This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

March-April 2020

Fiction: Sticky Rice Cakes

Linda Trinh

Illustration by Myriam Wares

I went over to the house the day after Ma told us her news. Vietnamese folk opera was playing in the background, familiar tales of love, betrayal, and misunderstandings.

These lyrical tones and string instruments made up the soundtrack of my childhood. I pulled off my waterproof boots and hung up my puffy faux fur-lined parka. Although we had already passed the vernal equinox weeks ago, winter still held Winnipeg in its icy embrace. I slid my feet into my plastic slippers, while shaking my head. Even though I had moved out, I hadn’t been permitted to take my slippers with me. More out of habit than from a sense of belief, in the living room I stood briefly in front of the altar of my maternal grandparents, stared at their black and white photos, and bowed my head in greeting. The lingering trace of incense singed the back of my throat.

“Ma oi?” I called out.

My mom was in the kitchen, of course. “Kim, why are you here?”

She sat on a low stool in the middle of the ceramic tile floor, newspaper down around her, slightly turned away from me. Even after all these years in Canada and now being in her dream kitchen with a built-in pantry, granite countertops, and stainless-steel appliances, Ma still cooked as she did as a girl in her homeland. On one side a stack of long green banana leaves the length of my arm lay beside her and large bowls of ingredients were on the other. She was wrestling a banana leaf-wrapped bundle between her hands, binding pink plastic string around it. The string was looped around her big toe, a kind of third hand to keep the string taunt and manageable, while she crafted her masterpiece. Tiny plastic threads floated about her like fairy dust.

I stood a few feet away. “I don’t know.”

“Nice surprise. To see you two days in a row without telling you to come over, that never happens.” She didn’t look up.
Her tone was light but there was an edge to it.

I rolled my eyes. Less than a minute and here we go. “Where is everyone?”

“Ba and Vinh are at Chu Tu’s to help with the floors. Hai said something before leaving but I don’t know.”

Of course, my dad and brothers would want to escape, after yesterday. So we were alone.

“Why are you making banh tet now, Ma?” It was a cake made with sticky rice stuffed with yellow bean paste and pieces of pork meat, all wrapped together in banana leaves and boiled.

“I want to. It’s one of my favourite dishes for Tet.”

Because I won’t be around for another Tet. That unsaid statement hung in the air between us.

I closed the distance and sat down cross-legged on the floor beside her. “I remember Lunar New Year a few years ago when we had it here. People brought over wine and champagne and left it out in the snow. It all froze before we could drink it.”

“Yes, Chu Tu was not happy. It was good wine, he said over and over again.” She laughed a little as she spread more sticky rice on banana leaves.

“Or the Tet at Co Sau’s house when baby Michelle was only a few months old and threw up all over Anh’s new red shirt.
She was so chubby back then.”

“Now she’s started swimming lessons your cousin told me last week.” She layered mung bean paste on the sticky rice and added cubes of pork. “Or this year and Co Sau made the che I make and brought it to my house. It was too sweet, ruined.”

I fought the urge to stand up and leave. “Yes, this year.”

We both knew the air had shifted.

Ma paused. “You didn’t eat my banh this past year.”

“Nope.” I looked down at the floor.

A couple months ago, Ma and I were barely speaking but she had still commanded me to be at the family Lunar New Year party. She had forbidden me to bring Jon, even though we had been living together for almost a year.
And I had obeyed. After everything, I still could not fully pull away. Ba hadn’t acknowledged me when I came into the house. Hai punched me on the arm but all Vinh could do was lecture me when we were making up the li xi packages for the younger cousins.

I set out a platter of candied fruits—ginger, coconut—and lotus seeds and roasted watermelon seeds on the living room coffee table. People swarmed around instantly. I started to head back to the kitchen for my next assignment, my head bowed and my gaze fixed on the floor in front of me, playing the demure and dutiful child.

“Kim, come here and talk to me,” Co Vy said in Vietnamese and waved me towards an empty spot beside her. Ma was on
the other side of Co Vy and gave me a look, her lips thin.

Be careful, I winced inside, but respectfully slid over to them.

“Happy New Year,” Co Vy continued in Vietnamese, looking at me with interest. A hair grew out of a dark mole near the bottom of her jaw but it was only visible when she lifted up her chin. That often happened as she liked to tilt her head back to inspect people through the bifocals on the end of her nose.
Her thinning black hair curled at her temples, framing wrinkles that webbed her eyes.

“Tell your daughter she needs to eat more. She’s too skinny.” Co Vy put her hand on Ma’s hand.

Ma replied in Vietnamese, “Oh she’s so grown up now. She makes her own decisions. You’ll see with your own daughter in a few years.” Ma removed her hand from under Co Vy’s.

Why did I need to sit here if they were going to talk about me like I wasn’t even here?

“Your mom says you work so hard. That’s why you’re never here when I drop by.”

“Yes, work.”

I sat quietly for seven more minutes of emotional landmines, half-truths, and avoidance until my mom and her friend turned their attention to another young person, waving them over to take my seat. I faked a stomach ache, and locked myself in my old bedroom, jam-packed with the stuff I had been forbidden to move out. When everyone left, I crept out of the house, my breath frosty and the world a black blanket shimmering with stars, not saying goodbye to anyone in my family.

“You look tired,” Ma said to me, after finishing tying another bundle.

Last night, I had gone back to the apartment I shared with Jon and cried on the bathroom floor, locking the door behind me. Jon stood on the other side, begging me to come out, begging me to let him help me. I turned on the tap to muffle
the sound of my sobs.

