Linh came from a line of women who were vessels for the dead; people called them GỌI HỒN. Linh remembered when her mother would bring her from Bac Can to their family home, in a village nearby Hue, Vietnam, to watch her grandmother speak to the dead. Many who sought out the dead were unable to let go of the past and tried to visit her multiple times. But even the dead grew tired. No one came back a third time; the dead needed rest too.
Linh didn’t fully understand her role at that time, so her mother told her stories of different visitors, not only the ones that had visited them, but had also visited her grandmother. They were just stories to her, and Linh hoped to avoid the legacy of the Pham women. Perhaps it was because she was of a newer generation that she thought she would be given the chance to dream something else for herself. But she realized this was an inheritance that was written for her before she was ever born.
Linh was barely eleven when her first visitor came. It was one she never forgot. Linh didn’t want to be there, but her mother made her where all the women had once sat. It was an especially hot day. Her mother opened the doors of their family home, which was used by the first women and passed down. People trickled in throughout the day; all the spaces on the floor were occupied. Her eyes darted back and forth, scanning the crowd. Their collective heat made her body sweat.
Someone gave her a name and the dates of how long they were here on Earth. She whispered the name, not yet loud enough for the dead to hear. Her mother called for her to speak up. She said his name a little louder and slower, testing out each syllable before letting the word roll off her tongue like an incantation. Suddenly, her inner essence shrunk and the voice in her head quieted to make room for this new one.
Pham Chinh Thai (June 1934 -March 23, 2017)
Father of nine. Grandfather of twenty-three. Great-grandfather of seven.
Only a couple of his children gathered around him. They stared in shock at the man. He was inside Linh’s lanky body.
“Is that really you, Dad?” one of them asked.
Linh’s body leaned in and yelled, “Of course. Now how did you like sitting on my chair?”
They laughed. His daughters and sons came into his apartment, searching for memories of who had lived there. One of his daughters sat on his worn-out leather chair. He went into her body for a slight moment to ask them to get her up.
“Serves her right. That’s my chair.” Linh laughed, her body vibrating vigorously, for this ghost had one of those laughs that started in the belly.
They chatted for a little bit. They took turns telling him about what was going on in their lives. They wondered about how it felt like to die, but all Linh said was that it didn’t feel like anything. One second he was breathing and the next no longer needed to. Before leaving, they asked if he needed anything before he moved on.
“I need my passport. It’s under the blue shirt,” Linh said before he left her body.
Something in her felt lighter as he traveled out of her. It was a quick departure that knocked her real body back to the ground. Linh’s mother was already behind her, ready to hold her as she fell back. When Linh returned, she gasped for air the way a fish does out of water. She placed her hand over her chest and waited to feel the beat of her heart. Tears started to stream out of her eyes. She felt too young for this. Her body was still growing and already it wasn’t hers. Her mother held her, whispering the lyrics of a childhood song, until the next body entered.
All the spirits after the first one, Pham Chinh Thai’s, came in easier. No one had that same laugh that caused her body to shake or the booming voice Linh could feel every time he spoke. Linh and her mother alternated days. They mostly received money through donations. Families tended to be very generous, so they never had to worry about money. They also had a fee for families who wanted to talk with their loved ones in a private room. Her mother took to the bodies so calmly, staying in the same seated position unless it was to get up to stretch her legs. She said their names with authority too. In the beginning, whenever families brought younger children, Linh tried playing with them, but eventually stopped and watched from a distance. They would tell her about school and what they did back home for fun. She was jealous of all the things they were allowed to do when they left.
Peaches (April 4, 1989- August 1, 2019)
He belonged within a small group of cyclists that met once a week and had gotten the nickname for always carrying sour peach rings in his backpack, the orange and yellow kind.
When Linh called out his name, Peaches, his group of friends didn’t believe it was really him in her body. The group was from Texas and was not superstitious but came all the way to Vietnam after seeing multiple videos people had posted of Linh on YouTube.
“Nguyen Kiet,” Linh said.
Their eyes widened and their bodies leaned closer. Only his close friends knew his real name. He admitted to his group of friends to not feeling much pain when the truck hit him. All he wanted was for them to go to his storage locker #15 on Fourth Street.
“Sell everything and give the money to my mom.”
His mother worked hard and paid for him through college all by herself. Like his father, an untimely early death.
Peaches’ story was not unlike Linh’s. Her father also had an early death, or well, one her and her mother pretended had happened. It was easier to think he died than to think about how he had abandoned them when Linh was still a baby. He knew about her mother’s profession but didn’t put two and two together that this was something passed down to the women. He didn’t want that for his child and left that same night, unwilling to hear any of her mother’s pleas.
