Excerpt from The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Mountains Sing

by Nguyen Phan Que Mai

The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai X
The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2020, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2021, 368 pages

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Print Excerpt

Hà Nội, 1972–1973

Grandma is holding my hand as we walk to school. The sun is a large egg yolk peeking through a row of tin-roofed houses. The sky is as blue as my mother's favorite shirt. I wonder where my mother is. Has she found my father?

I clutch my jacket's collar as the wind rips through the air, swirling up a dust cloud. Grandma bends, putting her handkerchief against my nose. My school bag dangles on her arm as she cups her palm against her face.

We resume walking as soon as the dust settles. I strain my ears but hear no bird. I search, but there isn't a single flower along our path. No grass around us, just piles of broken bricks and twisted metal.

"Guava, be careful." Grandma pulls me away from a bomb crater. She calls me by my nickname to guard me from evil spirits she believes hover above the earth, looking for beautiful children to kidnap. She said that my real name, Hương, which means "fragrance," would attract them.

"When you come home today, you'll get our favorite food, Guava," Grandma tells me."Phở noodle soup?" Happiness makes me skip a step.

"Yes... . The bomb raids have stopped me from cooking. But it's been quiet, so let's celebrate."

Before I can answer, a siren shatters our moments of peace. A female voice blares from a loudspeaker tethered to a tree: "Attention citizens! Attention citizens! American bombers are approaching Hà Nội. One hundred kilometers away."

"Ôi trời đất ơi!" Grandma cries for Heaven and Earth. She runs, pulling me along. Streams of people pour out of their homes, like ants from broken nests. Far away, from the top of the Hà Nội Opera House, sirens wail.

"Over there." Grandma rushes toward a bomb shelter dug into the road-side. She pulls up the heavy concrete lid.

"No room," a voice shouts out from down below. Inside the round pit just big enough for one person, a man half kneels, half stands. Muddy water rises to his chest.

Grandma hurries to close the lid. She pulls me toward another shelter.

"Attention citizens! Attention citizens! American bombers are approaching Hà Nội. Sixty kilometers away. Armed forces get ready to fight back." The female voice becomes more urgent. The sirens are deafening.

Shelter after shelter is full. People dart in front of us like birds with broken wings, abandoning bicycles, carts, shoulder bags. A small girl stands alone, screaming for her parents.

"Attention citizens! Attention citizens! American bombers are approaching Hà Nội. Thirty kilometers away."

Clumsy with fear, I trip and fall.

Grandma pulls me up. She throws my school bag to the roadside, bending down for me to jump onto her back. She runs, her hands wrapping around my legs.

Thundering noise approaches. Explosions ring from afar. I hold on to Grandma's shoulders with sweaty hands, burying my face into her body.

"Attention citizens! Attention citizens! More American bombers are approaching Hà Nội. One hundred kilometers away."

"Run to the school. They won't bomb the school," Grandma shouts to a group of women lugging young children in their arms and on their backs. At fifty-two years of age, Grandma is strong. She dashes past the women, catching up with those ahead of us. Bounced up and down, I press my face against her long, black hair that smells like my mother's. As long as I can inhale her scent, I will be safe.

"Hương, run with me." Grandma has squatted down in front of my school, panting. She pulls me into the schoolyard. Next to a classroom, she flings herself down a vacant shelter. As I slide down next to her, water rises to my waist, gripping me with icy hands. It's so cold. The beginning of winter.

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Excerpted from The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai. Copyright © 2020 by Nguyen Phan Que Mai. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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