From the Archives: Rumpus Original Fiction: Em


This was originally published at The Rumpus on September 11, 2019.

I. Sister

For her twenty-first birthday, Kiều’s younger siblings set fire to her bed.

It was intentional, of course, and when she came home from work to find thick black smoke billowing out from under her shared bedroom door, as she stood before the remains of her pitted mattress crackling merrily in shades of red and gold, she wondered if it was time to leave at last.

This was a futile contemplation—they would have to murder her and roll her stone-cold body to a crematorium before she’d abandon them—but in the moment, her pulse leaped in time with the flames, her blood heated till she thought it might combust and melt her into fuel.

“Mai!” she screamed. The culprit could very well have been one of the boys, but no one was capable of stirring up trouble on the level of her little sister.

The pattering of plastic flip-flops reached her before Mai did. “Wow, Chị Kiều,” said Mai, tipping up her face to frown in mock concern. “You don’t look so good.”

Indeed Kiều’s eyes were blistering and tinged crimson from the smoke, and her teeth were bared in a twisting snarl. She stabbed a finger at the fire, which, while burning strong, was unnaturally contained to her half of the room. “Put it out.”

Mai pouted, though her almond eyes were gleaming in satisfaction. “I can’t put out something I didn’t start.”

Minh and Kỳ Lân materialized at the end of the hall, looking considerably more cowed at the sight of both sisters, one towering and furious, the other four feet tall and grinning. “Who?” Kiều snapped. “Which one of you little shits did this?”

Kỳ Lân, the second-oldest at fifteen, opened his mouth first to confess—which meant the culprit was quiet Minh, easily swayed and forever tucked under his older brother’s protection. “Minh,” she said. “Come here and put this out. Now.

He shuffled forward, not meeting her eyes. The smoke parted around him, twined about his skinny legs but never touched, and when he raised his palms, still chubby with baby fat, the fire shrank as if it were a foal being coaxed, and finally sputtered out. “Sorry,” he mumbled in Kiều’s general direction. “I thought it’d be funny ‘cause we didn’t have candles or a cake.”

Kiều hadn’t the slightest inkling of how setting fire to her bed might come off as funny, but she was always softest on Minh—he so often had peculiar notions like these, and it never helped that Mai was there to play them to her advantage—and she’d just come off a ten-hour shift, and her weariness drove bone-deep. The smoke dissipated, inconsequential to their nonexistent alarms.

“Did you eat?” she said at last, addressing all three. The question was habit; it was comfort, a crutch; it signified home.

They all nodded.

“Homework?” It was a Saturday night, but a necessary follow-up. They nodded again. “Then go to bed.”

Kỳ Lân asked, “Where will you sleep?”

She glanced at Mai, at the anticipation and guilt warring across her little sister’s face. She knew Mai had hoped to get a night—tonight, of all nights—of sleeping alone. Minh’s pyromaniac idea had simply been a convenient tactic.

Kiều also knew she could repair her own bed with a wave of her hand and a bit of concentration. But she was exhausted, and her sister needed the space. “I’ll crash on the couch tonight. Go to bed now—we’re up early tomorrow.”


In the cold quiet of the living room later, unable to fall asleep, Kiều played with stars. A twitch of her fingers, wiggling them above her face the way an infant discovers its hands, and bursts of light perforated the darkness. Not exactly stars, in the astronomical sense; these were a multitude of colors, the shapes that swam across her eyelids when she rubbed her eyes too hard. Kiều watched them zing across the stucco ceiling. Tiny shreds of magic in a land otherwise devoid of it, a land intent on breaking down people like them. You had to seize such joys when you could. She liked to imagine the little powers they possessed had originated in the depths of an untamed jungle across the Pacific, where tigers ran rampant and spirits ruled the rivers and mountains, and a many-greats ancestor had been blessed or cursed with the ability to conjure fire and stars, and it had tracked their lineage across generations, across an ocean, to provide comfort in this lonely land. Immigrants who might lack in power of the institution, but whose veins ignited with an innate power all their own.

