The Return by L. D. Oxford
In her dreams, she returned to the island. Lush green climbing unforgiving hills. Tall grass pushed by sun-soaked wind. White birds startled, scattering from the ground to reach safe haven above. Every breeze a caress, every inhale an embrace.
She felt herself sitting on the sand, watching the sun sink into the water. Methodically rubbing the grains one by one. Shedding skin, cell by cell. The crash and fall of each wave—swoosh swoosh swoosh—drumbeat of ritual. In her dreams she saw them, each cell of skin, each grain of sand, returning to its mother, the sea.
Saigon. The city reached through her dream, one note at a time. The swish swish swish of Mrs. Nguyen’s twig-tied broom. Then the din of scooters, call of street vendors peddling their wares. Scents crept through the walls: frying pork, diesel, yesterday’s rain. Inhale. Somewhere in her memory she smelled sun and palm, the sharp sting of salt.
She dressed with care. Silk pants, buttoned-up shirt, light jacket. Long white gloves scrunched up at the wrists. Thin beige socks, split at the toe to accommodate her sandals. The surgical mask went on last. She’d never had to worry about the sun before, but here was different. Her skin was too delicate for the harsh heat of the city.
She carried her helmet and sunglasses down the three flights from her apartment. Her scooter waited in the courtyard. Every morning the same: winding her way through the streets, maneuvering the stream of scooters. Arriving at the waterfront, she set up her stall. The market was starting to fill. Her small table overlooked the river, next to the man frying squid and the woman selling coconut. They nodded at each other every morning, no words spoken. She displayed her offering—grains of rice painted with your name, any name—and waited, gaze toward the water.
A slow day, not many tourists, but she stayed until nightfall. The rain moved in as she drove through the city, making the thin clothing cling to her skin. Back in the apartment, she began shedding each layer, one by one. Once, she liked playing dress-up, was fascinated by the pageantry. It didn’t take long to grow weary of it. Her skin begged to be free.
She had taken off her face mask and gloves when a knock came at the door.
Mrs. Nguyen, her landlady for the past… how many years now? Hard to say, as Mrs. Nguyen had always seemed old, appeared old now.
“You’re late on rent again, Quy,” Mrs. Nguyen said without a hello.
Quy blinked. “What day is it?”
“The third. When will you get a calendar, you muddle-headed girl?”
It was said with no malice. After all this time, it was a ritual between the two. Mrs. Nguyen knew the rent would be late; she also knew it would come.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Nguyen. I’ll bring it tomorrow.”
Mrs. Nguyen mumbled something and waved a hand through the air. “Not in your bath yet?” Mrs. Nguyen knew this ritual, too. In the early days, before Quy had learned that clothing was worn inside as well as out, Mrs. Nguyen had come to collect rent while she was in the bath.
“Not yet. The rain.”
Mrs. Nguyen nodded. “It does slow traffic. I never could get used to zipping around on one of those scooters.” She paused, narrowed her eyes, and peered intently. “I swear, child, you never age a day.”
Quy smiled, indicated the face mask on the floor.
“I know, I know. You and your sun protection. Still, count your blessings.”
She closed the door as Mrs. Nguyen left for her own apartment downstairs. Quy avoided conversation with most people; Mrs. Nguyen was different. Mrs. Nguyen came from the north, “a small town you’ve never heard of.” She said that’s why her speech sounded different from the Saigonese. Quy was grateful for that. Even after all these years, she still found it difficult to converse with others. But with Mrs. Nguyen, it was… well, if not easy, comfortable. Mrs. Nguyen forgave pauses, lapses in words. She waved them away with that wizened hand.
Quy finished undressing, turned on the faucet, and poured in the Epsom salts. When the tub was full, she turned off the water and dipped in her big toe. She longed for that moment, that tingling sensation, when the water first met her. A comfort, a release. Sighing, she sank into the caress.
Hours later, the moon now shining through her single window, she lifted her body away from the embrace. She didn’t bother drying off. Who would want to remove this gift on the skin? The memory of the water’s motion against her, pushing and pulling and becoming one. She fell asleep to that memory. Most nights she dreamed of the sea. Other nights, she dreamed of him.
