By ANNIE TRINH
The first time Lilian saw her siblings’ hands sprout from the fertile earth, she hid behind her father’s leg and begged him to be careful. She tugged his fingers as the infant-cries rang through the twilight of crickets and fireflies, telling him that they should hurry before mom came back from the store, but he didn’t listen. Her father looked down with watery eyes and knelt to the ground, trembling. He removed the soil from the newborn babies, took them into the kitchen, and placed them in the sink. Monoecious plants, one boy and one girl. Her father cleared all the dirt from their bodies. With a fresh towel, he cleaned their tiny hands, wiggling feet, faces, their grumbling stomachs—dusting off the tiny ants and soil stuck to their eyelids.
Lilian climbed onto the counter and studied the quiet babies, heads resting on one another. She was a big sister now, eight years old! A big girl with more stuff to do.
They went into the greenhouse and placed the whimpering babies in a wheelbarrow. Lilian’s father poured fresh soil into the flower beds. He patted the dirt down, sprinkling it with water while Lilian went outside to pick flowers. Foxgloves, poppies, daisies. She frowned and ran to their small pond. There, orange-sherbet koi swam between the java moss, gulping in algae. Lilian rolled up her pants and jumped in. The water splashed and soaked her clothes as she grabbed at the floating lotuses.
Lilian dried the petals with gentle shakes, then went back to the greenhouse. Her father had decorated it with twining vines that snaked across the metal frame. He hung red bleeding hearts over the flower bed as he hummed a lullaby she didn’t recognize.
She loved it. Their room was full of life. Not like hers. White. Always nothing.
You’re giving them your favorite flower? her father asked as he stepped down the ladder.
Lilian held the lotuses up. It’s my present to them.
That’s a wonderful gift, he said, carrying her brother and sister to the flower beds. He placed them into the holes and shoveled dirt onto their bodies. After, he patted the soil down, encasing them to make sure they were warm. He took the lotuses and placed one beside each of the babies. Lilian crouched down to the flower bed, wishing that they would get older soon. She smiled as her siblings twitched their noses and then, yawning, snatched the petals of the lotuses close to them.
Three months before the birth of Lilian’s siblings, she and her parents would drive to the local nursery to learn how to take care of plant-babies. Lilian and her father would get there early in the mornings while her mom stayed in the car, listening to Vietnamese soap operas. Lilian played with the newborn babies that had sprouted the day before—all types, children blowing spit bubbles that sprouted from red peonies, babies shrieking from blue poppies—and she hid her face behind her hands, yelling peek-a-boo to make them laugh. She even played with babies that were able to walk two weeks after they were born—hiding behind tree trunks and climbing the branches. Lilian only found them when leaves rained down on her. Later, in the evenings, she would attend workshops with her father. She learned many things: how and when to pot plants, the type of fertilizer they should use, how to make homemade baby food from leftover orange peels and table scraps. Lilian would even watch the birth of the children. Cries rang through the nursery. The babies came out, bodies squirming and shivering. Lillian marveled at the new families, the parents hugging and kissing their newborn children.
Was mine like that too? Lilian asked, climbing into the backseat of the car.
A little different, her father said, but of course, we were excited. He glanced at his wife.
We? her mom said. She crossed her arms and stared out the window.
Six months before they went to the nursery, Lilian and her father worked together to renovate the backyard. Each afternoon, she would rush to her bedroom for paper and broken crayons. Lilian drew what came to her mind: a playground, a treehouse, a large field of tall sunflowers. Places she and her new siblings could share with their father, because he would be home more often—he promised. Day by day the brown desolated backyard birthed peach and apple trees in the corners, stone pathways surrounded by grass, a greenhouse where the babies would sleep.
I want to create a home for them, her father said, a place where they can be safe.
Lilian’s mom glared at him. Don’t you know how much this will cost?
Don’t worry about that, he said, grabbing the shovel. I’ll use my retirement money if I have to.
Look, her mom said, you’re not the only one who was affected by those chemicals.
But at least you have your family here.
So do you. We are your family.
Lilian’s mom gritted her teeth and went back into the house while her father moved dirt. Later, Lilian sat on the ground, touching the earthworms that dried up in the sun when her father turned the soil. Her father placed two quarter-sized seeds into a pit and covered them with dried yellow grass before adding another layer of the earth. He told her what the plants would look like when they were fully grown: huge trees—taller than their house—with violet flowers.