Down the hallway in their split room, Mai might have been doing the same—if she shared the same strange blood that ran in the others’ veins. Mai was their youngest sibling, of that there was no doubt, but she had never been able to raise or quell a flame, conjure sparks at her fingertips, drench a room with sudden rain. She blamed herself—no. She blamed Kiều. Especially on two particular days of the year: today, March 29, their father’s sixth death anniversary, and April 30, their mother’s third.

Kiều wasn’t around often enough to feel that blame directed at her. She blamed herself for that, too.

The photos taped on the wall above the couch crinkled and wailed as they sensed her sorrow. Only the two photos propped up on the altar in the far corner, one portrait for each parent, was framed. Pictures left to hang without barriers of glass or plastic tended to make more noise, audible only to their ears, and none of them could yet bring themselves to un-mute their parents.

“Shut up,” she muttered to the loose photos, and snuffed out the stars, and forced the sleep to draw to her like a rushing tide.


II. Younger Than

The temple was a sea of brown. Brown robes over brown skin over brown earth, from monks to nuns to regular Sunday devotees. The sea undulated with the pulse of the masses as people shuffled in and out between two meditation halls and the kitchens, chattering in rapid Vietnamese, bearing platters of homemade and temple-cooked offerings, discarding sandals at the doormats and thumping cushions on the bare wood floors. Usually Kiều would not have dragged all three children to Sunday prayers, preferring to leave them home and drop by before her shift to catch the final chants. But today’s weekly remembrance service would feature their father—and Mai knew her sister was nothing if not a dutiful daughter.

Mai bit down on her protests as Kiều shouldered a path through the crowd, instructing them all to keep their heads down. Orphans drew attention, invited sympathy. Especially at a gathering of a community with too little power and too much to prove. It’s on us to survive, Ma had said. Family means family and no one else. Subtext: dependence was a weakness when exercised outside the bonds of blood. Even Mai had understood that at eight years old. The only thing she didn’t understand was why Ma hadn’t brought her along to the supermarket that day nearly three years ago instead of Kiều, because Ma knew she was going to die, had possessed a terrifying ability to predict the time and place of a person’s death, and Ma knew Mai was not powerless, knew that her youngest daughter had been practicing bringing freshly dead little birds and mice back to life. But Ma chose Kiều—was always choosing Kiều, the hardest worker, the smartest student—and in the last desperate moments of her life, her oldest daughter was unable to save her after all.

By the time the four siblings found cushions in the back row of the meditation hall, Mai was throbbing with fury. The temple always brought this out in her. Maybe it was the constant battle of faith and loss exuded by the devotees’ breath, or the wall plastered with the wailing unframed portraits of late sangha members, or the simple fact that there was no escaping people in general. It wasn’t fair—her older siblings thrived off collective energy, siphoned threads of it to amuse themselves, perfectly at home in the community. Mai could only quash her irritability and anger, the effort blocking any possible concentration needed to resurrect even a fly. She was forever em, the younger and youngest, the pronoun connoting love but also less. Nothing she could do would ever measure up. Well—saving Ma’s life would have, but that chance, too, Kiều had stolen.

As she shifted to stretch out her sleeping feet she noticed a drop of condensation track its way across the floor. Minh brushed his index finger in an idle circle in front of his cushion, and the water answered, drawing from the exterior of cold bottles and the moisture in the walls, slowly pulled to the stirring of his finger. Kiều noticed. Said nothing. The monks leading the chant at the fore of the hall droned on and on.

Another time, Mai might have ignored them both. But yesterday’s attempt at getting Kiều to crack had been far from fruitful and the rising late morning heat broke her out in sweat and all she wanted was for Kiều to punish Minh as she would punish her, for life to finally be fair, and she was so, so close to boiling over.