“So do you,” I countered.

She almost smiled.

I watched her make more banh and tried to write the memory in my head. The curve in her back as she bent over the leaves. The tension in the plastic string. The bend in her knee as she brought her leg closer to her chest. Her hands, confident and adept with her tools, moved to a medium-paced rhythm. She was relaxed, doing what she loved.

I picked up a leaf and began tearing at it. “Are you scared Ma? Of what’s to come?” It surprised me that question came out of my mouth.

“Of dying? I’m not afraid.”

“Why not?”

“I think of Quan Am and she gives me strength. She turned back from the brink of nirvana to stay on earth to help those that suffer as a bodhisattva. During times of my life when I didn’t think I would be able to bear it, she wrapped me in her arms and told me I wouldn’t be alone.”

I always envied Ma’s faith.

“You talk like you’ve already given up. Is that why you refuse treatment?” I kept tearing the banana leaf.

“No, I’m not ready. I’m not ready to become an ancestor, to cross over, to only be with you in spirit.” She looked past my shoulder, into empty space. “But I have lived long enough to know life doesn’t go the way we plan sometimes. I can only accept what is to come. Remember the story of the mosquito?”

I nodded.

“Tell it back to me then,” she challenged.

I sighed. “There was a beautiful woman in rural Vietnam long ago who died unexpectedly. Her husband brought her back to life by giving her three drops of his blood after a fairy took pity on him. The woman was not content with her humble life and was going to leave her husband for a richer man. The husband told her she could leave but to give him back his three drops of blood. She pricked her finger and squeezed out three drops and then she was transformed into a mosquito. From that day on, she has fed on the blood of humans, trying to get the three drops back to live again.”

Ma nodded, satisfied. “I used to think this story was about the wickedness of women, temptation, like Eve and the apple, Pandora and her box. But it’s about acceptance, the husband accepting his wife’s death, the wife accepting their modest lifestyle.”

“So she was cursed to want something always out of reach.”

“When the moment comes, I will be ready,” Ma said and looked up at me.

My face was hot. I felt the tears welling up and trickling down my cheeks without my consent. My life without Ma. To not see the disapproving look on her face or hear the disappointed tone in her voice and to not know her opinions so I could orient my perspective around hers. The more I wanted to break away, the more I still came back to her. She was my anchor, which was both a comfort and a weight. I started to panic as the realization hit me, delayed after yesterday’s news.

Ma reached out and held my chin between her sticky fingers and looked directly at me. “No tears Kim. Not for me. Not for you. Even if it’s only for today.”

Ma was telling me what to do. Instinctively, I wanted to do the opposite. What would I do once she was gone? Another wave of panic washed over me. She still stared at me, expecting my obedience. It took all my strength to gather my feelings up, fold them and tuck them out of the way. When Ma was satisfied with what she saw in my eyes, she let go of my chin.

“So, what do you want me to do?” I said, trying to move on to another subject.

“Just help me clean up. I’m finishing the last one.”

For the next few hours as we waited for the banh tet to cook, we talked together like we were not Kim and Ma, but like another daughter and her mother, gossiping about family matters, world events, and the future. Would Vinh find a wife? Would Hai ever grow up? Would I find a job I was happy to do? I put aside the memories that separated us, that drove me away from her over the past few years—when I was in university and even before then. We spoke of memories that held us together.

I noticed the skin around Ma’s eyes crinkled when she laughed. I noticed she liked her tea strong and dark, leaving no loose tea leaves at the bottom of her cup. I wrote these memories in my head too. She was tired and had to sit down. Sometimes it was easy to forget she was sick, but sometimes it hung heavy on her.

“What is one of your favourite stories Ma? One that you haven’t told me before.” I had never invited a story from Ma before. She just told them and I had to listen.

“I don’t think I’ve told you about Muc Kien Lien.”

“No,” I said, sipping my tea.

Ma sat up on the couch. “A long time ago, Muc Kien Lien was a boy who lived in Vietnam. He reached enlightenment at a young age and became a disciple of Buddha. But his mother was a wicked woman. When she died, because of the evil life she led, she was sentenced to the worst level of hell and tortured by demons. Muc Kien Lien was a dutiful and loving child so he had to do whatever he could to help her. He asked Buddha what he could do in order for his mother to be released from hell. Buddha told him to hold the ceremony of Vu Lan to pray for his mother’s soul. He did and her sins were pardoned. That was how Mua Vu Lan was started, the Day of Wandering Souls, the day we leave food out for the ancestors. It’s the day wandering souls can safely return home. Souls can be absolved of sin and delivered from hell through the prayers of their living relatives just like Muc Kien Lien’s mother.” Ma took a sip of tea, signalling the end to the story.

I didn’t know what to say.

She added, “It reminds me that children can feel love for their parents, show their parents honour, and help their parents find their way back to the right path. Muc Kien Lien loved his mother even though she was not always good and helped absolve her of her sins.”

Ma reached out to stroke my hair like she had done when I was a little girl and kissed me on my forehead. Light, a ghostly kiss. It was the most affection I had allowed from her since I became a teen.

She didn’t give me a chance to respond. There was nothing she wanted from me in return. I did not have anything to
give her.

“Ba and Vinh will be home soon. Help me with dinner.”
She looked in her pantry full of dried rice noodles, jasmine rice, dried mushrooms, and so much more.

I left that day with two bundles of banh tet and so much more.

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