One summer when I was already a middle-aged man, we took a trip to Grand Cayman Island.
As we drove along a winding road to our hotel, my son, now ten years old, pointed toward the roadside trees flowering in scarlet blossoms and said, Dad, what’re those trees? Those, I said, flame trees. He rolled down the car window and leaned out and said, We don’t have those back home, how come? I said, They only grow in tropical countries, we have them in Vietnam too. My wife, American and a Virginia native, said, I’ve seen them before, I remember those flowers, what’re they called in Vietnamese? Phượng, I said, a female name too. She repeated the word, Foong? Yes, I said, Foong, going with her accent.
Now, dawn or dusk, you could see them running along the shore. Mottled-brown sandpipers, twinkling legs, looking for food out of the wet sand. One evening I followed their tracks, skeletons of twigs that were footprints left in the marbled sand. Twilight falling. Soon the combing waves licked the footprints off the sand and the birds were merely sprays of ghostly silhouettes. I came to where the tracks ended under frothing waves. In the last glimmer of fiery sundown, a sandpiper stood at the water’s edge, looking over the sea and gave out a cry.
I often think of her. First, as always, an image. Like a spray of foam, momentary. The image, years now, has become a sandpiper standing at the edge of the sea and its cry is lost in the sound of waves. That evening on the shore could have been any evening. Sundown recycles itself. Waves are born out of those already crashed. They never die. The birds’ footprints too. Scattered on the damp sand. Appearing, reappearing. Till you come upon them. Follow them, full of mystery, till the sea obliterates them.
A black-and-white photograph bookmarking a hardcover novel fell out of the pages. My wife, holding the book in one hand, the photograph in the other, studied the picture. Who’s she, my wife asked. Someone in the past, from Vietnam, I said, looking up from my desk. My wife turned the photograph over. There was nothing written on the back, I knew. Your ex-girlfriend? she said, a smile trailing. No, I said. No, she’s twice my age. My wife, unconvinced, frowned, said, She looks young and, um, un-Vietnamese. I nodded. She’s half French, half Vietnamese, I said, looking at my wife as she absentmindedly tried to find a spot to slip the bookmark back in. Tell me about her, she said. Her? I said.
So I told my wife. That one day, long ago, when I was still a struggling young writer, I came upon a very old Vietnamese magazine article written about a centenarian eunuch of the Imperial Court of Huế. He was already dead the year the story was published, circa 1966. Two years before I was born. A sketchy story whose facts had been gleaned from the eunuch’s adopted daughter, that ended with a small halftone photograph of her portrait. I put the article away. But I couldn’t put the story away, even months later. It dawned on me then that it wasn’t the story. It was the face in the photograph.
The sugarcane field was so still in the summer afternoon heat you could hear the rustle of leaves in the lull of cicadas. Take my hand. Let’s get off the blacktop road. Take this dirt trail, it wasn’t there—before that night. Now, you see over there. Those huts in the middle of the field. Where they make syrup and block sugar. There was nothing there back then but sugarcane, this whole field.
She wore sepia cotton pants, the color of the dirt trail. Her short-sleeved shirt was so white its glare made you squint. Please tell me again your name. Minh? Will you forgive my failing memory. On a good day, I am myself. Let’s stop here. Where you can still see the road. Here I found him. Jonathan Edward. He was your age. A beautiful age. I don’t remember the year. Perhaps 1965. I was twenty-three. He came here, half the world away, like you. Could it be this spot I’m not sure. But it was here that night. Here. Where I held him, sitting right here, cradling his head in my arms, till he died.
She stood alone in the room after the visitor had left, in the same spot where he had clasped his hands over hers and said, I’ll be back again, Auntie. Minh. His name? Now the morning sunlight reached her feet from the veranda. On the facing wall, a large lacquered painting of the Imperial Throne Room. She felt tiny. As if she were among the multitude of giant ironwood pillars, glazed bright red, twined with golden dragons. My name is Phượng and my mind is sound.