Wow, Lilian said. Did they look like that in Vietnam?
Can we see them?
They were all killed during the War, her father said. A chemical made them sick. It made all creatures sick.
Even dogs? Lilian’s eyes widened.
Yes, her father nodded. Even dogs.
Lilian hugged her legs. What happened to the babies?
They disintegrated, her father said. I tried to save them. They never grew. Never could walk and their bodies always looked deformed and orange, blistering orange.
Four months before they rebuilt the gardens, Lilian’s father would sit on the floor, reading books on plant-babies, taking notes, studying pictures and diagrams on how to parent them. Lilian studied these pictures with her father: infants sleeping in a bed of bright leaves, branches cradling them to sleep. Sometimes, she would find him staring at the photos he’d brought from Vietnam for hours, pictures of her father and a woman that she didn’t recognize.
They’re called Children of the Forest, Lilian’s father had said one night, pulling her into his lap. They’re plants that look and act like humans, but once they’re grown, they become trees. Back in Vietnam, we had a lot of them there. They were like my siblings. Some became my kids. Soon, they will become your siblings.
Really? Lilian asked.
Yes, her father said. Look here.
He showed Lilian a black and white photo of a woman and a dozen children. Children with their feet buried in the ground and arms extending to the sky.
Lilian rushed to her parents’ bedroom and crawled into bed with her mom, repeating what her father had said. She said she couldn’t wait to meet the plant-babies.
Her mother tucked her in, encasing her into a cocoon. She took her hand and squeezed it hard. He’s excited, isn’t he? Lillian nodded as her mom’s brows creased together, frowning.
That’s great, her mom said, that’s great.
Early in the morning, Lilian lay in bed and clung to her pink covers, listening to her father singing outside. The babies’ shrieks softened into whimpers and then to silence. Lilian wondered if this was the same song he had sung for her when she was a baby.
When she heard her father come back inside, she stretched her arms and legs, pushed off the covers, and ran downstairs. Her father was eating breakfast, a book on botany in front of him. Lilian stole his cheese danish and pointed at the book, asking what adventures they were having today.
I’m giving them a bath, he said. Do you want to help me?
She followed her dad into the greenhouse. Inside, the twin babies had ruined their flower beds. Yellow petals and dirt scattered on the floor as they clapped their hands, then licked the soil from their fingers. Roly-polies and ants crawled from their diapers. Before, the babies had reminded Lilian of raisins, all wrinkly. They could barely move, bugs creeping on their skin, hiding in their hair, sometimes their noses. Now, they were able to stand and crawl, and their violet eyes observed the world around them, babbling in a language she wished she could understand.
Her father held them above the tub. They shrilled once their toes touched the foaming water.
The babies kicked and screamed, climbing over her father’s shoulder. He gave up and put them down on the grass, and they stopped. They wandered around the backyard, chasing tiny yellow ladybugs and monarch butterflies. Her father grabbed a shovel from the shed and started to dig into the earth. Lilian did the same. Together they created a crater—no, a kiddie pool for the babies.
Her father filled it with water from the hose. The babies crawled to their new bath. They splashed and laughed, making mud balls while Lilian slowly poured water on their heads, cleaning fine pappus hair. Their brown tree bark-skin tightened.
Beautiful, aren’t they? her father said, removing dirt from one of the babies’ cheeks.
Lilian touched her face and then her hair. She wondered if he thought the same of her.
Are you going to name them? she asked.
Still thinking, he said.
Make sure the names are cool and pretty, Lillian said.
Later that day, after cleaning up her siblings’ footprints, which stained the walls and floors in the greenhouse, Lilian went into the kitchen and opened the fridge. It contained only uncooked meats, vegetables, and a loaf of bread. She frowned and closed it, remembering her mom’s homemade sweet-and-sour soup with a side of spicy tofu and beef and rice.
I’m hungry, Lilian said.
Her father nodded, but didn’t look up. He was feeding her siblings cooked snow peas mashed with chunks of banana peels.
Dad, Lilian said.
Her father stood up. He opened the fridge and took out slices of bread, slapping together mayonnaise and baloney. Lilian didn’t want to eat this. She wanted to eat what Mom made. A warm meal. Not what she ate at school. Lilian tugged on her father’s shirt, but he shrugged her off. She stared at the babies’ meal: steam puffing up from their food, their sippy cups filled with mint leaves.