She was younger then. How young? Difficult to track the passing of the tides. Young enough that it was still easy to take the forms. A tiny white crab, rolling balls of sand. Palm fronds dripping with monsoon rain. The squid, twinkling up at the stars. Restless one, they called her. Always seeking, always searching.
Sometimes she adopted two legs, two arms, two breasts and two eyes. There was a thrill in assuming human form, something exotic and forbidden. More challenging, too. The humans communicated differently. The crabs, the squid, the palms—they all spoke the same language. Her language. The humans spoke in many tongues, all of them foreign. But she recognized things about them. They laughed like the sea eagle, experienced joy. They were born and died and lived in between.
Her visits took her further and further; she kept to the coast, followed the rivers. They always led her home. She would return with her head spinning, her heart buoyant.
The river led her here: Saigon, a jewel, spinning madly in a dizzying display of sound and color. No one knew her name, nor she theirs. No one cared. The few people who did speak to her took her for a simple country girl. She smiled and nodded at their words; they turned away, exasperated, but let her be.
It was at the waterfront where she saw him. At first they looked identical, the group of men in uniforms who laughed loudly and moved boldly. But then she saw one smirk, another frown. One pushed a hand through his hair, while the other scratched the back of a leg with his shoe. A school of fish, then: each its own, together whole.
How did she pick him from that group? How did the fishermen, the women on bicycles, the children running, how did they all part at the exact same moment so he could see her? How did her dark eyes land on his? Whenever she doubted, whenever the ache for home grew so deep in her bones she thought she might dissolve, she remembered that moment and all that the world had aligned to make it so.
He had come here for a war. He showed her on a map where he came from, a place across the ocean. She liked this, that the ocean had always connected them. To him, it didn’t seem odd that she didn’t speak his language. He was used to this, not being understood here, not understanding. They developed a new language. Brush of fingertips on collarbone. A tilt of the head, twist of the lips. A tender hand on the back, washing away the grime of the day. She marveled at how easy everything was with him, how comfortable it felt to lie together in his single bed. Calm, no longer restless.
In the mornings he dressed, left to be with the other uniformed men. In the evenings he returned, dusty and tired and smiling at the sight of her. Over weeks and months she was able to shape her mouth into some of his words. He laughed when she sang and danced to “Hooked on a Feeling.” He played the album over and over in the tiny room he rented near the palace. His laughter was the singing of birds, the crash of waves against the shore. At night the moon illuminated his skin, like the inside of a shell, and she thought perhaps this was what she’d been searching for all along.
“Quy,” he called her. My precious, my treasure. She loved the way the word tripped off his lips, smiled when he said it. She was Quy. His Quy.
She spent more and more time in the city, more and more time away from home. It pained her, but wasn’t he worth it? Wasn’t this word he taught her to speak—love—wasn’t this what she had been seeking without knowing it? All the beauty of the world paled in comparison to how his lips shaped that word.
He left the day before Saigon fell. The air heavy, thick with the sounds of helicopters and desperation. They stood together at the waterfront, men yelling, running, women screaming and the earth shaking. He would go with the other uniformed men, whisked off across the ocean. But first he held her, quiet, calm. He spoke three words, and she understood: “I’ll come back.”
And so she waited.
Now she was here, in an old woman’s apartment building, in a city torn apart and slowly healed. A new name, red flags on street poles fluttering in the breeze. The city changed, and she with it. Every day that passed, every year, she learned more about being here, how to fit in, how to live simply, patiently. Every day she went to the waterfront. He went across the ocean; the ocean would bring him home.
Quy woke early the day after Mrs. Nguyen’s visit, headed out into the river of scooters. She turned a corner and caught the breeze off the river, cool and calm. She breathed it in, felt the ache rooted deeply in her bones.
It used to be she returned to the island every week. Then every month. Then every few months, if she was lucky. The journey never seemed long before, but now it was harder and harder. Too tiring. Too trying. And what if she left and he came?
