Read Across the Mekong River Online

Authors: Elaine Russell

Across the Mekong River

BOOK: Across the Mekong River

















A Novel By


Elaine Russell






























Cover photograph by Roy McDonald


Copyright ©2011 Elaine Russell

All rights reserved.


ISBN-10: 1466338105

ISBN-13: 9781466338104

Library of Congress Catalog Number: 2011916686

CreateSpace, North Charleston, South Carolina













Winner of Four 2013 Independent Publishing Book Awards

for Multicultural Fiction:


Winner - Next Generation Indie Book Award

Silver - ForeWord Reveiws Book of the Year Award

Bronze - Independent Publishers Book Award

Finalist - Readers’ Favorite Book Award











This book is dedicated to my mother for always believi
ng in me and my husband for his unwavering love and support. I also dedicate this book to the hundreds of thousands of Hmong and other Laotian refugees who were forced to leave behind their loved ones and homeland to start anew in the United States and other countries.

















I want to thank my editor Dan Smetanka for his excellent and patient guidance on revisions to this story. I could not have done
it without him. Also, thank you to my friends Erin Dealey, Susanne Sommer, and Marcia Freedman, who read my chapters through many versions, and Jackie Pope for a final edit. I am very grateful to Amorette Yang for reading the manuscript and offering thoughts on the story and the Hmong immigrant experience. Many thanks to Lee Yang, Shoua Thao, Ka Yang, Penny Xiong, and Chor Vang for taking time to share their families’ stories and knowledge of Hmong culture and traditions with me. I am indebted to the Lao Family Community of Sacramento and the Hmong Women’s Heritage Association of Sacramento for publications and information shared. And finally, to all the wonderful Hmong and Lao friends I have met through my association with Legacies of War, who also shared their families’ stories,
ua tsaug
kop chai.




Truth is an illusion. It is only something we create from memories and wishes and fragments of dreams. The truth is what we want to believe. And sometimes lies are so essential they become part of that truth. I realize this now, perched on a chair in the small courtroom, my mind reeling with what I am about to do. What I must do to survive.

The windowless chamber is stuffy and heavy with scents of polished wood and linoleum floors sw
abbed in pine-scented cleaner. My father sits alone at the scratched oak table on the other side of the aisle, a five-foot space that spans between us like a vast river. His familiar mix of stale smoke and musky aftershave drifts my way, and I want to be eight again, giggling wildly as I ride on his back across the lawn outside our first apartment in America. He wears his one tweed jacket, gray slacks shiny at the knees, and a white shirt, which is frayed at the collar if you look closely. His body remains rigid, his face impassive. He stares straight ahead at the imposing judge in his black robe behind the bench. Occasionally the muscles around his mouth tighten and twitch as he swallows.

My mother is in the first row behind him, next to
Uncle Boua so he can translate. She weeps softly and stares at me with dark, accusing eyes. I long to reach across the void, to cry out to them:
please understand
. But it is too late. They already know about my lies. And the past slips from my hands.

The judge rubs his left temple
in circles. He is a portly, Caucasian man with thinning silver hair and eyes barely visible under folds of skin. The room is deathly quiet except for the low moan of his chair, as he rocks back and forth, leafing through documents. He peers over his reading glasses at me, then my father, then back to me. The clock on the back wall clicks, another minute passing. His forehead wrinkles into deep lines. His expression is puzzled, or perhaps disturbed. Does he notice my hands shaking as I crumple a damp tissue? Or the tears that blur my vision, creating halos around objects and people in the room? Can he hear my breath catch on each painful draw of air, as I dare to glance at my father?

Before long this judge, this stranger, will ask how we came to this
impasse. My attorney will detail events over the past weeks and months, and Father will respond with his version. But this will not be the truth. These statements will be a fraction of the whole. For the judge to truly understand the splintered path of misunderstandings and struggles that led to this moment, I would have to begin somewhere else, far from this small room in California. Twelve years ago when I was only five.

The details of my early years remain opaque and shadowy, viewed throug
h a window clouded with steam. I can never be sure if the few vivid images I carry rise from memory or were painted by my parents’ reluctant retelling of our passage. Perhaps I invented moments out of necessity to fill the empty spaces in my heart. To justify my choices. This is what I think I know.

see. Truth is an illusion. Lies are essential.

is where my story begins.


