The following is from Vi Khi Nao’s novel, Fish in Exile. Vi Khi Nao was born in Long Khánh, Vietnam. Vi’s work includes poetry, fiction, film and cross-genre collaboration. Her poetry collection, The Old Philosopher, was the winner of 2014 Nightboat Poetry Prize. She holds an MFA in fiction from Brown University.
When my eyes crack open at the sign of the ﬁrst matutinal light, catholic is standing above me in high heels, wearing navy slacks and a red blouse. She looks like a rhubarb stalk.
CATHOLIC: Ethos, I’ve been looking all over for you. What are you doing out here?
ETHOS: I don’t know.
CATHOLIC: I microwaved some biscuits. They’re on the table. I bled on everything and slept through everything, and I have to leave right now!
ETHOS: Yes, yes, yes . . .
CATHOLIC: Are you alright?
ETHOS: Yes, yes, yes. Just go. I’ll take care of it.
I hear her heels clicking and clicking. I peel myself from the wood, but my face falls back down again. The night did not freeze the soggy membranes of my head evenly. My lungs feel dislodged. on the second attempt, I lift myself awkwardly. My mind remobilizes, walking in circles from one idea to the next. My headache makes my face feel like it’s floating. I wipe my face with the sleeve of my sweater. An impulse runs through my body like electricity: my children, my children. Just yesterday’s teardrops. Did my daughter taste metallic? Or was it my son?
Their receding laugher encroaches as I move into the kitchen. Their neonatal claps. Their lips: sweet, glossy, and thundering. Today, I will learn to die properly. It’s just a hallucination now. Nothing is real. swinging left and right: death by hibachi. I walk toward the bedroom to look for the ropes. Virginia Woolf did it in the water with big rocks in her pockets. I simply have to sink down on land with something. With anything.
When I enter the bedroom, the sheets activate my eyes. Oh, Catholic! Death is certain. Death is certainly blooming in my mouth. The sheets are coated with dried blood, small parched ponds and big parched ponds, and then smaller blotches that trail unevenly on the extremely high thread count sheets. Was it twelve hundred, or was it ﬁfteen? The Egyptians won’t forgive catholic for violating their army of weft and warp yarns. I rush to the ﬁtted sheet, throw myself onto it, and tug and pull the elastic band that’s tucked around each corner. I hoist it right out of its contraption. Then I throw it toward the bedroom door.
My death must be inevitably delayed (yet again!). I leap off the bed and rush to the bathroom, making sure to step over the ﬁtted sheet and not on it. I grab a tall bottle of shampoo and the bristle brush underneath the sink and return to the bed. I squeeze two or three droplets of thyme gel onto one pond and scrub at it gently with the brush. I proceed in the same way with all the stains. On the last smear job, I gaze upward and extend that gaze as long as I am able. Out into the world framed by the window.
The clouds are turning their shoulders. Moving slowly and methodically. Yes, the morning is already long and cold and extensive. But I realize more and more as life shifts its position that I can’t change the world by looking at it longer. I am writing the page of my life without adding more carbon monoxide into it or hanging myself from a synthetic rope. Life is so simple and beautiful. Why am I so quick to discard it when things are becoming more difficult, stoic, and ordinary? Was there less life when things in the past were daedal, painful, or histrionic?
Although my mind confuses eruption for euphoria and devotion for diaspora, it clearly distinguishes today from tomorrow and yesterday from today. Or does it? perhaps it blurs yesterday and tomorrow with the present so that life is one extended breath, minced to calendric intervals. perhaps we are ﬁt to perform only one duty: exhaling. perhaps in life and in language, one can substitute one word for another word like pouring water from one glass into another. And perhaps I would like to surrogate exhaling for a more ﬁtting dualistic jab: expiring.3
I gaze back down at the floral mattress. Raw, germ-ridden, bug-infested white floral mattress exposed to air. The pillows, like large, bleached raviolis, are the only immaculate objects in the vicinity. Even though they are on the verge of sainthood, ready to be crowned for their cherubic cleanliness, I seize the pair of them and toss them on the oak chest at the foot of the bed. I peel the comforter from the flat sheet and push it onto the floor. I lift the languishing flat sheet from its position and toss it toward the bedroom door. I stare at the thyme-scented ponds. There is a gloss, a lovely gloss, on the mattress top. I am almost tempted to bend down and kiss it.
