a story. Surely we have all heard some form of this expression—a compliment, no doubt, intended to communicate a writer’s ability to immerse and transport the reader. The characters, tensions, settings, and stakes weave together in such a way that our imaginations transmogrify the words into a new realm nearly indistinguishable from our own reality. But, do we truly forget? Should we want to forget? Uyen Phuong Dang’s “A Line of Wings” is a story about not forgetting, about how the very act of storytelling becomes inseparable from the story itself—inseparable from all the mechanisms that let it function as a work of art: choices about point of view; details carefully selected, added, eliminated, or exaggerated; the elasticity of fictional time and how it bends, expands, and shrinks. Through exquisitely rich language and dreamlike style, Dang shows us how people and places are both saved and erased in a history that feels more beautiful and emotionally true than anything one might find in a textbook. Her rendering of Dau and the Vietnam he inhabits does transport us, but without for one moment allowing us to forget we’re in the hands of a brilliant creator who is crafting the world we inhabit. When we speak of storytelling, we must acknowledge the very action at the root of the word, the propulsive force that allows us to be swept away: the telling. Ultimately, “A Line of Wings” makes forgetting this fact feel like an impossible act. —CRAFT
Dau used to live in the apartment below me. He had skin so dry it fell like leaves on a windy day, so much he pixelated his floor with tiny fog-colored flakes, each thin and flappy as a plastic bag. People claimed it was because he was born in the north: when the Japanese roped up all the rice, the Americans bombed the rice transports, and bellies redacted into air. His mother had bowels so hollow they echoed with explosions that scarred her womb with smoke, a lineage of it, taut and fat like an enormous tube. And that was how Dau came into the world, ripened around ash and funneled into a war, robed in skin dry enough to describe a drought.
When I mentioned this to Ma, she gave me a different story about the boy: how he was born in the south, and his father was a shipwright stationed out in Saigon to repair freighters for refugees during the war, back when Vietnam was split like eyelids. When the war was over, gold circled the black market. People caught with gold were frequently labeled bourgeois and sent away for a period of reeducation in order to be turned into new people.
Dau’s father had a wedding band, a pupil of gold he stuffed in a cigarette box and buried under a mattress pickled in sweat right before the last American left. When the war was over, a group of dockers waited ’til dark, flossed his ribs with their fists, then panned his body for gold. Except they saw only missing teeth and pleated skin and a lineage of gashes on his palms, little red slits like eyes opening. Absence shimmered in their faces, studded in crimson, piloting moonlight into itself. Panicked, they grabbed him like a leash and hauled him into the Saigon River, so his body rubied the waters instead of their hands. That’s why, Ma said, the river stinks like a corpse.
The week after he went missing, Dau’s mother started a fire. Don’t need such a big mattress. She locked the bedroom door, balled her sheets into a blaze, and threshed the smoke into the dark phantom of her dead husband. That night, they slept together in the fire. The ghost husband splayed her wide as space and seeded the carpet of her grief—soft and abrasive, like seawater. And inside the tender dark of her womb, a hole tore open, a hole to see what’s survived, a hole where a weight, a tiny discordance, lodged itself as the world fell red.
What happened to his mother, I asked, and Ma said she vanished. Ultimately her entire body was adopted into the wind and the house assimilated into its forgetfulness, rescinded into supports that looked like trees lavished by lightning, trunks electrified into the bars of a cradle. And that was where the neighbors found Dau the next morning: in the open shell of a brutality, softly cooing.
Dau’s body was a constant cycle of new flesh, all soft and slippery, like gelatin that hadn’t quite set. In fact, any slight touch cracked his skin like an egg. I remember how he held his arms tight to his sides like folded wings, and did his best to stay out of sight, flitting in and out of his apartment as inconspicuously as possible. I spotted him mostly at night, back hunched, feet dragging, shadows closed around him like a bomb shelter. He moved so fast you could barely tell he was ever there. Come to think of it, the only sign of his presence was the faint wind that passed through our building every so often, threading its way in and around corridors like it knew just where it was going. The wind was equally dry, and had a smell that resembled a cremation.