She saw a face in the Throne Room. A servant towering over others. The face of her deceased father. Under a flaming gold canopy sat the emperor, a small mannequin with a sickly yellowed face. Except for the throne, she stood among emptiness. Red and yellow were the colors, then and now, pulsing hot from floor to ceiling, the whole ceiling, on every pillar, just fire and gold.
The air held a musty tang. It had been a long time. I am sane.
In a room dedicated to her father she saw his treasures. They were always here—vases, cups, bowls, his writing case in deep-green jade, brushes he had used to dabble in painting—and many others were kept for his memory.
What happened to an audience once there in that empty Throne Room? Did it remember her father’s footsteps, in and out, in those sixty years? Mandarins in knee-high black boots, in flowered robes, wands in hands, throwing themselves facedown, noses touching the ground in a shroud of incense, the azure of fan-bearers’ robes, the canary-yellow of their enormous feather fans. Red and yellow all over the ceiling, the pillars, lacquered red, flaming gold.
Everything must pass. I am thankful for being myself.
She was very old. This concubine of Emperor Tự Ðưc. When the emperor died in 1883 the concubine was only fifteen. She said she was one hundred and twenty-three now. Small, birdlike, hair white as snow parted in the middle, braided in two small plaits on the sides of her head. A small child.
She took me by the hand and led me into her cottage. It sat behind a bamboo hedge in the back of the mausoleum. She served me tea from a tiny blue-flowered pot the size of her hand. The nougats she offered were delectable. Made of egg whites and brown sugar and chopped nuts.
I used to make them for the emperor, she told me. A long time ago.
Then in silence the old concubine regarded me. A long time, she nodded, repeating the words. Then she said to me, See the banyan out there?
It dwarfed the cottage with its shade like an immense pavilion. I traced its tortuous roots to the steps of the cottage.
It was a little tree when I came, the old concubine said.
Yes, I said, trees outlive us. My father had a magnolia planted outside the Trinh Minh Palace during his service for a third-ranking concubine. He would be three years older than you, if he still lived.
In the deceased emperor’s personal room I stood while the old concubine sat down on her late husband’s rosewood carved bed. Sitting hunched between the parted panels of the yellow mosquito net. She said here lay all of her husband’s belongings—the bed, its embroidered mat, the porcelain pillow, the tea, the rice liquor, the areca-nuts and betel leaves and a tiny pot of lime. They were here for him when he returned in spirit.
For one hundred and eight years she replenished them every morning so that when he arrived nothing was missing, nothing was stale. He could read again his favorite books. He could write as was his passion in his annal, each page of which was a thin leaf of gold. He would find again his gold swords, jade shrubs, his chess men in green and white jade, chopsticks made of kim-giao white wood that turned black against any sort of poison. They were arranged there under glass, his playthings, trinkets.
I took the old woman’s hand and led her out of her haunt, passing candle-lit nooks and corners, a washpot, a pair of slippers, scepters of jade cross-leaned. The eternally musty air in sunless chambers.
Over me a haloed figure stood silhouetted against the sun’s glare. A girl’s face slowly came into focus. I pushed myself up, my back warmed by the stone well in the rising morning heat. Miss Phượng’s helping girl looked down at me.
Why’re you sleeping out here, Chú?
A centipede crawled on my face last night.
The girl slowly sat down on her haunches. The briny air fanned my face. I said, So I turned on the light. No electricity. Used my Zippo and guess what I saw on the floor? Cockroaches. Bigger than my big toe.
So? Every house has them, Chú.
She called me uncle. I was only twenty-three. I couldn’t tell her age though, for she had a thin body of a child, a woman’s face. Her long-lashed eyes brooded. A small mouth that seldom smiled. When she did, a dimpled smile brightened up her copper-skinned face. Sometimes she laughed. Fluty laughs. She wore her usual red kerchief around her head, saying, Auntie Phượng made me wear it so sand won’t get in my hair. So I don’t have to wash it every day. She wore her hair past her shoulders, sometimes braided into two plaits, knotted with rubber bands. She would look childlike that way. She said, Auntie’s not feeling well, so you can’t see her today, Chú.