A red scar in the shape of a half-circle marks the back of my left calf, a three-inch reminder of the other part of me, the part I left behind. I suffered the burn one July night in 1978 as my family ran through an open field from the cover of mango trees to bamboo stands lining the Mekong River on the last stretch of our escape from Laos. We fled the reign of terror the new communist government waged against the Hmong for fighting with the Americans during the Vietnam War. The refuge of Thailand, its twinkling lights dotting the distant shore like fallen stars, beckoned across the dark divide. Flashes of moonlight glanced off swirling waters, turning the shadows into silver stepping stones. My heart raced, and my ears filled with the roar of the river as it swept past, heavy with monsoon runoff. Mother promised we would be safe when we reached the other side. And being only a child, I believed her.

Many weeks before--maybe several
months, I’m not sure--Mother wakened me in the middle of the night. “Quiet. We are leaving on a long journey,” she said in a voice so hushed I barely heard her. She warned me not to disturb the soldiers who slept in the camp next to our village, as she dressed me in two layers of clothes. The mention of the bad men filled me with dread. They loomed in my mind as frightening as the tigers Mother said roamed the forest, equally capable of harm.

I blinked, sleepy and confused.

“Not a word.” She put her finger to her lips.

“But what about Hwj Txob?”
This was my black and white baby pig that I had named Pepper. He tagged behind me through the village and butted against my knees, knocking me down and licking my face. I loved my pig and did not want to leave without him.

“We’ll get him later.”

Mother and my brothers Fue and Fong loaded heavy bundles with clothes and food onto their backs. We slipped from the house to the edge of our village, up the steep hill through the peach and apple orchard, and past the bamboo stands where once I had seen a red panda nibbling tender leaves. We climbed higher into the forest, fragrant with pines, the ground cushioned with fallen needles. A light drizzle brushed across my cheeks as soft as corn silk.

Deep among the trees we joined Uncle Boua, Auntie Nhia, and
their four children, another cousin, Choa, his wife and new baby, and seventeen members of the Yang family, all huddled together in silence. I could barely make out faces in the muted light of a single flashlight hidden under Uncle Boua’s jacket.

From behind my cousin Choa a shadow moved toward me, and a man lifted me up, murmuring in my ear, “Nou,
ma petite
, it is your father.”

I thought I must be dreaming.
My father had been gone a very long time. Mother had told me bad men had taken him away and kept him from us, but someday he would return. Often at night, when she crawled onto the bed next to me, I heard her cry into the quilt. I had no recollection of this man holding me close, no memory of his face or his voice or the feel of his wiry arms. I only knew the photograph that Mother had hidden under her blankets, the image of a soldier standing in front of a metal building in Khaki pants and a short-sleeved shirt with ribbons and metal shapes that hung above the pocket. He wore black boots that laced up his calves, his hands gripping a wide-barreled gun so large it nearly came to the top of his head. As many times as I studied the picture, I could not make out the face, a mere shadow obscured by his cap’s broad brim. Yet here he was, leading us off into the night.

That first
day filled me with happiness. We crept through the forest as if playing a game of hide-and-seek, the way my brothers and I often had in our village and the surrounding fields. Father cradled me in his arms, and I drifted off to sleep. I woke to the calls of Mynah birds and the jostling of Father’s steady pace, my head bouncing on his shoulder. A pale gray-green light seeped through the canopy of teak and rosewoods that towered over the pines like elder brothers. At last I could study the face next to mine with its sharp angles around the brow and chin, the sunken cheeks, the skin so pale and thin I was afraid to touch it. Bones protruded from Father’s ribs and hips and arms. I had never seen anyone like this, not even old Grandfather Yang who had withered away to dust. I touched his wrist and asked why there was not more of him. His smile revealed gaps of missing teeth. He whispered that he had been hungry a very long time, but soon he would be fine, as fat as a big hog. I laughed at the idea, picturing him running around with Hwj Txob.