One time, Ma brought up the story of my birth. I was conceived in a winter after war, right after the end of the period most people were either starving or fleeing, or a combination of the two, which was why Ma said I was born half-human, half-bird: the winds had flocked into her hard-edged body and mentored her womb into a sky, and I was summoned out of its raining. Ma said this was why I had bird-thin bones and was fleshed like a migration, said all the blood in my body songed both a disaster and a flight.
So I thought Dau’s caution was totally understandable, for there were a number of children on his floor, one of whom had fingernails sharp as commas and who stared him down like a beast of prey. Either way, Dau was either preyed or prayed for, and in the end, he spent most of his days holed up in his apartment, closing his blinds and downing three whiskies a day, a shot at every meal. Spirits distill hurt from the body, Ma explained, but whether this was true or not, I couldn’t honestly say. I wasn’t a drinker.
The last time I saw him, he was walking fiercely across the empty lot in front of our apartment block in the middle of the night, quietly, as if treading air. Ravens were huddled close together on the telephone lines, their eyes braised in moonlight. They cawed loudly to each other, like a squad of old ladies, their cries hacking up a commotion.
There was a Vietnamese folktale Ma told me, about a raven who flew a brother to an island of gold. The raven spoke to him and said listen, I’ll fly you there if you let me keep eating off your starfruit tree, his only source of income. Sure, the brother said. There was only one condition, he could bring only a three-foot-long sack. So the brother did exactly that, the bird flew him to the island, and he came home with a sack of gold. When his older brother found out his wealth was because of the raven, he hustled the bird into taking him to the island too. Except the brother smuggled a sack twice the length, and the bird dropped him into the sea.
Like this, Ma said, pulling her right thumb and forefinger apart, as though to cleave the air.
Then I told Ma that story didn’t make sense: birds can’t carry humans and an island of gold did not exist. But Ma only laughed—a sound like water flowing out of a mountain cave, echoing and light—and explained in a past life we had been wind or ghosts or a song of some kind, and it was the birds who found us first, and saddled us toward the sun, which wasn’t the sun at all but a ball of light we speared into a pupil we could see the whole world out of. She told me that was how yellow became the same word as gold: vàng. We saw the land like yellow, dull until colonized by light, until we wielded light like a weapon and started slicing the dark out of everything because we thought anything that glistened was beautiful, like tongues or jewels or blood.
I reached out my hand as she told me this, trying to morph the darkness behind her into appendages. I pointed right at them and said, my wings, but they didn’t work, because they were hers. There was no way to sever our shadows.
Ma laughed again, then unbuttoned my fingers from the air and buried my hands in both of hers, said we’d been severed from the sky hundreds of years ago. When war didn’t end, our ancestors came out of the womb with so much pain the gods bred holes into their bones for the past to exit. Except, unable to name their loss, grief swelled inside, heavy as bodies. Eventually they were forced down, unable to support the weight of themselves, and too heavy for the winds to buoy.
I asked Ma what happened to our past, and Ma said she didn’t know. We’re still looking for it, she said, even if it’s already found its way back to us.
Dau walked toward the river. I guessed he wanted a smoke, but then he took a sharp right and went into the city. I ran after him. He was wearing dark clothes, and the way he disappeared into the shadows and then reappeared a moment later, usually far off in the distance, gave him the mysterious way of a god. Sometimes visible and sometimes invisible, but always present. My shoes were only half on, but I rushed along anyway, because a city was dangerous at night.
He was fast on his feet, so I seldom got anywhere near him, but I followed all the telltale signs: the faint rustling, the dry breeze, the tiny petals of skin the wind shook into wings across the concrete. One time, a strong wind sent his skin wafting into the air and, for a hot second, the night was white, whiter than stars or salt, so white I thought my eyes were being baptized. Then the dark returned in full force. A single rooster cried for a moment and then fell silent. The moon seemed brighter than ever, bloodless.
“Dau,” I called out in an urgent voice. It sounded more childlike than I had ever heard it before. But he must have vanished into one of the shadows again, because he didn’t respond.
I could hear my heart puttering unsteadily, as though it had grown its own body and was also running after him, searching the shadows, hounding his hurt. Every so often I heard a little rush in my temples, which was faint at first, but then increased in intensity as the night grew darker and darker. When I looked down, his skin seemed quite vivid and somehow harder than before, like baby teeth that had just fallen out.