She’s not herself today? How could you tell?
She, um, couldn’t say my name.
And what’s your name?
She said nothing. I looked at an elongate burn on her left cheek. A scald in salmon color. Once I had asked how she got burned and she shook her head, her way of keeping things private to herself.
Everyone has a name, I said, bringing my knees up to my chest, and plugged a cigarette between my lips. She watched me click open my Zippo, her dark eyes riveted on my drag. I blew the smoke upward. You remember my name?
What’s yours? I waited, blowing a series of small rings toward her. I saw her smile.
That’s pretty, she said, lifting her face to see where the rings went.
You forgot your name? You not yourself today—like Auntie?
That’s not funny. Auntie has a sickness, I don’t.
I watched her pout, her lower lip a full crescent shape, pretty. I tapped the ash and saw it blow toward her. It clung to her blouse in gray specks. She dropped her head, looking at them.
I’m sorry, I said. Let me.
She shrank back. Then she flicked her gaze at me, said, Daddy smokes too, but he never takes the cigarettes out of his mouth. He has ashes all over his shirts. They burn holes in them.
I flicked open the Zippo then clicked it shut. What does he do for a living?
He’s a fisherman.
She held herself still, hands clutching the hem of her blouse. It dawned on me that she wanted the ashes to stay where they had been scattered. She looked up at me and grinned mischievously. I shook my head. What do I call you?
Does it matter? she said.
I don’t even know how old you are.
Do you have to know?
Sure, if you want to be my friend.
I have friends. And we don’t care how old we are. We never ask.
Calmly she watched me. I rolled my eyes and took a last drag on the cigarette and watched the smoke swirl in the salt-laden breeze. It’s a different culture here, eh, I said.
What’re you saying? Aren’t you Vietnamese too, Chú?
I ignored her grin. Yeah, I am. But I left Vietnam when I was seven.
You told Auntie you’re from America?
I grew up over there.
How come you speak Vietnamese so well?
Because my parents are Vietnamese, I said, grinning, and it seemed to irk her.
Are you really from America?
Now I felt irritated at her bluntness. She could be feisty at times. I lit another cigarette. What if I’m from somewhere else, eh? I said, blowing a stream of smoke toward her.
I was about to tell her to forget it, but then, with a sigh, I pulled out my wallet. I flipped open the folds and thumbed through several clear plastic sleeves until I saw my driver’s license. Here, I said.
She leaned forward, her eyebrows knitted, appraising what was held before her. Her lips formed words.
Can you read English? I said.
Her lips stopped moving. She flipped the plastic sleeve, stopped at the next one. Her head canted to one side, she said, Who’s she?
She’s pretty. Her hair’s not yellow though.
She’s a brunette.
What’s her name?
Do you have to know?
She pushed away my hand that held the wallet. You’re mean, she said. I hate you.
I nodded as I rose and walked into the lodging house. When I came back out, holding in my hand a toothbrush, she was standing near a wooden table that sat under the eaves of the rear veranda. On the table was a brass pail. It was half full with well water. A tin can floated in it. I dipped the water with the can, rinsed my mouth, gargling, and brushed my teeth. With the water left in the pail, I poured it on my head and washed my hair. I saw glimpses of her, then heard her voice.
You don’t have long hair like me. Why waste water?
I got sand in my hair, I said, combing its wet strands back with my fingers. I was down on the beach last night. So windy. You should wash your hair every day too.
Easy for you to say, Chú. Clean water here is like rice to every family.
Where’d you get your water?
From a public well. She glanced toward the lodging house’s well. It has a pump like that one and it’s always crowded there. I go there very early in the morning, but not this morning.
As I wiped my face with my hand, I could see a disturbed look in her eyes. Then she stamped her foot.
What’s wrong? I said.
