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Fahmidan Journal / Issue 7 

The Flower Eater

by Hien Nguyen

(TW: References to sexual coercion, racism, and violence)


I woke up night after night, in bouts of terror and trembling. Ba rolled over in bed, bleary-eyed, to comfort me. The problem was two-fold. One, he spoke broken English and perfect Vietnamese; I waffled in the inverse. Two, no matter how many words I cobbled together, the nightmare’s horror was indescribable.


“Wha-what is it, Mai?”


“The sludge, again, it’s eating all the flowers. I’m choking.”


“Hoa? They make you scared? Why?”


“No! Not the hoa.” I bit my cheek until the taste of metal affirmed I was awake. Relief. But I was still rattling under Ba’s gentle palm. “It’s… monster.”


“Ma?”


“No, not ghost,” I sighed, snuggling back under the crook of his arm and willing my heartbeat to steady. After a while, his haggard breath filled the room. I lost consciousness somewhere in the space between lingering dread and the rhythm of Ba’s love.


Told simply, the dream’s premise was innocuous, a childish amalgamation of nonsense and fragmented memory. I walked down a perfectly straight sidewalk, next to a perfectly straight street. White brick houses flanked me on both sides. Lawns stretched for miles, as upright as the houses and the same shade of stagnant green. Only lavender irises, the flowers that used to pop up every spring in my mother’s flower box, punctuated the monotony. The sun was always shining.


Without fail, the monster appeared, trudging along the sidewalk opposite mine, leaving a trail of putrid muck behind it. Shapeless and colorless, but somehow as dense as an unlucky star. The monster dragged itself aimlessly, and the irises disappeared into its murky body with a slop.


I sprinted, reaching to pluck the flowers as swiftly as I could. But I was never fast enough, the monster always caught up to me. Panicked, I didn’t dare look over my shoulder. First, oozing into my clenched hands, then into my eyes and throat. I woke up retching and clutching my neck.


It wasn’t until one night, when I let the monster eat all the flowers, that the nightmares stopped. Grubby flesh swallowed petals whole. If I fed beauty to the ugliness, I thought, then the monster would spare me.


 

When I was ten, Ba started working the night shift. He needed to drive me to and from school, something about the bus lines and the district. So, after I trudged home, a book-weighted turtle, Ba left for the factory and Auntie Lan watched me until bedtime. The rhythmic intonation of her presence filled the house: soaring war ballads and the sputter of crepe batter on hot oil. Eventually, the space Auntie Lan filled was just as warm as Ba’s. I doodled on the margins of my homework, and when the sun set, I kissed her goodbye.


Her son, Thanh, left for college, and I started taking her to the doctor in his stead. We wound down the hospital corridors, following the cherry red signs Auntie Lan couldn’t read. She said hello to every nurse and doctor on the way, bowing her silver head and waving cheerfully. Sometimes they said hello back, sometimes they pretended they didn’t see. Auntie Lan never noticed.


The monster made its second appearance at the hospital, its debut in the daytime. Mushy coils oozed from under the bright white door as I clumsily interpreted the doctor’s instructions. I blinked; the coils edged closer still. Words stuck in my throat, memories of flowers flickered underneath my eyelids.


“Little blossom, what is it?”


“N-nothing. Cô Lan, breathe in deeply.” She obeyed.


“Tell him I’m feeling worse. I’m tired, all the time now. It’s ridiculous. I can’t even carry a bag of topsoil.”


“Yes, cô.”


“Oh, tell him, eating more isn’t helping. I’m still hungry. I’m not gaining any weight.”


“Okay.”


I told him, and he waved. He said she was older, that it was expected. Everything was fine. I muddled through, trying to find the words for lethargy, malaise, and nausea. Each nervous syllable made the monster inch closer, slopping around the doctor’s feet and up the hard edges of the examination table. Finally, Auntie Lan snorted and pantomimed the doctor’s wave.


“It’s fine. I’ll take some herbal medicine and rest. Let’s just go home.” I nodded. The monster slipped back under the door.