Crowds and anger were blocks to her power. Fine. There were other cards to play. She was still a child, after all.

With a deep breath she threw back her head and let loose an ear-splitting wail. The intoning monks stopped short. The entire congregation twisted, still cross-legged, to stare at the little girl shrieking and weeping in the back. Kiều’s entire face blotched red. She snatched up Mai’s arm and towed her to the doors, smiling awkwardly and holding up a hand in apology, the boys hurrying after.

To Kiều’s credit, she waited until they were all piled in the battered family van before whipping around and screaming, “What’s wrong with you?”

Mai had ceased her display the moment the van door snicked shut. She glared at her sister, not knowing how to condense all her wild fraying thoughts into words on her tongue, not knowing how to say you’re not being fair, you don’t understand without sounding even more like the child she didn’t want to be.

So instead she yelled back, “I don’t want to be here! I don’t want this! I hate you!”

Kiều just clenched her jaw and faced forward and sat for a long, pregnant pause before turning the key in the ignition. The van was dead silent the whole way home.


III. Less Than

Kiều didn’t show her face at the temple for a month after Mai’s episode. And just like all the previous times when Mai had acted out in one way or another, she never brought it up again other than confiscating her dolls for a week. She had no idea how to prevent her little sister from pulling such stunts—in fact, she was fairly sure Mai no longer even played with dolls, but she had no other possessions to take away as punishment.

And so life continued as it had for the past three years. Kiều went to work, six and a half days a week. She’d gotten her AA in accounting from community college last year, and was always meaning to apply for a bachelor’s program, but there were endless bills to pay even though the mortgage itself had been covered before Ma died, and how could she leave her siblings even more alone?

Once every so often a well-meaning woman from the temple would call her, offering to babysit or inviting them to birthday parties. Kiều always declined, politely. She enjoyed being around other families, but she had also been raised to be self-sufficient. Slacking on responsibility was not, would never be, an option.

Their little house was quiet—subdued—for the next weeks, until one Friday night Kiều returned to find a large shaggy dog loping about the living room, barking like mad as the boys laughed and tossed it bits of last night’s beef.

“Mai!” she yelled immediately. “What is this?”

To her shock, Mai dashed out of their bedroom with a wide grin that was pure elation, no malice. “Chị Kiều! Look what I did!”

“What’d you do? Where’d this dog come from? Why is it—”

“His name is Tiger, and look at his left side!”

The dog slid to a halt before her, panting happily. She leaned over to peer at its side and almost gagged. There, sunken in and nearly concealed by its shaggy black fur, were undeniable tire marks of reddish-pink skin. She looked up at her little sister in horror. “Explain.”

“I’ve been practicing for years—just the little sparrows I find in the front yard sometimes, and one time a mouse—”

“Practicing … on dead animals?”

“I’m not powerless!” Mai cried in joy. “I can do what all of you can!”

“None of us can bring back the dead,” said Kiều, even as her mind whirred, dredging up terrible memories she’d worked so hard to bury—the car ride, the final words—

Mai was already frowning, withdrawing, sensing her older sister’s distress rather than the astonished pride she had hoped for. “Well, I can,” she snapped. “I found Tiger down the street coming home from the bus and Minh helped me drag him back and Kỳ Lân got home and screamed a little but I did it, I saved his life!”

“Dead things are meant to stay dead,” hissed Kiều. “We don’t understand how our own powers work—what if it took your life to revive it? How do you think I’d feel, coming home to find you dead or hurt over a dog?” Fat tears brimmed over Mai’s eyes, but Kiều drove on. “Don’t try this again. Kỳ Lân, go put the dog outside. It probably wants to go home to its family.”

“No!” screamed Mai, but Kỳ Lân silently rose and herded the dog to the door. There was no arguing with Chị Kiều when it came down to it. Fear forbade it; hierarchy permitted fear. Mai and Minh and Kỳ Lân were all little siblings after all, em to chi, loved but still lesser.