You didn’t ask me why I didn’t go to the well this morning.
Why didn’t you go?
Pouting, she gave me a sidelong glance and pointed at the empty pail. Where’d you get the water from?
From that well. The landlord, he always leaves a pailful on the table. Every morning.
You want another pail, Chú?
Um, yes. I’m thinking of washing myself. It’s getting hot.
Try the pump. See if you can get any water.
Suddenly I laughed. At first she just looked at me, sullen. Then she laughed a small, clear laugh. I knew then why she didn’t go to the public well.
Guess I can’t wash myself until we get the electricity back, eh? I looked toward the well and back at her. Such a shame they don’t have a winch for the well, I said. If you can’t use the pump during the outage, you can haul water by hand with a crank. Next time bring a bucket and I’ll get you water from the well here to take home.
Why’re you so kind, Chú?
Her sourness piqued me. Haven’t you been around nice people? The tone of my voice caused her to avert her eyes, then her lips curled into a cynical smile.
You guessed wrong, Chú. People here are nice. Daddy is nice, very nice.
She looked at me with a dark look in her eyes. Just Daddy, she said finally.
What about Mommy?
She heaved, disturbed. Her eyelashes batted.
Where’s she? I said.
Daddy said never talk about her. Said he doesn’t know her.
The way she rushed the words kept me from asking further questions. I looked into the empty pail then up at her. Guess I’ll be heading into town later on, I said. At least they have electricity there.
It’ll be back on before evening, Chú, she said. Around here, nobody likes even days.
Now I know. I’d better stock up water and wash myself on odd days then.
She unknotted her kerchief and reknotted it. It fluttered in the breeze coming in steadily now from the sea. I’m going to the market. You want anything there, Chú?
Why’re you so kind?
Chú! She stomped her foot.
Can you get me two packs of cigarettes? I said as I took out my wallet. I wonder if . . .
They have the kind of cigarettes you smoke, Chú.
How d’you know what kind I smoke?
I saw the pack.
Oh you! I shook my head as I placed the money in her hand. Do you cook?
She didn’t answer as she carefully opened the safety pin and then wrapped my bills around her bundle of cash. Her long, tapering fingers had dirt under the nails, some long, some bitten down. I wondered what kind of help she provided Miss Phượng every day. Running errands, perhaps. Cleaning up the house, maybe. But cooking? She had a thin body of an arhat statue. A child, or rather a teenager, or perhaps a woman already. She was fastening the safety pin, smoothing the front of her peach-yellow blouse. I couldn’t help noticing the teensy shapes of her breasts. It was then that she lifted her gaze at me with a provocative look in her eyes.
I cook, Chú. Are you surprised? I cook for Daddy, for Auntie.
You have time?
I make time stand still.
Do you really?
When Daddy comes home from the sea he’s too tired. He’s out to sea before sunrise, back at sunset. Well, you know how long each day is for a fisherman, Chú?
I’m beginning to know.
I help Auntie during the day. I take care of Daddy in the evening.
Where’s Mommy? I asked again.
She’s not with us, she said. She started crossing the back court, around the well and down the dirt path overgrown with cogon grass so tall it hid her from view, then she reappeared walking on the sand where patches of spider flowers bloomed yellow. Soon she was becoming a small figure crossing the pumpkin patch, the pumpkins now in season in bright orange against the glare of white sand.
The sight of red country figs always mesmerized her, Miss Phượng said to me. We were standing in front of her house watching a bee crawl into a fig through a round opening at its tip. I saw the bee’s abdomen and hind legs backing out of the fig. With a twist it turned and flew off.
She still watched the bee’s flight. Long lashes shaded her eyes. Her curly hair turned a darker chocolate shade in the sun as I looked at her face—beautiful in their tranquility like a forbidden love. Then she dropped her gaze. I looked at her dense lashes with a soft upcurve and thought that she was asleep. I could never tell her age. The same way I was with her helping girl. As if they defied age. So that when you have seen them in a photograph, their looks stay true many years later when you see them in person.