But she couldn’t deny that ache. The nightly baths no longer quenched her thirst. It was time for a trip home.
Quy arrived at the island at nightfall. She shed the clothing, left it in a pile. Her body wanted to run headlong into the shallow, salty expanse before her. She forced herself to walk, one step at a time. A homecoming was not a thing to rush. It must be respected. What did the sea care where she had been, what took her so long? There was no “long” here. There was the murmur of trees in the wind, the lapping of water against her shins, the water the same temperature as air, the same temperature as skin.
A small tickle woke her. Her eyelids fluttered open; one of the tiny sand crabs lay against her heart line, pale against her palm. The creature lifted its eyestalks. She returned the smile, tilting her hand so he could go find his brothers and sisters.
Quy sat up, stretched. The sun bloomed across the ocean, growing brighter as it rose behind the trees at her back. Nearby, birds woke. Home.
And yet when she drew in breath, she found that her body was not content, not full. What was missing? She closed her eyes, heard the swish swish swish of Mrs. Nguyen’s broom. A foreign sound, manmade, never heard here. Yet there it was, lodged in her heart.
She’d been away too long; the sound of water lapping sand should be the sound that made her ache, not twigs scraping cracked cement. The swish swish swish of Saigon had become as much a part of her as the sounds of the ocean. Her body clenched at the thought. Lost in her chosen world, foreign where she was born.
Tears rolled down her cheeks as the water turned gold. Perhaps it was time to leave Saigon. But how could she leave, how could she abandon all the time spent waiting, when she could hear those three words as if they’d been whispered in her ear yesterday?
Quy returned to the city late, bone-weary after the long journey home. “Home”—the word slipping in. She’d just left home, hadn’t she?
She tiptoed up the stairs to her apartment, but still they creaked in the usual spots. Mrs. Nguyen’s door opened.
“What are you doing, getting back so late?”
Quy turned. “The boat ran late.”
“You went to the island? I didn’t know you were going.”
Quy shrugged. “Last minute.”
Mrs. Nguyen nodded. “Your family’s well?”
“Yes, thank you.” Family—the reason she gave Mrs. Nguyen for visiting the island.
Mrs. Nguyen tilted her head, furrowed her brow. “You’re sure?”
“Very well, thank you.”
Mrs. Nguyen remained motionless for a moment before her small, bony shoulders gave a shrug. “Shouldn’t be out here talking this late, you’ll wake the whole building. Off with you now.”
Quy smiled, turned, began climbing the remaining stairs. Behind her, Mrs. Nguyen’s door clicked shut.
The next morning felt hot, heavy, the muggy air thicker than usual with the sounds and smells of the human city. The swish of Mrs. Nguyen’s broom grated at her ears. It was always this way the first morning back, the things she had missed now bringing her pain.
She was late setting up her stall by the river. A moment of panic overtook her, thinking she wouldn’t be able to see the harbor, watch the cruise ships’ passengers disembark. She was able to secure a good spot by pretending not to understand the woman yelling at her. The woman finally threw up her arms, cursed at her, and moved away.
It was a busier morning than usual. The rainy season was coming to an end, and at its closure, more and more people traveled through Saigon. Young girls flocked to her stand, begging mothers and fathers for their name painted on a grain of rice. Often the parents would smile good-naturedly and shepherd the children away, but today some handed over money, watched Quy’s nimble fingers write on the tiny canvas. Quy kept one eye on her work, the other toward the crowds.
Her heart skipped a beat. A group of men had appeared. Several wore a hat she recognized—the kind he had worn. The group came closer and Quy found herself holding her breath, her fingers stilled from their work. The men were walking toward her stall. She stood, the family near her talking, questioning, but she paid them no heed. Her eyes scanned the group. The men laughed, looked around, but none of their eyes sought hers. Within a moment, they were gone, walking past her stall and into the crowds.
Quy sat, her legs suddenly heavy and weak. The sharp tones of the family entered her ears. She looked back down at the grain of rice, blinked, continued her work. It was not him. He had not come.