In those early days, Linh was still afraid of these ghosts. Whenever they rolled out of her, she fell and gasped for air, trying to come back to herself. And again, she fell into the arms of her mother. Someone had always put a cup of water at her side. She downed it and hoped it would stop the shaking. Her mother’s hands pressed her shoulders down. She leaned in close and whispered, “It’s ok, mui.” Just when the shaking stopped, her body wasn’t hers anymore.
The ghosts even haunted her dreams. She often couldn’t sleep well at night, too afraid to close her eyes. What if she woke up as someone else? Who was she outside of these different bodies? Most of her girlhood was spent for other people. With little time for herself, she was still learning who she was.
During those longer nights she spent awake, Linh taught herself how to read and write. She would copy newspapers even though she only understood fragments. In the beginning, she tried asking her mother, but her mother, just like most of their family, was illiterate. Sometimes, when she wasn’t working, she would ask her visitors what words meant. When she finally learned how to write her name, she smiled and put that piece of paper under her pillow. If she were to wake up as someone else, maybe seeing this name and reading it aloud would bring her back.
Tai Goo Po (December 1942- October 13, 2010)
She lived in a small apartment in San Jose that she kept dark for her pickled fruit. In all her sixty-eight years of living, she never missed a week of fermenting her vegetables. Her children came by every week to pick some up for their children.
She told her daughter to take notes while she recited her recipe for the vegetables. Before leaving she asked, “Can I see my grandchildren?”
One by one, they showed her photos and videos from their phones. She laughed at a video of Logan learning how to walk. His father had put a piece of candy in front of him. Logan wobbled as he reached up to grab it. This trick got him to stand upright. Slowly, his father led Logan forward, towards the camera. A sweet treat just a small reach away. His face scrunched after a couple steps, and he emitted a cry of anger over not being able to get the candy.
Over the years, this became a routine. People shuffled in and out, searching for that last connection with their dead. Linh remained seated in the same spot, reading the names aloud more clearly and loudly. She never got used to having the spirits invade her body, but what made her it worth it were the families’ reactions. Some cried. Others thanked her profusely. If they were really generous, they left money gifts. But she didn’t do it for the money, although the money helped her family.
Luong Nhien (? – April 2011)
Mother of eight. She was born here in Vietnam where she spent most of her life. She had only been out of the country once to America to visit her son. Her body slowly became undone. She had Huntington disease. First her hands started twitching uncontrollably. Then her words began to slur. Her bed became the only space she encompassed.
Her son, Phu, came to visit her for the first time. He left for America when he was so young and now, in front of her, he had become a grandfather. He visited her more often now than when she was alive.
“I’m sorry Ma, for not visiting as much as I should. I was scared of seeing you and dad. Scared of what everyone else would say.” A drop slipped down his face.
She moved her hand to brush it off. “Phu, it’s ok. I wish I could have come with you. But your father was stubborn and didn’t want to leave the life we made here. It’s ok, Phu. You’re here now.”
They hugged and said goodbye for the last time. Linh found a tenderness in hugging his bony body.
In the couple decades Linh had done this, she had kept logs. People’s stories lingered in her long after they departed. She found herself thinking about them at night and how powerful a name can be that it willed a person back into existence.
She still wasn’t used to the process, but she now welcomed the spirits without fear. She knew who she was and who she lived for. She made her way home after a long day. Huy ran towards her even before she reached the door, which made her question whether intuition was passed down only through the women. This little body, that always sought to touch hers, grounded her in the present and told her that this was home.
“Ma! Ma!” he shouted. His warm body collided with hers.
Linh picked him up. Huy cupped his clammy hands around her face, forced her head in front of his. They laughed, and she started to prepare dinner. Hugging her son made her think about Phu and Luong Nhien. What would happen between her and her son? Would he leave her since his fate wasn’t tied to this profession? She had briefly thought about this when she found out she was going to have a son. But as Huy got older, these questions became more persistent, demanding an answer Linh wasn’t ready for.
After dinner, they sat on her bed for Huy’s favorite part of the day. He asked for stories. Linh started telling him about the son who came to visit his mother then about a family who visited their grandmother. She embellished the story about the family, screaming boo!, like a ghost, which made him tremble with laughter. Even though he couldn’t continue the legacy, she wanted to continue what her mother started—telling stories. All the previous women and Linh got the privilege of channeling the dead and being a part of their story. Linh wanted to make sure their stories would remain in Huy as well, in whatever form that meant. They would start their own tradition, one Linh hoped Huy would pass down to generations to come.