Auntie, I said to her.
She lifted her gaze at me. Symmetrical eyes, deep brown in their reflection.
I opened my wallet and showed her a photocopied cutout of a black-and-white photograph.
Me? She said with a smile.
When was it? I said.
She pursed her lips. Faint wrinkles around her mouth. It could’ve been around the time my father just passed away, she said. How did you come into its possession?
I told her I clipped it from a magazine article whose story then led me to her. What article, she said. I knew she had no memory of what I’d told her before. Now she gazed at the rock basin in the center of the courtyard as I put the wallet back in my pants’ pocket. She sat down on the rim of the rock basin. The still water in the basin mirrored the bonsai, the miniature footbridge on which a woodcutter stood. A dragonfly lit on the water, causing a tiny ripple. She’d told me they had a rock basin like this one in the old house in which her father and she had lived until he died. She said this seaside house had had no rock basin. The one on which she was sitting was built in his memory. I walked up behind her. The crunching of pebbles made her turn around.
She lifted her chin. Why do you cry, Phượng? she said softly.
Auntie, I said, disturbed.
That afternoon when I came back from school, she said, smiling, I was crying. My father was sitting on the rim of the rock basin. He raised my chin with his finger and asked me why. The naughty kids at school, I told him. Then I told him that as I was peeling the sweet potato he’d packed for me, a girl in the class saw it, gathered other girls around me and sang:
The half-caste eats sweet potatoes, ho ho!
But when she eats dog meat she spares
No skin, no hair, heh heh!
When she eats persimmons, she swallows
The pips whole, hee hee!
I asked him, Am I a half-caste, Father? He said, You’re half Vietnamese, half French. He then held me in his arms and said, Let your teacher know they’ve offended you. Half-caste is a bad word. I shook my head and said, You’re Vietnamese. So my mother is French? You never speak of her. Did she die? I could feel his hesitation. Then he said, Phượng, when I left the imperial palace I wanted to have a child, so I went to an orphanage in Huế and found you among newborn babies. In a soothing voice he explained about orphanages and why newborn babies were found there. Then he said, I don’t know anything about your parents other than their nationality. But I’m your father.
For a moment she sat gazing at her feet, her hands laced in her lap. Then she rose and made a hand motion for me to wait. She returned with a photograph framed in antique silver.
My father, she said, handing me the framed picture.
I had always imagined him a white-haired man, small and shriveled. Now I was looking at a mammoth of a man sitting solemnly on the edge of a blackwood divan, the long rear panel of his glossy green brocade robe swept under him, draping the divan. The seat was high, yet his feet were firmly on the floor. Next to him she stood like a little girl. His hair was white, thin on top and pulled into a chignon at the nape of his neck. His hands rested on his thighs. At the tips of his long fingers, the nails curved like talons.
She said the photograph was taken in their old house. Her father was blind then from cataracts. In his final years, a civilian after sixty-three years of serving the royal families, he had been sightless.
I knew this much was true: Times when she was herself she could at her leisure repaint her past with ease. Places where she’d taken me to would come back to life and the memories that haunted them, like a swath of sun-bleached fabric long forgotten, trembled with sounds and smells.
On a day she was lucid, we took a trip to Upper Đinh-Xuân, the inland village that lay sixteen kilometers from the seaside. She grew up in Upper Đinh-Xuân with her foster father, then an eighty-year-old former grand eunuch of the Imperial Court of Huế. People called him Sir Bộ because of the benefits awarded his village, a village in the deep south, by the Mekong River, when he was formally chosen by the Ministry of Rites.
To everyone who asked about her, her father told the same story, that he adopted her as a newborn from an orphanage in Huế. Soon everyone knew the story and accepted it. His neighbors adored the little girl whose radiant skin exuded loveliness, her dark brown hair always abundant with a soft sheen. Many women loved to touch the little girl’s nose. Then they laughed and giggled among themselves as they compared their own, short and flat, to hers. Hers, a classic painting, she remembered now with a demure smile.