Mai let out a shriek of helpless fury. “You’re always taking things away from me!”

They all dispersed to separate corners of the house after the dog was gone.


This time, the stars were ice. Frost webbed over Kiều’s hands as she manifested the miniature stars, again sleeping on the couch to avoid Mai’s temper, and she welcomed the bite. She considered making up with her sister by getting a real dog from the pound and immediately dismissed the idea—there was no way she could afford another mouth to feed.

Was this destined to be her life? Was she doomed to play guardian to three children who weren’t hers, not exactly, until they grew up, if they grew up? They weren’t an American family, even if their passports, bound in neat navy blue after Ma and Ba passed the citizenship test, said otherwise; she couldn’t just kick them out once they turned eighteen.

A twinkling shard of ice, illuminated from within by a heatless red light, fell on her brow. She brushed it away irritably. A traitorous shred of her heart jumped at the color, even if it wasn’t the exact shade she had come to fear.

Three years ago, that icy winter day, shifting in the passenger’s seat as Ma raced down the highway to get to the supermarket before closing, Kiều’s hands had glowed red. It was sudden—one second she was staring out the window and in the next she’d glanced down and shrieked, because the only other time her palms had shone that violent crimson was when Ba was in the operating room and five minutes later the surgeon had walked out with somber, pitying eyes. Ma looked over at Kiều’s hands and an inexpressible sorrow had clouded her gaze.

“There’s a reason for everything, con,” she’d murmured to Kiều. “I can see a lot of things, most of them things I don’t want to see, but there’s no preventing what’s meant to happen.”

“Ma,” said Kiều, a sick feeling ballooning in her stomach. “What do you mean?”

Ma only gave her a small, weary smile. “Con, nhớ chăm sóc em nha.”

My child, remember to look after your little siblings.

And then the car slipped on ice to the left, into opposing traffic, and the ringing went on forever.

Lying there beneath the twisted metal, Kiều had believed she was paralyzed. But that was only the shock, the doctors told her after, because she’d escaped with not a scratch on her body. She’d never broken a bone or experienced a major injury before in her life—she’d never had an opportunity before the crash to realize she was unbreakable.

Now, with floating ice dotting the living room ceiling, her head spinning years away, Kiều squeezed her eyes shut and tried to think of nice things, bland things, anything to drive away the memories: electric bills, grocery lists, Sunday pizza nights, upcoming birthday gifts—

You’re always taking things away from me.

In the chaos of the dog, that particular cry had gotten lost. Of course, Mai had meant the dog, or the dolls that had been confiscated—

Kiều recalled how Mai had begged to go to the grocery store that day, how Ma had refused with a firm and knowing glance, had chosen Kiều instead. And Kiều had turned out to be unbreakable, but Mai—Mai had turned out to be a resurrectionist.

Ma had known. Said nothing. What was more, Ma hadn’t needed to bring anyone with her in the car, if she’d known she was going to die.

The great family arsenal of guilt, ancient and brutally effective. Kiều had been drawing from the seemingly bottomless well of it ever since that day. Had used it to keep herself working, praying, moving at all times; had used it to maintain that distance between herself and her little siblings. Nhớ chăm sóc em.

She sat up and got to her feet.

There were things that needed to be said.




Rumpus original art by Dara Herman Zierlein.


A note on Vietnamese pronouns: Chị is used to address an older sister or general older woman. Em is more versatile, and can be used to address a younger sibling or general younger person (regardless of gender), though it does tend to carry a connotation of femininity. It can also be used to show affection (a boyfriend to a girlfriend, for example) or to call out a person’s lesser status in a social hierarchy.

Johanna Dong is currently studying economics and creative writing at New York University, though she was born and raised in Southern California. Her short fiction has previously appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, The Southeast Review, The Margins, The Jellyfish Review, and TRACK//FOUR Journal. Find her online @johanna_ktd. More from this author →