Riding back that night, rain flooded the streets, soaking feet and shins and trying to upend any careless driver in its path. Quy arrived at the apartment late, the clothes she was forced to wear cold and clinging. She dragged her feet up the stairs, craving the moment when she could sink into her bath.
Up ahead, Mrs. Nguyen’s door opened. Quy sighed, prepared herself for the pleasantries. Mrs. Nguyen stood in the doorway, waving her hand.
“Come in,” she said.
“Thank you, Mrs. Nguyen, but I—”
“I said, come in.”
Something in her tone caught Quy’s attention. She nodded and followed the woman inside.
Mrs. Nguyen’s apartment was small—smaller than Quy’s, she realized with some surprise—but it was well kept, clean, with just about every surface covered with…
Quy walked up to a table, picked a shell out of a bowl. Hundreds and hundreds of shells, in every nook and cranny. She rubbed her thumb against the smooth interior, feeling the story of the waves that had caressed its surface.
“You like them?” Mrs. Nguyen said. “It’s been many years since I added to the collection.”
“They’re beautiful,” Quy said.
“I thought you would. Sit. Take off your wet socks.”
Quy did as the woman said. Mrs. Nguyen came forward with two cups.
“Do you drink coffee?”
Quy shook her head.
“I should have guessed. Never mind. I’ve grown a taste for it over the years.”
The landlady settled down in a chair across from Quy, sighing. “I’ve always had aches in my bones, ever since I was a young girl. It’s worse when it rains. You understand, don’t you?”
Quy smiled politely.
“Tell me,” Mrs. Nguyen said. “How many years have you been in Saigon?”
“You know. I’ve lived here.”
“Yes, but you lived in Saigon before moving in here, didn’t you?”
“I thought so. Me, it’s been eighty years.” Mrs. Nguyen laughed. “You’re surprised, aren’t you?”
Quy thought she had hidden it. “You don’t seem that old.”
“Like you.” Mrs. Nguyen smiled. “That’s one gift of the sea that doesn’t leave.”
Mrs. Nguyen was looking at Quy intently, obviously expecting something… Quy looked at the woman’s skin, smooth save around the eyes. She looked around the room at the hundreds of shells, lovingly arranged, dust-free and shining in the dim apartment light.
“You’re like me,” she said quietly.
Mrs. Nguyen nodded.
“How did you know?”
“I’ve suspected for a while. You don’t fit in too well, you know. Oh, fine for them, yes. But you can’t fool one of your own.”
Quy studied the woman. Could she have guessed? There seemed no signs, none at all, that the woman in front of her wasn’t human.
“I’ve been here a long time,” Mrs. Nguyen said, as if reading Quy’s thoughts. “Before Saigon, I lived in a village to the north. Near my home. It’s harder, you know, being that close to home, seeing it every day.”
“Why did you leave?”
“A job in the city. We came before the war.”
“No, not that.”
“Oh.” Mrs. Nguyen leaned back. “Same as you, I’m guessing.” She pointed to a picture on the side table, a black-and-white photograph of a young man and luminous young woman. “He died thirty years ago. He lived a long time. Not long enough. That is why you’re here, isn’t it?”
Quy looked down at her hands. Somehow it was difficult to speak this out loud, even though it was the truth that burned within her daily.
“Where is he?”
Quy took a deep breath and slowly, haltingly, told her story. Of meeting him, of the ships coming in and leaving. The explosions in the night. Of waiting. When she was done, Mrs. Nguyen whistled.
“Forty years. A long time to wait.”
“You know how it is,” Quy said. “It’s different. Time.”
“Yes,” Mrs. Nguyen said. “Although even on us, it does take its toll.”
The lights flickered—a clap of thunder shook the room, made the shells rattle in their bowls.
“I could help you, you know,” Mrs. Nguyen said.
“What do you mean?”
“The bay I lived in… he was a fisherman, my husband. We loved each other, but I didn’t know how we could be together. There was an old woman who lived there, by the shore. She taught me. I could teach you. I can make him come back.”