We stopped in a clearing to rest and ate bundles of st
icky rice. The rain had stopped and up through the branches, I could see white puffy clouds sail past. Sunbeams sprinkled through leaves, casting elaborate patterns on the ground as I chased about, tracing them with a stick. Mother threw two blankets over a bed of moss and pine needles. My brothers collapsed on one, while my parents lay on either side of me on the other, smiling and whispering to one another. A woodpecker rapped on the trunk above us, and hypnotized flies buzzed in shafts of sunlight as if trapped, unable to find an exit. A string of carpenter ants gnawed at the decaying log beside us. I gasped as an enormous orange dragonfly landed on Father’s leg and fluttered its sheer wings of spun gold for one pure and perfect moment.

ventually, days and nights blurred together. Each became more difficult than the one before. The joy of Father’s return became lost in the deep creases of his face and his ever tightening grip on my hand. We spoke only in whispers. We moved very quickly. Every time I uttered the slightest sound, Mother grabbed my shoulder and shook her head. I could not play with my cousins or brothers. I could not sing or laugh or clap my hands. At the slightest rustling in the bushes, we took cover behind the thickest trees or fallen logs, freezing in place, barely breathing until we were sure it was safe. No one told me where we were going. I wanted to go home. I wanted Hwj Txob. And for the first time I understood that Mother had lied to me. We would never go back for my pig.

Father and the other men took turns slashing a narrow trail with their
scythes through dense thorny bushes, grasses, and thistles. The rest of us followed single file, up and down one jagged mountain after another, slogging and slipping through the mud, stumbling over fallen branches and roots. It was the monsoon season, and the rain poured down in great torrents. My clothes and skin remained damp with the ripe smell of decaying leaves and wet earth.

The first few days, my oldest brother Fong carried me on his back for short
stretches. I felt safe with my legs wrapped about his middle and my arms around his neck. Soon he grew too weak for the extra weight. I walked until my calves cramped and my bare feet bled. Mother wrapped a cloth around my head and neck to block the mosquitoes that swarmed about me, searching for a succulent spot of skin. I became numb to the sting of leeches biting my legs, greedily sucking my blood until, sated, they fell to the ground.

At the end of the first week, I collapsed on the path too tired to move. “Carry me,” I cried.

Mother clapped a hand over my mouth and yanked me off the ground. “Hush! You will kill us all.” Her breath was hot on my cheek. Her eyes reflected the dark, roiling clouds above.

Father lifted me into his arms. We continued on.

days the rain fell so hard, I could hardly lift my feet from the thick mud. Twice we built funny houses of twigs or bamboo covered with broad-leafed palms and stayed until the worst of it passed. Father remained tense and alert even when he slept, his knife by his side. I melted into slumber, snuggling up to Mother. I dreamed we were back in our house in the village and the bad men had fallen off the mountain into a hole where evil spirits had eaten them.

It must have been the third week when Mother complained her stomac
h hurt and she needed to stop. Father said we all needed to rest and dry out. He found a limestone cave with an entrance almost as tall as the trees outside. Toward the back of the cave, bat guano covered the craggy floor, and the overpowering stench made my stomach churn. There were traces of others before us—ashes from fires and discarded bones from birds or bats that had been eaten. Father and Uncle Boua patiently fanned twigs and wet logs into a fire that filled the cave with heavy gray smoke and a narrow radius of warmth. All at once a wave of bats burst from the ceiling and crevices; a mass of black wings whirled around us. I screamed and flailed as small creatures brushed my head and arms and legs, and a rush of wind like stale breath filled my lungs. Father encircled my body with his until the bats passed--a solid river of black, screeching and disappearing into the fading day. He held me close and whispered soothing words until I stopped sobbing. He promised they would stay away as long as we kept the fire going.

My cousin Choa, Bee Yang, and Auntie Nhia had been clever
to capture dozens of bats in baskets with their bare hands as they flew past. We roasted them on sticks and had our first meat in seven days. But Mother didn’t eat. She lay curled up on a blanket, holding her abdomen and moaning. Sweat poured from her brow. Father kneeled beside her, wiping her face with a wet rag. Uncle Boua was a shaman, skilled at guiding lost souls. He prayed to our ancestors and the spirits of the other world to help protect Mother.

But in the morning, blood began to flow from between Mother’s legs, trickling down the cave’s grey and white lime
stone floor like a red ribbon. The viscous liquid pooled in cracks and crevices. Soon her face drained of color. She gasped with pain and gripped Father’s hand. I buried my head in Fong’s shoulder, too afraid to look as he led me away.

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