I couldn’t make eye contact with her son after the stroke. Diabetes and damaged blood vessels, they said. When Thanh grabbed my hands at the hospital in gratitude, the monster squealed and hid behind a plastic ficus in the corner of the waiting room.


 

Twelve. I had a sleepover and Heather stole the cookies from my mother’s altar. She laughed when I cried. The soot from the incense was rubbed all over the floor. The next day, we went to the movies.


Fifteen. I squirmed away from Anthony’s lips and he told me this is what good girlfriends did. Closing my eyes, I pretended I was somewhere else.

Sixteen. The man from human resources called to ask if Ba’s hand was healing okay. He thanked Ba for his loyalty. Thanh told me later we should have received money.


Each time, murkiness crowded my periphery. Slinking in the backdrop, leaving a wet trail as it wandered. The monster grew when I raised my voice and vanished when I was quiet. 

At the temple, the monk hit the wooden fish block, and a bright hollow thud rebounded. I imagined the carved inside of the fish, full of nothingness. My stomach felt empty, but the monster was satiated. If I kept feeding it, I would be safe.


 

For college, I attended the local satellite campus of the state university. Hours of slogging through the snow to the tutoring center and I only landed a few miles down the road. Of course, Ba wanted me to aim higher, but I wanted to aim closer. Once a towering beacon, Ba had shriveled into a scrawny old man. Auntie Lan also needed to go to the doctor frequently and often forgot her medicine. My heart would be quieter if I stayed.


The bus ride to campus was short, but since I got saddled with early classes, it was often packed. Hugging my backpack close, I bobbed alongside the crowd; my shoulders brushing against strangers like bumper cars. Perhaps it had been the few years of quiet, lulling me into a false sense of security, but I thought I was imagining things when those familiar oily fingers squeezed through the bus door.


Suddenly, screaming. “H-hey, what’s going on?” The unintelligible buzz of nervous strangers surrounded me.


“Hey, fuck you lady!” More yelling and a crash. A woman was cowering in her seat, her hands up and cans of preserves rolling on the ground beneath her feet. The monster was fast today; it had already slopped up and was clinging to her seat, pulling at the faux fur of her hood.


“Sorry! It okay, yes? Mistake!” She shook her head and bowed. Raspy, lilting upward like flying birds — her voice reminded me of Auntie Lan’s when she could still speak.

The man’s face was contorted and red, glop oozing from underneath his collar. “Stupid clumsy bitch. Do you speak English? Don’t fucking touch me.”


She waved her hands and kept bobbing her head, “So sor- “. Then, he reached for her hood.


I thought the monster would leave me alone, leave the people I loved alone, if I just gave it the beauty it wanted. If I were gracious, the monster would be satiated. If I stayed quiet, made myself shrink. It would just take a few things, damage them a little, but would return what I cherished mostly whole. It was a lie. A pill forced down my throat that I’d swallowed willingly, until the poison toppled down into my ribs, splintering into the parts of me that were the most ashamed. 


 “Don’t fucking touch her,” I said. I hadn’t felt my body move, but I found myself in the space between them, my face inches away from the contorted red and writhing sludge. 


For what had I run from the monster for? To lose myself and tell myself it had saved me?


Suddenly, the shame disappeared, eclipsed by a searing rage. Scarlet turned to sword—an anger borne before I had been.


“Yeah, what the hell dude.”


“Chill out.”


“Ma’am, are you okay?”


Like a swarm, the voices rose around me and a fire blazed.


The monster could only choke if millions of flowers smothered it. 


Hien Nguyen

Author / 

Hien Nguyen is a speculative fiction writer who hails from the Midwest. By day she is a social science researcher and by night she writes about Vietnamese ghosts, monsters, and mythology. She is interested in the uplifting and haunting forms of human connection, and how SFF writing can lay those bare. She is a mentor for WriteGirl & Round Table Mentor, a member of the Codex Writers Group, and an alumna of the Juniper Summer Writing Institute.


An indoor cat disguised as a human, Hien enjoys going bird watching with her significant other, binging K-pop variety shows, and absorbing hot pot broth like a sponge. Hien is represented by Katelyn Detweiler at Jill Grinberg Literary Management.

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