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 swabbed 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 through 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.
You see, truth is an illusion. Lies are essential.
Here 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, ten and twelve years old, 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 sticky 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.
Eventually, 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. But Father lifted me into his arms. We continued on.
Some 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 stomach 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, Yang Bee, 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.
In the morning, blood began to flow from between Mother’s legs, trickling down the cave’s grey and white limestone 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.
Auntie Nhia washed Mother down, wrapped her lower half in sarongs, and gave her a small piece of brown medicine collected from the poppies in our fields. She told me to stop crying and help her, taking my hand and leading me into the forest. We searched for dark green mint leaves that grew in the shadows of sweet-scented white orchids. When I rubbed them between my fingers, the pungent, cooling smell filled my nostrils. Next we gathered golden chrysanthemums along the bank of a streambed where water bugs skittered across a pool in a game of tag. Auntie Nhia patted my head and reassured me my mother would be fine. What a big girl I was, she said, to help her find the medicine. When we returned, she boiled the plants into a yellow-green potion. She roused Mother from her stupor and forced her to drink slow sips every few minutes. An hour passed and the bleeding ebbed, finally stopping late that night.
Mother slept a full night and day without waking as Father chanted prayers and stroked her hair. The rest of us gathered firewood to keep the blaze burning. Auntie Nhia and I washed the blood-stained sarongs in the stream and hung them to dry near the fire. At last Mother sat up, her face pale and worn. Father fed her some of the last rice and more of the herbal drink Auntie had made. I nestled under Mother’s arm, grateful she was alive and proud that I had helped to save her. She held me close. Two days later we set out again.
The rice was gone. My stomach gnawed with a constant ache. We scavenged for brown mushrooms shaped like elephant ears, the white larvae of giant ants, grasshoppers and beetles to roast, tender bamboo shoots, and if we were lucky, an occasional rat or bird--anything to stay alive. One day Father lassoed a small brown monkey with a rope. Another day we passed near a village where a kind farmer brought us a basket of rice and bitter melon from his wife’s garden. I ate so fast it came back up.
The full moon came and passed, and still we walked. On a hot day when the sun filled the sky and steam rose off the ground and leaves like wisps of smoke, Grandmother Yang and her grandson stopped to fill their water jugs in a stream. They waved for us to join them, holding up bright red berries that they stuffed in their mouths.
Auntie Nhia clucked her tongue and ran toward them, warning them. “Stop. They may be poisonous. The birds have not eaten them.” Grandmother Yang just laughed, her teeth stained vermillion, a trickle of juice dripping down her chin. Within an hour they complained of stomach aches and began running into the bushes to relieve themselves. Soon they fell to the ground, writhing with pain, pink foam forming at the corners of their mouths. Their eyes fell back in their sockets, and their insides emptied out. I clung to Mother and hid my face in her skirt as we stood by helpless. They were both dead three hours later. We buried them in the rich dark soil next to a stream and piled stones on top to keep the wild animals from digging them up. Father said even if we could not give them a proper burial, we would pray for their souls to find their way back to their birth place, then to the heavens with their ancestors.
I often cried, but silently, so the evil soldiers would not find us. They found us anyway. A few nights later sharp bursts of light erupted as we picked our way across a steep mountainside nearly impenetrable with dense pine trees and clinging vines. Whistling noises and loud pops swept past my ears. At first I thought someone was throwing rocks. But the noises multiplied into a drum roll of deafening bangs and pings that caused my body to jerk. I felt the heat of bullets whizzing past and ricocheting off the trees. Mother grabbed my hand as we ran through the forest with the others. A thorn caught my arm. A twig scraped my eye. A huge earthquake rocked the ground, obliterating our path. Dirt and rocks and leaves flew through the air and showered down, hitting me about the head and shoulders. The air smelled of metal and fire and rotten eggs. And then another blast. In a flash of light, no brighter than the palest moon, my cousin Chao and Aunt Nhia fell to the ground, their faces full of surprise. A scream formed in the back of my throat, but I could not make the sound come out. We ran and ran and ran until finally the shooting and explosions ceased. And we kept running.
At last Mother stopped, and we fell on the ground. Her entire body shook as she wrapped me in her thin arms. The warmth of her body melted into mine and calmed my pounding heart. I lay there as she rocked me back and forth. Fue soon found us. We huddled together, listening for the others. Our terror settled over the hum of crickets and mosquitoes and a thousand crawling creatures living in the dark.
In the first shadows of dawn, the remaining members of our group gathered. Mother wept with relief when Father and Fong appeared. A bullet had grazed Fong’s neck, leaving a red burn. Yang Shoua had a bullet in her arm. Her husband wrapped a cloth around it, and a slow trickle of blood oozed through. Four were missing. Father, Fong, Uncle Boua, and Chia crept back to look. An hour later Fong came for us. We found the men digging graves beneath the leaves and moss, gently placing my cousin Chao, Auntie Nhia, Yang Kim, and Yang Lia to their rest. We cried and prayed for their souls.
Mountains receded into rolling hills and dense pines gave way to coconut palms, monkey pod and acacia trees. Fruit orchards dotted the land. I happily gorged on breadfruit and mangos and corn stolen from fields in the middle of the night.