Her father named her Phượng for the scarlet Poinciana flowers whose trees shaded the alley to their house. Phượng, a bright fire.
Always I had the urge to know where she came from. People here knew her as the daughter of a eunuch. Yet she knew how different he was from the living world, perhaps even from the netherworld, because he had been strange since birth. But she too was different from the rest of her child’s world. Childhood torments of her mixed race would come and go with time. Time. She remembered time. Infinite. She remembered the secret of her birth forever denied her by her father. I remember her eyes strained to piece together fragments of her childhood. Of a child’s questionable origins. I remember those fragments, because on another day if I asked her about them, I drew a blank look from her. Then suddenly she mesmerized me with her ease as she pulled them out, one by one, from the dark womb of her memory. Time pinpointed. An early spring day in 1954. She was twelve.
She said that day when she came home in the afternoon, her father was sitting on the doorsteps, drying his hair in the sun. Each time she saw his long hair she thought he looked like a wizened old woman with a huge man’s body. He was reading parched, yellowed documents, and across his knees lay a long ivory bamboo tube, carved with flowers in red and yellow and lavender.
She knelt before him on the cement floor. The sunlight yellowed the paper scribbled with faded black letters. What’re you reading?
Old documents from the court, he said, rubbing his tired eyes. I keep all the important documents in this tube. Things about money and government pensions and the ownership of our house and property. You’ll find it behind the altar. When I die, you’ll know what to do.
If you die, she said, who’ll raise me?
I’ve thought about that. When that happens, you can move to the Temple of Guanyin and live there until you’re an adult. The abbot would arrange for the sale of the house, or you can return to it when you are older. He wouldn’t mind providing you a shelter and education on my behalf. Her father twirled his hair and twisted it deftly into a knot. Do you want to live in the temple if I die? he said.
I know no one there.
Sometimes one has to start all over again in life. His voice was calm. I hope you understand that.
I’m not afraid, she said. I know you’ll protect me from the other world.
But what had he told her about the other world? All she knew, when she said that, he cupped his large hands around hers, making them disappear. Then he said in his soul he didn’t fear dying, but he feared the hardship his death would bring her. He gazed at the phượng flower in her hair and, after some musing, removed it. She saw tiny day-old wrinkles in its petals. She said, Father, can a eunuch have children?
No, he can’t.
Why can’t he?
Because eunuchs were males who were born with no sexual organs.
Is that why you couldn’t have children?
Her father grinned. Did you do well with your oral presentation today?
Yes, but they laughed at me.
Did you talk about the rice served to the emperor? Or they laughed because you got it mixed up?
No. It came back to me. The town of An Cựu supplied the best quality rice grains. The imperial kitchen picked each grain and cooked the rice in a small clay pot made in the village of Phước Tích. The kitchen used a rice pot only once, one for every meal.
And they laughed at you? Why?
Our teacher was very impressed with my presentation. He asked who helped me. I told him in front of the class that my father was the former grand eunuch of the court. She stopped, looked down at his gnarled hands. At recess, she said, some of the kids yelled at me, Daughter of a eunuch? That’s a miracle! They said other things too.
Let your teacher handle it, her father said calmly. Don’t react to them. That only goads them into more harassment.
I know, Father. They always come around. Her even tone, she knew, surprised him. I was upset, Father, but I didn’t cry. You know something else? I thought how little I know about you. She sat down beside her father with her satchel between her knees. That’s all I’ve thought of today. I know so little about who you are and why you adopted me. If I knew all that, I could handle them better. So why did you adopt me?
I was old, and I’d never had a family of my own.
Were you lonely?
Gently he put his arm around her.
But why did you choose me? Why not a pure Vietnamese baby?
Because . . . you looked like someone I once knew.
The concubine? What is a concubine?
A concubine is an emperor’s wife, but she’s not the queen. Our emperors used to have many wives.