On my knees on the mattress, I begin to scrub the macerated ponds with all my might. Rosy foam rises from their froth and curls onto the seabed. The sea comes back to me on the landmass of the mattress. Perhaps the children will return as I shift the rudder of the brush. I can see the sea-foam crashing against the brush’s hull. Perhaps, at the bottom of this sea depth, mattress depth, the surface of the mattress, there is an entire civilization of sea life waiting for me on its aquatic deck. Perhaps, and perhaps so much more. I hop over the sheets, retrieve a towel from the bathroom, and return to the bed.
I sweep and scrape the foam onto the towel, trying to ﬁnd its bottom. I expect rainbow ﬁsh, blobﬁsh, lobsters, sponges, sea stars, anglerﬁsh, leafy sea dragons, cartilaginous ﬁsh, longhorn cowﬁsh, anemones, frilled sharks, crabs, vampire squid, octopi, viperﬁsh, seahorses, minnows, seashells, axolotls, eels, and stargazers, but only ﬁnd a faint, oh-so-faint 7.3 millimeters of thin, pink, diaphanous salmon flesh on the seafloor of the mattress. I can’t even peel it off to sample it. For taste and pleasure.
I pull myself off the mattress so the air can dry it. I stroll back into the bathroom and situate the towel, shampoo bottle, and brush on the counter. I return to the bedroom and separate the stained sheet from the unstained. With the stained sheet bundled in one hand and the unstained in the other, I reenter the bathroom. I throw the ﬁtted sheet into the bathtub and the flat sheet on the travertine floor. I grab the brush and lower the cover of the toilet seat and sit on it. I turn the cold spigot of the faucet on and wet the sheet just a little before quickly shutting it off. I turn around, retrieve the bottle of thyme shampoo, and place it on the ledge of the tub.
My hands flounder in search of the stains. When I ﬁnally ﬁnd them, I grab the bottle and squirt some on the stains and try to bend forward to scrub them out. It’s awkward and difficult. What to do? I go to the kitchen, pull out a cutting board, and take it back to the bathroom. I sit down on the toilet seat, place the cutting board on my lap, and pull the dampened sheets on top of the board. I begin to scrub with the brush. A mixture of water and shampoo spits outwardly, hitting the hair on my arms. I do not care where the spitting lands as long as the floral mucilage is exonerated. I work hard, calmly and methodically. I sat in this same position with Colin bent over my thighs, scrubbing chili stains from his butt cheeks.
Catholic had set a pot of chili on the kitchen floor because the table and the counter were covered with Thanksgiving leftovers. She had wanted to make room in the refrigerator for all the uneaten food and the pot of chili. Instead of putting the chili in his mouth like any other three-year-old would have, he crawled over and sat his naked ass in it.
Tears overflow my eyes and drip onto the sheets, mixing with the shampoo, foam, and Catholic’s menstrual pigment. I continue to brush blindly; the gossamer veil of the tears obstructs my vision of the sheets but not my movement. Mucus from my nose drips into the liquid mixture. I drive the brush back and forth, thinking the sheet is a coffin or two, trying to sand until there’s not a single ﬁber of wood left. Not even the powdery substance of sawdust. The brush strokes rush in and out of the air until my arm becomes tired. And then, I stop. I stop and wipe my tears and mucus on the upper part of my shirtsleeve. I grab the sheet. When I stand up, the cutting board flops off my thighs and falls on the floor. It makes a flapping sound like the bellies of two elephant seals colliding. I bend over the tub, plug the drain, throw the ﬁtted sheet in, and then pick up the flat one and throw it in as well. I twist the hot and cold spigots and exit the bathroom.
I descend to the basement for Charlie’s Soap Powder and a plastic laundry basket. I pour one-third pound of powdered detergent into the tub and stir the mixture with my hands. When the sheets are fully soaped, I unplug the drain, let the water run out, and then ﬁll the tub back up. I lift the sheets in the air, dip them back down again, and go through the motion a dozen times. I drain and reﬁll the tub again. I explore the sheets thoroughly to see if I can relocate the stains, but I can’t ﬁnd any. It must be difficult to see different shades when the fabric is wet. I wrench the sheets as tightly as my muscles allow and throw them in the laundry basket. Once, in bed, Catholic told me her uterus during menstruation was like a laundry machine: “The washer-uterus uses hydraulics to twist and untwist the uterine lining, trying to shred the endometrium out. It does a regular laundry cycle4 every twenty-eight days or so.”