I want to eat that, Lilian said.
You’re eight, he said. You shouldn’t complain about food at this age. I didn’t when I was young.
Her father crouched down to the babies, zooming the spoon toward their mouths. Lilian took a bite of her lunch. The food dried up inside her mouth, clogging her throat.
Lilian stood behind her father as he placed the twins into two medium-sized orange pots. He took a black marker and wrote their names: Hoa for the girl and Khai for the boy. Her father picked up a flower petal from the ground and showed it to Lilian.
It means flower and to bloom, her father said. Blooming flowers help the home to grow and makes the land beautiful.
Lilian studied the petal. What does my name mean?
Her father stood up and carried one of the pots to the greenhouse. I’m not sure.
What? Lilian followed behind him. You need to at least know that.
Look, her father said, using his back to open the door. We named you after the doctor. That’s all I know.
Lilian didn’t like that answer. She wanted to know what her name meant—if it was special or not. Lilian asked her mom, when she came home from work at a quarter to midnight. Her mom collapsed on the couch. Lilian lay beside her, and told her everything. The plants she’d potted today, how she picked weeds to keep them from hurting her siblings, the special organic soil that she made. Her mom covered her eyes with her arm and shook her head.
Mom, Lilian said.
Her mom remained quiet. Lillian wished she was home more.
I think Dad likes them more than me, she said.
Her mom sighed, wrapping her arms around Lilian’s shoulders. She gestured to the fake houseplant on the coffee table. Do you see that flower there?
I don’t know why your dad said that about your name. I was the one who named you. Lilies are the plants that grew in my hometown. They’re pink and they bloom in the water. I would always try to catch them in the summer. And don’t forget your middle name too.
What does it mean? Lilian asked.
It’s Chi, without an accent mark. It means branch. You are the branch of a tree. A stem of a flower. Yes, petals and leaves are beautiful, but a branch keeps everything together.
Lilian told this to herself every day.
She was the branch and capable like her siblings. Lilian showed this to her father. She came home from school and watered the twins, played with Hoa, created a bed for them to sleep in, protected Khai every time he tried to climb the peach and apple trees. But day by day, the twins grew. Their baby-talk became more coherent, saying words that moved her father. He would pick them up and twirl them around.
They said their first word, he said. They said bố! They said dad!
I can say bố too, Lillian said, circling around her father as he held the twins. I can say dad.
The garden flourished. Everything touched by the babies was life. Yellow apricot blossoms bloomed at dawn, phoenix flowers blazed across the backyard, vines burst out stars of trumpet flowers and violet sweet peas. The garden began to birth plants of unusual shapes and sizes. Flowers painted the soil red and yellow. Lilian had never seen these plants before, but her father had. Yellow hoa mai. Dwarf bamboos. Lobster claws. He told her that the garden reminded him of his home, now.
Look at this, he said, kneeling to Lilian. It’s like a cherry blossom, but it isn’t.
Lilian touched the silk petals. It smelled sweet.
Yep, her father nodded. It’s called an Aerides. Then he held out his arms to the twins. Amazing, right?
Lilian wanted to have her siblings’ magical effect on her father and the garden. She wanted to bring a part of Vietnam to her father. When she went with him to the nursery, she stared at the wall of seeds from every part of the world. Lilian took anything that might capture her father’s interest. She planted morning glories, tulips, daffodils. Watering them until they drowned. The daffodils and tulips wilted, but the morning glories grew, spreading their leaves and flowers across the garden. The plants around them died a few days later, but Lilian didn’t care. Her morning glories were finally growing! She dug her fingers in the soil, trying to plant more of them, but her father stopped her. He slapped her hand and pointed to the morning glories.
What are you doing? Her father ripped out the flowers. Don’t you know they’re invasive?
Lilian rubbed her hands together. I didn’t know.
You didn’t know. Her father showed her the wilted tulips. Are you trying to kill your brother and sister? What happens if they touch them?
Her father pulled her flowers out of the soil and threw them in the trash. Lilian looked at her fingers. Full of cuts, blood oozing from her cracked skin.
The next day after school, Lilian sat in front of the playground and traced her fingers in the dirt, drawing petals and leaves, their stems twirling and connecting. She wanted to walk home by herself, but her mom always told her to be careful. This world can hurt you. When Lilian walked with her siblings, her father made sure that they were safe, and no one would hurt them. But now she was alone in an empty playground where anyone could hurt her.