What’s her real name?
Quỳnh Hương, he said. That was her name before she became a concubine. It means “princess flower.”
So she was named after a flower like me?
Yes. And then she became Ân-Phi. That was her concubine title. Every concubine had a title.
How well did you know her?
I used to serve her. I was the grand eunuch for sixty-three years.
What is a grand eunuch?
A grand eunuch is the head of the imperial servants.
How long did you serve her, Father, for all those years?
Nearly twenty years.
Was she as old as you when she died?
No, she died young, only in her thirties. Her father felt around in his cloth belt. She gave me a gift once. I have it here.
What he put in her palm was a phoenix pendant. When you’re older, you can have it all the time if you wish.
She held it up before her eyes. So beautiful, she said, her voice trailing. She asked what the concubines dressed like, and he told her red, green, and blue. Silk, satin, and sometimes cotton. Never black or gold.
And what about you, Father? What color was your dress?
Green for the senior eunuchs and blue for the junior. He paused. His eyes had a faraway look like the look in the eyes of a child daydreaming in the classroom. Phượng, he said finally, do you know why the concubines were forbidden to wear black or gold?
Because gold was for the emperor and black is the death color. After he explained she told him Ân-Phi would look majestic in black. He puckered his lips and thought for a moment before asking why.
Because she must’ve had very beautiful skin, like me.
She had beautiful eyes too, like you.
Why’d you adore Ân-Phi, Father? Did you love her like you love me?
I don’t know. But if someone takes you away from me, I’d wither like a mummy.
I want to be with you always. Did she want to be with you always? How did she die?
No one knows how she died.
Phượng’s eyes opened wide. How sad. You didn’t wither after she died, Father, but you’d wither without me?
He told her when Ân-Phi’s death came so suddenly and without warning, he felt something like withering, a shock that left him numb. The numbness, he said, however hard, eased with time, which as Heaven intends, healed every mortal wound.
In his silence she caressed the incised flowers on the bamboo tube and said, The people at the orphanage didn’t tell you who gave me up?
They wouldn’t do that. It’s confidential.
What about your family? Will I ever meet them?
He told her where he came from and how the anomaly of his sex made him a candidate for the palace eunuchs. The court sent for me when I was ten, he said. Took weeks by sea, many days by river. He told her that when he became the third-ranking palace eunuch, his father was exempted from labor tax for the rest of his life. He said his parents visited twice when he was still young. The distance was so great back then, he said, and I wasn’t allowed to return to my birthplace once I became a palace eunuch.
Hearing that, she rested her head against his side. How awful to be alone, Father, she said with a deep sigh.
He held her in his arms. She could feel him trembling.
Then often I wondered if someone like her father, a born eunuch, could fall in love with a woman like Ân-Phi three decades younger. What had she left with him as indelible, years passed? Somehow, Miss Phượng told me when I asked her such questions, age never played itself into her father’s life with Ân-Phi. His love for her was asexual then. She was amazed at how time could not purge that delicate love, neither possessed nor possessing, and the only reason for its timelessness she knew was that it sprang in response to the concubine’s transcendent beauty.
She passed on to me this image. By a lotus pond stood the concubine watching the maids pluck the lotus seedpods, her hair draped over her shoulder in one long, black swath. Her body was gracefully curved, one shoulder dipped slightly. When your gaze met hers, her eyelids drooped in a gentle curve, pensive and serene, and you smiled with absolute fullness.
I stood in the narrow doorway of their small hut, watching her clean her daddy’s infected toe. He was already out. Drunk, she said. Every evening.
Twilight. The briny air was warm. Voices of the sea in the distance—the sound of crashing waves, the sibilant sound of winds hissing through the dune grass, a sudden cry of a shore bird.
She rested his sore foot on a chair. I came in and looked at his swollen toe. She said she occasionally cut his thick toenails with a knife. They had become thicker as he grew older. She said when he was drunk he couldn’t bend to cut them and one of the big toenails had become ingrown and infected the toe. I offered to cut them for her, said, You aren’t strong enough to cut through the tough nails.