I called for Dau several more times, my voice grabbing at the echoes his body left. But each time it seemed his name was eaten up by the night. Then I started to wonder if I’d only imagined his leaving and was stupidly running around alone in the dark. Like a complete and utter quack.
I ended up lying under a tree at the foot of the river, the same one Dau’s father might be in, bits of himself twirling ’round and ’round below like a dance. To the left of the river, way off against the serrated skyline, the sun was beginning to rise. Traffic was starting up, and clouds were parading out of the sky like spirits. The air smelled of trash, but the wet grass was cool against my ankles, so I stayed down, letting the damp soak into my skin. Exhausted, I spent the rest of the morning lying like a fish on the riverbank, watching the sun slowly rib the day with light.
I stayed there for a long time. I don’t know how long, but it felt long. Grass grew up over my head like fingers. A warm, wet breeze wrapped itself around my body. I heard a somewhat maternal breathing sound. It was right by my ear, but when I turned my head, I saw no one.
After a while, the sky ladled out a story Ma told me one summer about how, a long time ago, way before we were born, country came to mean the same as water, nước. The tone swooped down and then flicked up into the shape of a bowl or a womb. The word connoted so much our ancestors couldn’t pin it down to one image or definition. They imagined a vessel, the kind wide enough to cradle the sea, the land, the length of our destruction. This is why we made it ritual to plow the land with sticks of incense. We steered our incense like a spade. We drove it into tree trunks, garden pots, license plates, windowsills, cars, the ass cracks of concrete walls. We made sure to strike it deep, deep enough to fountain ghosts to the surface, hurt-heavy and waiting to be wanted. It was out of self-preservation, to be protected from our angry ghosts. We knew it as instinct: how forgetting would drag us down.
Ma said the word nước is like a gourd. The universe swirling around inside a bigger, gigantic thing. We were all in it: babies, gods, wars, ghosts, time. That’s how we arrive into the world, wound-slick, hands grabbing at air, trying to revise light into a world. Back into a womb. After hearing all this, I asked what exactly that bigger, gigantic thing out here was, but Ma only chuckled and asked, What contains a universe?
Our apartment block grew more and more rundown as time passed, but the city thrived. Buildings shot up into the air—twenty, thirty, then fifty stories, with big balconies jutting out like teeth from each floor. Visitors came from far and wide, populating the city with new shadows that could bury our own. And on the whole, Vietnam started getting along better with the world, and peace reigned. So it was only a matter of time before the city earmarked the building to be demolished for a fancy new metro line. Funded by a Japanese company, no less.
In the end, the money went like water and the building was still there, still sitting at the edge of town, its walls marrowed with mold and its roof concaving, sinking in the middle, like a couch. If I got close, I’d catch a whiff of mothballs.
Seeing how Dau never left his apartment much, I imagine it’s possible he continues to live there and was hardly surprised to hear that no one had ever moved into his unit. His door was always closed, his blinds drawn, and even when an old man lit incense into an apartment fire one summer and lassoed the whole building into the night, he failed to materialize. Weirdly, that same summer, a land developer came by our building and said he heard a noise like a bird whapping around inside Dau’s unit, after which management went in to check. When the developer asked about it, the woman didn’t miss a beat. “It just died,” she said.
I remember passing by the apartment once, long ago. The door had been left ajar, and a noise edged out the opening, a rustle like loose bills, accompanied by a fleet of tiny thumps that seemed to come from an undefinably ancient place. Ma taught me to hold my ears to the heavens, the gods, to dial it all the way to the beginning of our grief. So I walked into the room like I’d been rained into it, grasping at the strands of sound in the air, in the walls, in my throat, following it back to the ground where it was seeded. I mapped the ground with my fingertips, searching for where the sound was clearest, blood-bright. When I plucked it out and held it to the wind, I heard silence. But I whisked it around my fist and beat my bones red with it.
In a month, an echo would grow from my body. For years, I heard the softest cooing.
UYEN PHUONG DANG is a Vietnamese-American writer born in Saigon, Vietnam. Her short fictions have appeared and are forthcoming in The Cincinnati Review, X-R-A-Y, Passages North, and elsewhere. She is currently back in Saigon, researching Vietnamese gods and ghosts. Follow her on Instagram @ueyndang_ and Twitter @_uyendang.
Featured image by Alexander Sinn, courtesy of Unsplash.