Lilian cowered into her arms and hid her face. Why wasn’t her dad here? She wanted to go home. She hated this. Hated her siblings. She wanted them gone.
When Lilian looked up, her mom was running toward her. I called your father, but he isn’t picking up. She hugged Lilian, rubbing her back, trying to calm her down. One of the neighbors saw you, so they called me at work.
At home, Lilian followed her mom into the house, into the kitchen and then to the backyard. They looked everywhere. Crushed leaves covered her parents’ bedroom—the bed unmade, soil in the carpet. But her father was nowhere. Then the sound of a car engine rumbled in the front yard. There, they found her father carrying the twins—his face red, chest heaving in and out—as they tried to escape from his arms.
Lilian listened to her parents’ shouting.
She tapped the door, pushing it open a little to create a narrow crack. Her mom was washing the dishes. Her father sat at the table. The plates clicked and clanked, louder with each dish—Lilian knew that her mom was angry.
What were you thinking? her mom asked. She called you how many times?
It’s not like you don’t forget to pick her up sometimes, he said, taking another bite of mango.
Her mom turned around. Water dripped from her fingers. No, I get someone to pick her up, if I’m too busy or I know I won’t make it. I don’t do what you did.
But it was an emergency! They weren’t eating. I had to talk to a doctor to make sure they’re all right.
You also need to remember your other daughter too. The one that is not a plant.
Don’t worry, he said. I will remember.
This isn’t the first time.
Look, I’m taking care of the babies. It’s hard. Her father placed the plate next to the sink. I care about this family.
Don’t give me that bullshit, her mom yelled. Lilian’s eyes widened. Who earns the money in this family? Me, while you’re here. Jobless.
I’ll get a job when they’re older, her father said. I want to be here for them right now.
Why? They’ll just become trees in a month.
They need me, her father said. They could even die if I’m not careful. I don’t understand why you’re so angry. You said you were fine with this.
I was. Her mom turned back to the sink. It was better before they came.
If I don’t grow them now, they’ll die again, just like last time.
But what about us? A plate crashed to the floor. You’re here for these children now, but you weren’t there when Lilian was born. You can’t bring the dead back. You can’t bring back your old family.
The twins were bigger now. They climbed trees and tables, picking flowers and shrubs to eat. They dug their feet into the ground, sucking up nutrients from the soil.
Can you watch them? her dad asked one day. I need to buy food for dinner. I should be back in an hour.
Lilian shrugged. She was focused on her math homework.
Watch them, he told her. They like to climb everywhere.
Lilian nodded, and then it was only her and the babies. To keep them quiet, she gave them cookies, but they spat them out. They babbled to one another, lying on the floor. Lilian carried them to the living room, placing them in her bean bag, and turned on the TV. She went back to the kitchen and continued her homework. After five division problems, it was too quiet. The babies were gone.
She ran to the backyard. There they were, talking to one another: Hoa sat on the grass, watching Khai climb the peach tree.
Khai started to bounce on the higher branches.
Get down, Lilian ordered.
Lilian began to climb the trunk, but splinters dug into her skin. She jumped back down, sucking on her palm to cool the burn. The babies’ skin was hardening every day, like bark; if they fell, they wouldn’t get hurt. And if they did get hurt, her father could just plant new children. Wouldn’t it be better if they were gone anyways? Then it could be just the three of them again.
Khai climbed higher and higher. When he finally looked down, he started to cry.
Lilian bit her lip.
Both babies cried.
Lilian climbed the trunk. One by one, she reached the branches, flinching at every splinter, at every bug she saw. She had to get to him. She had no time to be scared.
Come here, Lilian said, reaching out to her little brother.
Khai didn’t move. He screamed even louder, the branch shaking beneath him. Lilian slowly moved toward him, gripping the branch above. She grabbed her brother, but her body became light. Nothing was below her. Lilian was falling. She held her brother to her, making sure that he wouldn’t get hurt.
Lilian kept her eyes shut, feeling the slick fabric against her skin, shifting to get more comfortable. The soreness rushed in all directions: her arms, her legs, her back. She only opened her eyes when she heard a whisper—no, a song. A song from her father. Lilian jolted up and a sharp pain ran through her back. Her mom pushed her down to the bed and tucked her into the plastic covers. She was in a white place. A little boy around her age was sleeping in the other bed in the room. The child’s father stroked his head as he whispered a lullaby. It hadn’t been her father singing. It was never him.