I teased her afterward: “Where to look when confronted with a missing sock?”
I wrench the water from the flat sheet and toss it into the basket. I carry the basket outside into the backyard. I walk up to the clothesline and unclip four wooden clothespins and stuff them into my jeans pocket. I grab one of the sheets, untwist it, and toss it up onto the clothesline. I spread the sheet out so it extends from one end of the line to the other, then I begin clipping the clothespins to the sheet. The morning air is brisk like biscuits. The biscuits catholic microwaved! something to look forward to after this, I think.
The backyard is soundless, not a bird in sight. I scan my neighbors’ yards. What my mother said is true: one can’t be depressed if one is engaged in physical activity. How can I possibly return to suicide after this? And homicide couldn’t possibly exist if criminals did laundry by hand. This is why prison systems work so well: the prisoners wash shirts and sheets in bulk in steamy warehouses and fold them into rectangles and insert them into colossal linen bins. One must return to the ordinary for salvation.
After the flat sheet, I proceed to the ﬁtted sheet. This one is harder. Its elastic band makes it difficult to stretch without jerking the clothesline around. In the middle of clipping, Lidia calls out to me from her yard.
LIDIA: Callisto and I would like you and catholic to come over for dinner next week. Will you be able to make it?
I turn my body toward her, holding the basket against my hip.
ETHOS: I don’t know. I’ll have to talk to catholic. You know how these things go.
ETHOS: How are you?
LIDIA: Actually, I came out here because Callisto wanted me to ask if your wife has read his letter yet?
ETHOS: I don’t know.
LIDIA: Can’t you ask her?
ETHOS: She’s at work.
LIDIA: Can you call her?
ETHOS: Sure, give me just a moment. Is it that important?
LIDIA: Well, Callisto has been harassing me all morning about it. And I just want to get it over with, you know?
ETHOS: Certainly. Let me go inside for a second. I’ll let you know.
3. The binary biological and ontological nature of the word expiring has two obvious unfoldings. First, it informs me of its paradoxical complex, and second, it provokes me (though I am not going to do this now) to walk to the yogurt container or the milk jug searching for dates. Expiring appears to symbolize life the most closely. How could a word that means both breathing (exhaling air from the lungs) and coming to an end (death) not satisfy my philosophical needs? I stare at the clouds some more. For things that don’t say much and move very slowly, they seem to spew a lot of foam and air. Perhaps they are trying to say something.
4. Eco-anthropologists have theorized about the energy conservation of reconstructing the uterine hut every fecund cycle. Some mammals absorb the huts in their bodies instead of shedding them. That’s a lot of huts to collect in one year—more than stamps! My wife is very fortunate to not have to carry all those huts around. In fact, uterus specialist Beverly Strassmann suggests that perhaps it costs more energy-wise to do continuous upkeep on the hut than it does to have it demolished. I think her reasoning skills are quite advanced. So reasonable. Who would want to live in a hut no one can crawl into just because it’s there? But more importantly, who wants to live in an apartment when it might be bulldozed the next day? Temporary living arrangements are always sketchy and not to be trusted. I can’t be sentimental, either. I used to live in apartment 7A, but the landlord destroyed it. It must be because I failed to scrub the left compartment of the refrigerator thoroughly. It must be that nine-month, dried-out mustard clump I couldn’t seem to scour completely with my newly developed extremities. It had to go. And although you can’t see the apartment where I used to live, at least I can point you to where the lot is. Just imagine what it was like before it was flattened. Just imagine. Indoor trellis. A swimming pool. And even though you couldn’t run around in it, a small backyard. Plenty of free food dropping from the sky. And, on top of that, I even had a live-in butler or butlet or bullet or whatever, but whenever I ring that bell, or rather, pull that cord, man oh man, the driver always stops for me, and I always get what I want. Generally, it comes in the form of free dairy products (false advertisement!) and always sauerkraut! What is with the sauerkraut?
From FISH IN EXILE. Used with permission of Coffee House Press. Copyright © 2016 by Vi Khi Nao.