by Uyen Dang
1st Place Winner – Flash 405, April 2023: “Flight”
In Vietnam, Ong brings her a cage painted yellow. It’s the color of kings, he says, brings good fortune. Inside is a sparrow with eyes like night pinned to glass. He says he caught it with his hands. How he stood so still it took him as sky. When it neared, he reached out and hugged its body with a cold fist. When she asks him if birds cry, if they feel pain, he grins and says birds only cry when they’re thirsty.
She hangs it up in her room, next to the window night salts with stars and cracks with a moon. It stays there the whole summer. The whole war. Noise comes and goes in the glass. At night, the air snorts bombs. Trees clap with hands of ash. Clouds go extinct. If she listens harder the ocean is breathing wings. A nest builds of salt and forgotten feathers. The entire time the bird doesn’t sing a note. It might have been praying or is dead.
The country was land when she lived and water when she died.
Ong digs a well in America and declares it hers. I’m five. He walks me to the abandoned soccer field behind our apartment building, points to the bird-sized hole in the ground with a pleated finger and says: Look through, you’ll see the sky, what it’s like when it grieves. I am too young, I don’t understand, I twist my fingers in and picture myself crushing ants.
One morning I find him crouched over the well, crying. The water that fills it is bright, like a piece of a mirror. Every now and then he raises his head to look at the trees or spirits or gods, and the well dries in the sun. Inside, the water swells, sinks, and then swells again. It reminds me of his eyes whenever I ask him to teach me the way home. At one point I think of taking him inside, but it seems too rude. So I only wait, a small thing watching. He has his eyes closed and hands in prayer. His shadow grows longer and longer, wings spilling onto the ground. Then the sun is setting, and the wings are shrinking around it.
I love how this piece manages to be both mythical and grounded, its images flowing from bright to dark and bright again. The young narrator’s voice in juxtaposition with the bird and sky and their sorrow is both harrowing and beautiful.
Uyen Dang is a first-generation Vietnamese American from Saigon, Vietnam, where she is currently carrying out research on ghosts, cemeteries, and spiritual tourism. Her work appears in or is forthcoming in Fugue, Sundog Lit, Passages North, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter at @_uyendang.
Photo Credit: Maurits Bausenhart