When I was a child, I swallowed a bite of fried catfish whole. A reckless pluck of my chopsticks in a hungry and juvenile daze. It was momentarily joyous — the taste of hot salt, of nước mắm and crunchy fish skin, the fat faltering under the snap of my teeth before it melted in my mouth.
Then, I choked. A barb of bone, I’m sure no bigger than my thumb, lodged itself in my throat. I panicked, staring at my mother across the table. There was a messy string of Việt and hasty shakes of the head before she stood alongside me, her fingers prodding my clamped lips with a ball of rice.
Bình tĩnh đi, con. Take a bite, little by little, and nuốt. Until the rice pulls the bone free. Until you can breathe again.
It worked. She dried my tears and we finished dinner without my childish antics wreaking further havoc.
When I saw my mother last, she was the one who couldn’t breathe. She lay in a hospital bed, whirring machinery and intermittent beeps punctuating the stillness. I watched her chest rise and fall methodically. The ventilator was dutifully doing its job breathing for her.
It was sudden. A quiet blip as the world spun and an aneurysm burst, taking her along with it. We said our goodbyes and planned a funeral.
And in the dark of night, I started choking again. An uncanny pressure, rising out of my chest and into my throat. An invisible object suspended within me.
Globus sensation, I learned. A phantom of anxiety’s making. The night before the funeral, and on sporadic nights months later, the sensation wedged itself into my throat. There was no rice to pull it free, no reassurance from my mother’s steady hand.
A bittersweet and hard-fought calm. Revisiting all the moments, little by little, until her memory pulls the bone free. Until I can breathe again.
Hien Nguyen is a writer currently based in Northern Virginia. By day she is a social science researcher and by night she writes about Vietnamese ghosts, monsters, and mythology. She is interested in the uplifting and haunting forms of human connection, and how the speculative can lay those bare. Hien is represented by Katelyn Detweiler at Jill Grinberg Literary Management and currently revising a novel for submission that is part diasporic tale of grief, and part Vietnamese ghost story.
Gwendolyn Mintz is a writer and photographer. She is the author of three chapbooks, Mother Love, Where I’ll Be If I’m Not There, and Colored Girl.