Written by S. Amanita
Art by brenoanp

When brother Khoi fled Vietnam on a rickety fishing boat, the family moved to fill his absence. Mother worked late hours mending clothes to make extra money, and sister Phuong took over some of the household chores. Lien and Anh—the oldest and youngest sisters, respectively—began making his weekly trip to the fish market to pick up food. No one spoke about the empty seat at the dinner table or the fact that it had been three months with no word from him. Any mention of his name was made in a hushed voice, as though the new Communist regime could somehow hear about their vanished son. 

The Monday fish market was an informal affair, like most things in postwar Vietnam: a handful of fishermen laying out baskets of fresh fish and live octopus on the sidewalk at the crack of dawn. For Anh, it was a newfound chance to talk to her ever-busy sister. Lien would wake her in the gray hours of the morning and drive her moped to the docks, the latter clinging sleepily to her older sister’s back. Together they’d watch the fishing boats come in with the night’s catch. Lien would tell stories to pass the time as the fishermen set up shop, and Anh would listen with delight as she talked about unruly patients at the hospital where she worked, or odd little folktales she heard from grizzled old men. Sometimes, with a little prying, she could convince her sister to tell her about Khoi. The two siblings had always been close, and Lien never said she missed him, but the lines on her forehead had doubled since he’d left. 

Today, the older sister in question drove with a white-knuckled grip on the handlebars, and her eyes never left the horizon once the pair arrived at the oceanfront. “What is it?” Anh pried, tugging at her hand. Lien jerked in surprise. Her mouth moved, piecing together words for a long moment before she finally spoke. 

“Remember that old patient I was assigned to a few weeks ago?” she asked. “The one we thought was crazy?” 

Anh perked up slightly, sensing the beginnings of an interesting story. “Was he actually crazy?” 

Lien’s lips thinned into a line. “Yes, but he wasn’t the kind of crazy we thought he was. He’s been waking up screaming in the middle of the night for the past week. We haven’t been able to calm him down, and he keeps talking about seeing his grandchildren on the beach at night.” 

Anh knew the superstition, the one that circulated among some of the older crowd in their port city of Nha Trang: If you go to the beach after nightfall, the ghosts of the drowned will drag you out to sea. A shiver crawled its way up her spine. “Were they…?” 

“Yes.” Lien’s face was grim. “And we think we know why he has those dreams. His grandchildren fled Vietnam back in April, when Saigon fell. He hasn’t gotten word back from them.” 

“Like Brother Khoi?” The words were out before Anh could stop them, and she winced as her sister’s face went pale. 

“He’s alive,” she said. Anh knew that tone, the one Lien used when she didn’t want to hear a single word to the contrary. She squeezed her wrist. 

“I know.”

“He can’t be dead.” 

“I know.” 

“And yet,” Lien’s voice trembled, “I had a dream about him. Two nights ago. I was at the beach after dark, and his ghost came out of the water.” 

“Did he drag you in?” 

Her sister shook her head. “He just stood in the shallows, watching me. He looked like he was waiting for something.” 

“Do you think—” 

“No.” Lien’s voice was firm. “He’s alive. Don’t doubt that.” 

Anh opened her mouth to respond, but stopped short as a fisherman passed by with a bucket of wriggling octopi. He greeted Lien wearily, listing his prices for the day and offhandedly commenting on Anh’s recent growth spurt. Then, “This is probably the last time we’ll be having this market for a while. We heard the new government’s shutting down almost all businesses in a few days.” 

A pregnant pause. Anh could all but hear the gears turning in her sister’s head as she processed the information. Then there was a soft sigh, and listless eyes turned to the sea. It was calm at this early hour, almost glasslike save for a few small waves that rippled across its surface. On bad nights, Anh dreamed that she was stuck beneath its surface. She supposed everyone in the family had nightmares now that Khoi was gone. 

“Anh.” Her sister’s voice was resigned and soft. A few crumpled bills were pushed into her hand. “You buy the fish today. You know how to pick out the good ones, don’t you?” Lien had never let Anh handle the money before. The novelty of the situation brought her little comfort. The eldest’s eyes stayed fixed on the horizon as Anh bought two decently-sized pompano, and her answers were noncommittal even as one fisherman joked about how responsible her little sister was. Lien drove the two home in distracted silence and locked herself in her room for the rest of the day. The next morning, when she announced that she would be fleeing Vietnam, Anh was the only one unsurprised. Her sister had been gone for a while now, she realized—dragged to sea by Khoi, anchored only by a fragile sense of normalcy. When Lien slipped away into the night a month later, Anh grieved the dead.