Late afternoon a plane buzzed over the stand of mango and palm trees where we had stopped to rest. A fine yellow film seeped through the leaves like the white clouds of mist that had often veiled our village and mountain early mornings until the sun burned through. The yellow powder seared my eyes and lungs. Father lifted me into his arms, and we scattered through the mango trees into the hibiscus bushes and ferns and away from the choking fog. We reached a stream where Father dunked me repeatedly, scrubbing my skin. The water turned pink around me, and when I touched my nose, blood covered my hand. Like many in our group, I retched for hours that night until there was nothing left in my body. My muscles quivered and convulsed. Mother gave me a small piece of the brown medicine, and I floated in and out of consciousness. Three days later I ate a bit of corn, then a banana. But my young cousin Chay was not as lucky. He had bled from his ears, eyes, nose, and mouth, and died the first night.
At last we reached the flatlands of flooded rice fields. For a week we crept along the narrow levees at night, hoping not to encounter poisonous water snakes or Pathet Laos soldiers, one as deadly as the other. During the day we hid in groves of bamboo or oleander. It wasn’t far now, Father said.
Only twenty-two of our original group reached the Mekong River. Seven had died, and Youa had left with her baby for her brother’s village near Luang Prabang after Choa was killed. We hid among the bushes, waiting for our chance. I knew that when we reached the lights in Thailand, we would be safe.
Father talked with local fishermen and learned there were no boats to ferry us across, no matter how much silver he offered. The soldiers kept close guard and shot anyone who ventured onto the water. So Father and the other men crawled on hands and knees through the darkness to the riverbank, cut bamboo poles, and fashioned crude rafts by lashing them together with rags and reeds. Once they were ready, Fong rushed back for the rest of us.
We ran bent low to the ground, but Yang Bee’s baby girl, tied to her back, woke from the sudden bouncing and wailed. Within seconds, bright shafts of light swept back and forth across the meadow like giant sunbeams trapping flies. Gunfire erupted over our heads, followed by rockets. A swirl of yellow and blue and red filled the night sky like Chinese fireworks at a New Year celebration. Mother dragged me by the arm, my feet tripping over mounds of dirt, my lungs burning as the world exploded around us. I never noticed the spark that set my pant leg on fire.
If I close my eyes, I can still feel the shock of cold water rushing over my body as we crashed into the river. My memory plays tricks now; those next moments stretch into endless minutes like a film in slow motion. I could not find a footing as my body became weightless. Father held the raft with one hand and grabbed my arm with the other, but the swift current caught me. I felt his grip slip down my arm to my wrist and over my palm, his fingers sliding away one by one until I sank into the depths. I could not lift my arms and legs. Water filled my mouth and lungs. Muffled screams, perhaps Mother’s, drifted down. A hand thrashed through the water and pulled me up. Somehow Father caught my hair and then my shirt, grasping, lifting me to him and onto the raft, pinning me under his left arm. I coughed up water and gulped for air. Father had saved me. I believed he always would.
Father helped Mother roll onto the fragile hollows of bamboo. She cried out for my brothers to hurry, her arm stretching out to them. Ten feet away they struggled onto a smaller raft, swirling around like a top. Rockets whistled overhead and a huge wave crashed over them. A machine gun echoed in my ears, bullets bouncing off the bamboo and splashing into the water around us. A searchlight passed and in that moment of illumination, Fue jerked up to his knees, his hand flying to his chest. Mother let out a piercing wail as he fell into the river. The light brushed away and the world turned black once more. Our raft was swept into the rushing waters. I tried to keep my eyes pinned on the spot where my brothers had been, but they had disappeared into the dark expanse.
Father whipped his arms in the water, trying to guide our raft across the rushing current, avoiding floating logs and debris that bounced past. We clutched at the sharp edges of bamboo, spinning and rolling. I squeezed my eyes shut. I had no sense of how long it took-- minutes or hours--before we finally washed up on the opposite shore. I remember being passed into a strange set of arms and then sitting on sand and rocks. My body shook. My limbs felt numb, too heavy to move.
Fourteen others from our group struggled onto the riverbank in Thailand that night. My aunt, four cousins, and half the Yang family, were all dead. My brothers Fong and Fue floated somewhere in the depths of the murky, blood-stained waters, never to reach the shore across the Mekong River.
The judge shuffles the papers into a neat pile and puts them aside. The muscles in his face go slack as he lets out a long sigh. The air is filled with static, the heated anticipation of what will come next.
“We’ll begin with a statement on the filing and the report from Social Services,” the judge says at last. “First, Miss Lee, would you state your name as you wish it to appear in the court record. Do you want to be referred to as Nou Lee or Laura Lee?”
The court recorder, a younger woman with bleached blond hair cut into short spikes, turns to me. Her hands are poised above the keys of her machine, waiting for my response. She blinks several times with a bored indifference.
The question catches me off guard. I am confused, unsure how to answer. I am not one or the other, but a strange fusion of both. I do not know how to split apart the pieces.
Of course, I am here today because I am being forced to choose. The American flag hangs on a pole to the side of the judge’s bench, an unspoken promise. A reminder: nothing is given without a price.”