Quy’s heart leapt into her throat. “Yes. Teach me, please.”
The old woman—for suddenly she did look old, but how was it she had always looked ageless before?—looked out the window into the moonshine rain. “You’re sure you want to see him again?”
“With all my heart.”
“You know what it means, don’t you?” At Quy’s silence, Mrs. Nguyen continued. “You’d have to truly give yourself over to this life. You haven’t done that. You keep returning to that island of yours. You’d have to choose this world.”
“I would do that.”
“Are you listening?” Mrs. Nguyen leaned forward. “You would have to give up everything. I can make him come back, show you the way. But then that’s it. You’re done. The sea is forgiving, but some things it never absolves. You couldn’t return.”
As if she were there, Quy felt the salty sun on her skin, the lap of the tides. She saw seagrass moving in the currents, heard its gentle laughter. She felt a pain in her chest, an old familiar pain that never grew easier, no matter how many years passed.
“You did this?” Quy asked.
Mrs. Nguyen’s voice was soft, heavy with time. “Yes.”
“I can do it, too.”
Mrs. Nguyen sighed. “Then I’ll tell you how.”
She didn’t act immediately. Quy bundled Mrs. Nguyen’s words to her, turned them and caressed them, like a stone being smoothed by the sea. The moon grew fat and full as she soaked night after night. She thought how that moon would look on the thin stretches of foam left behind by the waves. She thought how it had looked against his skin, soft and relaxed on the bed they shared. She thought of Mrs. Nguyen’s shells, each representing heartache and longing. Of the photo on the side table, love and happiness radiating through the years.
She thought about making the trip home again. But experiencing it all one last time—rubbing the sand, hearing the movement, breathing it all in—would only make the inevitability of her decision that much harder.
It wasn’t a decision. It never had been. It would always be this way, inescapable as the tides.
She chose the night of the full moon. Following Mrs. Nguyen’s instructions, she rode to the waterfront, walked past her usual stall—even at night, the market buzzing, feeding—out onto one of the docks. Quy took off her flip-flops and socks and rolled up her pant legs. She sat down on the dock’s edge, dipped her toes in the water. The river was cold, unclean, but it connected to the sea. The sea connected the whole world, her to him and him to she. Reaching down with cupped hands, Quy drew up a handful of water.
If someone had walked by, they probably would have thought the woman was praying, hands held in front, lips moving rhythmically. Quy followed Mrs. Nguyen’s instructions carefully. She repeated her name—her name, the one given to her by the sea, the one that would never be heard again—and his. She blessed the water in her hands and drank deeply. It tasted sour, of the city; she forced herself to drink it all.
Afterward, Quy watched the sunrise, the fishermen returning to the docks. The first smells of pork and chicken rose up into the air. She could stay, set up her stall early. But she would skip work today. She felt drained as she hadn’t in a long, long time, suddenly much older than her hundred years. At the same time, she felt light, lifted. It was decided. No more living between two worlds, half-lives never satisfied. Soon he would return. Soon she would continue the life she was meant to live.
Three days passed. Quy sat at her stall, feeling the heat radiate through the market. The rain would break soon—the whole market felt it, buzzing, the hawkers’ cries fast and loud. Nearby, a woman tried to sell her last bowl of soup, the scent of boiled chicken and fresh greens carried by the breeze. The line at the fruit stand had been long all day, people seeking some sort of reprieve from the oppressive weather.
Quy saw them all, heard them all. She’d done so for years, watching the young grow old, watching buildings rise out of rubble, a city reborn. Today she watched with new eyes; this was hers, she was a part of it. The thought made her happy, even as a single tear rolled down her cheek.
The wind changed—a sharp cool sting from another world—and then it was gone. Her gaze followed the movement of the breeze, past the small children playing near their mothers’ stalls, past the waving flags with their bright gold stars, to the water, which gave and took in equal measure.
The crowd parted, and her gaze landed on him.