How are you feeling? her mom asked.
What happened to Hoa and Khai? Lilian tried to remember. Climbing trees, falling, babies crying. They cried a lot.
They’re fine. Her mom pressed her lips together and held Lilian’s hand. Just rest.
And dad? Is he mad?
No. Your dad will visit you soon. He’s with your siblings. He’s taking them to the nursery for a checkup.
Are they okay? Lilian asked again. She gripped the covers. If they were hurt, she would be in big trouble. I don’t want Dad to hate me, she said.
He’ll never hate you, her mom said. He loves you a lot.
She hugged Lilian. Trust me. He does. When he saw you on the grass, he called the ambulance right away.
Lilian pushed her away. Really?
Really, her mom said.
Lilian went back home after two days, and the house was a mess. Dirt fingerprints on every corner and wall, ants crawling on the kitchen counter. Her mom sighed and went to her bedroom as the babies rushed to Lilian. They climbed on her, hugging her. It had been only three days, but they’d grown bigger. Their hair was longer, thicker like vines, and their bodies were hard. Lilian tried to push them away. They were hugging her too much, the bruises on her back starting to hurt. Still, they didn’t let go. They gave her flowers. Tiny purple ones, just like their eyes. They took her to the backyard and showed her violet flowers blooming from the dirt, from where they played.
Thanks, Lilian said. Khai hugged her again, bumping his head on her chin. There, on his forehead, a dark scar stained his skin. Lilian touched it—the wound felt soft, new.
You got hurt too, but I’m glad you’re safe.
You’re looking better, her father said, walking toward her.
You never came to visit me.
Her father crossed his arms. Of course I did. You were asleep, and I didn’t want to wake you up.
He was lying. Lilian gripped her siblings’ hands and took a deep breath. They led her to the garden, where small, tiny fingers started to sprout from the soil. Then feet, and then cries.
You’ve planted more? Lilian took a step forward. A tiny hand gripped her finger.
Just in case, her father said. Just in case the first two don’t survive. Khai’s fall scared me. I just want to be sure.
Her father crouched to the soil and Lilian did the same. The twins crawled slowly toward the sprouting hand.
Can I help? Lilian asked.
No, he said, ruffling her hair. I think its best I do this myself. Why don’t you play with the twins?
But I can help.
No, her father said, pushing her away. No, just go and watch them. I can do it myself.
It was those words that Lilian would keep repeating to herself for the rest of the day, watching her father tend to the garden. She watched him turn the dirt, placing darkened banana peels and melon husks into the soil, three inches deep. She watched him carry bags and bags of fertilized dirt, stacking them one by one. She imagined herself next to him, doing the same thing, growing older with her father as he planted new children, and their family became larger. And she dreamt of them planting every season, again and again. Years later, Lilian would have her own family: a daughter and son, her husband a botanist, just like her. Together they would go back to Vietnam and visit her parents’ hometowns, bringing back the plant-babies they’d grown. Tây Ninh for her mother. Biên Hòa for her father. They’d watch the children tear open the dead land, pressing their feet into the ground, letting their roots embed into the earth, rebirthing what had been lost.
But for now, Lilian stood back, watching her father turn over the dirt as the newborn babies squirmed from the soil. The twins gripped her father’s hand; they kept pulling, guiding him closer to their new siblings. Lilian tried to follow, but like in a dream, the distance seemed only to grow. She tripped forward, her face planting into the turned-up dirt, and she reached for her father to help her, but he was wrapping the babies into a blanket, rocking the tiny bodies back and forth. He hummed a sweet song, a lullaby that calmed the children. Lilian called to her father, but the twins held him there, digging their long toes into the soil. Their skin quickly began to darken, hardening into rough bark. Tree roots coiled from their legs and snaked down into the dirt. Lilian stood up, wiping the wet soil from her face. She watched as the twins closed their eyes and held up their hands to the sky, knowing now that the song had not been sung for her family, or for her. No—it had never belonged to her in the first place.
Annie Trinh is a writer from Nevada and has earned her MFA from the University of Kansas. Supported by The Key West Literary Seminar, The Community of Writers, VONA, and Kundiman, she has been published or forthcoming in the New Ohio Review, Passages North, Joyland, and elsewhere. She was a 2022-2023 Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University.