BY YASMINA DIN MADDEN
My mother chases me around the dining room table while my sister watches, frozen in the corner of the room like a demented deer. The edge of the table catches my hip, and I swear I feel a crack somewhere inside me. She is a blur in my peripheral vision, her long black hair lashing out behind her like a whip. I only stop when she does, but I’m ready to keep going.
She lunges across the dining room table, but I jump back. I laugh as she pounds the table and spit flies from her mouth as she screams. “You think you know everything? Nothing! You know nothing.” My mother’s face, which is beautiful—even I can’t deny that—glistens with sweat, and her full lips stretch back in a sneer. “You’re a lunatic,” I say. I smile because I know this is part of what makes her crazy: That I won’t raise my voice, that I won’t cry in front of her, that I won’t eat her Vietnamese food or follow her rules. “This is America,” I tell her. “Get a clue already.”
She goes into the kitchen, and I wonder if it’s over, if I’ve won, until she comes back gripping her butcher’s knife, the one she uses to slice meat for the soup that makes me choke. My hip aches, and I feel sweat collecting at the base of my spine. Even for her, this seems like too much. Outside I hear children scream Ghost in the graveyard! Their laughter is far away, but it washes through the screened windows, muted as if we were all underwater. When I was a kid my mother cried for me when I got hurt. No one has ever cried for me but her.
Stupid girl. And me running after her crazy like a chicken with its head off. Skirt so short and top she cut to hang off her, make her look like she live on the street. No shame! Always Elyse thinks she know. Her hair with blond from her father. And she puts lemon to make even lighter! No Asian in her. Not like her sisters, and brother. They have Asian. They know how to act. “Turn off the soup,” I yell at Lily who watches.
Elyse just keep running. Always going that one. Never home. Never helps. Only with friends all the time. When she home, only open her mouth to complain! “I won’t eat that,” she always say. Only cereal she eats. And then she in the bathroom. I know what she doing.
I lean on the table, and she laughs in my face! My wrist aches when I pound the table. “You think you know everything? Chúa ?i tôi s? gi?t b?n!” She’s so stubborn. When she was a baby, she barely cry. Not like my others, who cry easy, who let me hold them. No. Elyse only cry if it really hurts, so I knew it was bad if she cry. I always afraid when she little. I was so young with Elyse, and back then I cry with her.
In kitchen the soup boil over, broth everywhere, under the burners, dripping on my clean floor. All day I cook and clean and still more to do. Help kids with math. Max need to do his reading. Still need to chop vegetables for dinner! The knife handle is so smooth, and it feel so light in my hand.
Watching my mother chase my sister around the dining room table is like watching a sporting event; not like tennis with its neat volleys and its predictable accumulation of points, more like horse racing: A burst of energy by beautiful, muscled beasts, who might, in a flash, collapse in a heap of busted bone and ligament. My mother yells for me to turn off the soup, but I won’t move.
They are long and lean, my mother and sister, with straight dark hair that flares out behind them as they lap the table. Who knows what they fight about this time: My sister’s smart mouth? Her habit of puking after meals? Elyse calls the Vietnamese food my mother cooks disgusting, which sometimes it is, but it’s often good, too. That’s the thing about Elyse, something can never be more than one thing for her. For either of them. They’re exactly the same, really, my mother and Elyse.
My mother can’t catch Elyse, so she yells, in Vietnamese, that she’s going to kill her. This is the only Vietnamese I know. “You’re a lunatic,” Elyse tells her. She is calm and smiling in her peach miniskirt and off-the-shoulder sweatshirt. My sister talks to me like this, too, and it makes me want to punch her in the face.
My mother goes into the kitchen and returns gripping a knife, the one she uses to chop bitter melon for the soup I love. Elyse is afraid, though she tries to look like she isn’t. My older sister is hard. But it’s true that my mother seems crazy. They stare at each other for a moment, both breathing fast. There’s a chance my mother won’t throw the knife, but there’s just as good a chance she will. We wait. When my mother flings the knife across the table at my sister, the tip of the blade nicks the wooden surface before clattering to the floor beside Elyse, who has flattened herself against the wall. No one moves, until, finally, I walk closer to the table and see the split in the shiny brown surface, glimpse the raw, splintered wood inside.
This piece began in the single point of view of the eldest daughter. However, I realized the piece called for the other characters’ points of view, in order to develop from scene to story. As a triptych, the piece then became an experiment in voice, in that each part of the story had to offer a voice and tone distinctive to that speaker. What held it back for a while is that I don’t feel particularly comfortable writing fragmented English, as it comes loaded with the possibility of stereotyping and cliché. In the final draft, I did use some fragmented English in the mother’s section to underscore the eldest daughter’s sense of her mother as other, and, of course, to develop the more overt tension of cultural dissonance. Finally, I’m interested in exploring narratives that take what we, as a culture, want to define as sacred, and, at least in this case, consider the complexity of a love that is inflected with anger and violence.
Yasmina Din Madden lives in Iowa and her short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Idaho Review, The Masters Review: New Voices, Word Riot, Hobart, Fiction Southeast, Carve, and other journals. Her story “At the Dog Park” was shortlisted for The Masters Review Anthology: 10 Best Stories by Emerging Authors, and her flash fiction was recently shortlisted for the Wigleaf Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions of 2017. She teaches creative writing and literature at Drake University.