It was him, her heart knew in an instant. Even though he didn’t stand as tall, despite the grey at his temples and the pouch on his belly and the wrinkles around his eyes. Those eyes. His eyes. The same she had seen forty years ago, staring across at her in this very spot. The same eyes that sang and laughed, that showed her love and promised the world.
She stood, nearly upsetting her stand, and took three brisk steps forward. He hadn’t seen her yet, he was looking toward the city behind her, his expression distant and melancholy.
He heard something—after all this time, Quy still recognized the little tilt of his head, the small frown—then he turned and smiled at the woman standing next to him, took her arm and gave her a kiss.
Quy froze, watched as the woman returned the smile, gave his arm a squeeze. A young man walked up behind them; he opened his arms wide, wrapped them both up. Quy felt her breath stick in her throat. The young man was him, the very picture of him… but no, not exactly. She looked back at the woman. The young man had his mother’s eyes.
Someone started yelling, holding up a sign—”Vietnam Veteran Tour”—and the group moved forward, toward her. Her pulse quickened, pounded in her ears. They were about to walk past her, beyond her. She had to do something, say something, she couldn’t just stand there and let him walk away, not again… But then he paused. He looked lost, confused. His gaze searched the market and landed lightly on her—she felt it, felt the pressure and pain and longing of all her years— and then he shook his head and walked on, disappearing with his family into Saigon.
It was late when Quy showed up at Mrs. Nguyen’s apartment. Her hair stuck to her neck, soaked from the rain. Mrs. Nguyen’s face fell as she opened the door. “So. He came back.”
Quy didn’t move.
Mrs. Nguyen sighed. “Come in. I’ll draw you a bath.”
Quy shook her head.
“Come in, my dear. You’re home.” Mrs. Nguyen stepped forward, tried to take Quy’s arm. Quy took a step back. Mrs. Nguyen paused, studied her face. “I told you. You can’t go back.”
Quy remained silent.
Mrs. Nguyen drew in a sharp breath.
“You know what it means?”
The two women stood looking at each other as the rain poured outside. Finally Mrs. Nguyen turned away, wiping at her eyes. “Wait a moment.”
She came back with a small shell, sculpted to reveal a pale pink interior. “Return it for me,” she said. “So the sea might remember her daughter.”
It wasn’t quite dawn as she stood on the beach, dug her toes in the sand. She removed her clothing, smiled at the call of the birds, the wind speaking through the lush jungle at her back. A homecoming was never to be rushed. The sun broke through the trees; the warmth touched her. She allowed herself a moment of sorrow. How great a gift, this touch. If memory existed beyond, this one she would keep.
She walked forward, the crabs scurrying up and around her feet. She stopped as the first bit of water lapped her toes. Tide coming in. Kneeling, she sat with her hips on her heels, sand rubbing against her knees, her shins. She felt the water creating space for her. Shedding skin, cell by cell. Each cell of skin, every grain, returning to its mother. The sea did not belong to her anymore, but she could belong to it.
She opened her hand, looked down at the pink shell in her palm. She traced its curves with her fingertips. It was somebody’s home once. So many hopes and dreams represented in so small a thing.
Placing her hand in the water—already rising, now lapping against her thighs—she let the shell be carried away. Her legs shimmered, blurring with each wave. It was confusing, the pain and relief mixing in her heart. For all Quy had lost—no, that was never her, a human name on a foreign tongue—would she give any of it back? The answer should be yes, she knew. But now it would all be washed away. Only calm existed here. Only the heartbeat of the world.
Her fingertips tingled. She studied her hands, resting on her thighs, as the sea wrapped around her waist. She saw foam building—slowly at first, now growing faster. It felt like nothing, this giving, this return. She had given all her life; now, at last, there would be no more.
The sun rose in the orange sky, the seagrass swayed in the currents. She breathed in the salt and the sky until she could breathe no more. She smiled at this morning—this beautiful, heartbreaking morning—and felt joy to be part of it.
L. D. Oxford is a Pacific Northwest writer whose work has appeared in Bards and Sages Quarterly and Allegory. Recently, she completed her first speculative fiction novel. She lives in Seattle with her husband, son, a cat and a dog.