Squinting, I held his foot up to the flickering oil lamp. When do you see the doctor for him? I asked her.
Doctor? She frowned.
I’m afraid so, I said, glancing at the bloodstains on the cuticle. Wash the blood off and put something on it. Got iodine?
She went to the back of the hut and then returned, balancing her footsteps, carrying in her hands a brass pan brimming with water. I washed his toes, then dried them with a towel. She dabbed his big toe with iodine. It dripped to the clay floor in bluish black drops. He was snoring, his torso bare, oxblood dark. I found myself staring at the lush tattoos splashing all over his body. How long did it take to etch into his flesh all these sea serpents, dragons, the fish, sea clouds floating, giant birds flying?
She picked up a canvas bag and slung it over her shoulder. I must fix Daddy’s net, she said.
Outside dusk was falling. Her red kerchief looked darker on her head. It took two days, two nights, she said, sauntering beside me, when he let himself be tattooed with a lobster’s claw’s tip. That was before he married her mother. It must’ve hurt very badly, Chú. Bloody too. Then they colored his tattoos with a brush. Took a long time. Afterward he sat in the sun for two days. His skin turned red, then just a dead red. He washed the tattoos with warm rice liquor, believing their words that it would preserve the dyed images on his skin. That night, after two scorching days in the sun, he completed his initiation by drinking a large bowl of fermented lobster sauce.
Which way to the wharf last time I went out there with you? I said.
This way’s shorter, Chú.
Because I didn’t see the shrimp ponds around here.
I don’t like seeing them.
I hate them.
Because they pollute the water?
Her lips crimped, she shook her head.
Don’t you care? I said. Those pesticides and chemical wastes from shrimp farms?
No. She threw me a mean sidelong glance. I live here, Chú, I know.
But you don’t care?
She must have also known that beyond the seaside, toward inland, shrimp farms had encroached the mangrove forests where fish and other marine lives live and spawn, the forests for centuries protecting the inland from tidal waves, from wicked storms.
Daddy said there’re so many dead fish in the ocean now. Chemical wastes from those shrimp farms kill them. She paused then in a dead tone said, Daddy will kill those shrimpers. He will.
I glanced at her. Her face looked serious. I hope not, I said, sighing.
I could hear moral advice percolating in my head, but not a word left my mouth. After all, I knew nothing about their lives here. Going down the foredune, there was a tang of fish odor, a damp smell of kelp in the air. Fishing nets were piled up above the high-tide mark and beneath them lay the sea litter of seaweed, broken wet sticks, bits of crabs’ claws. High tide was coming in now, tinkling softly through orphaned seashells studding the sand. A buoy clanged in the rising tide. A desolate sound guiding fishermen ashore.
Her father’s boat rested on the sand among others, its bow leaning down on a pair of wooden stakes. A net draped its length, spreading over the sand. Above the water the wharf shone bluish under the iron lanterns, and in their pale illuminations she inspected the net, hooking her fingers in the twines of the rips, her eyebrows knitted.
Fresh tears? I asked her.
She shook her head, then said, I haven’t got time to fix them, as she swung her bag down and dropped it on the sand.
Anything I can do for you?
I can do this faster on my own. You’ll get in my way if you help, Chú.
I asked if it took long. She looked at me, tilting back her head, said, I wish you could fix a net just once and see how that’d do to your back after hours sitting on your knees.
And how much did you get paid?
She just shook her head sadly, said, Chú, different sizes different fees, then pointing at the worn-looking net, that net is about the length of five arm stretches, I got fifteen thousand đồng to fix the rips and recrimp the leads.
A dollar, I muttered.
It isn’t much where you come from, Chú.
I said nothing, just looking at her. The red of her headscarf, now a bruised red, the light blue of her short-sleeved blouse that hugged her scrawny body, the copper-tan of her skin, the thin wrists, long fingers that held the scissors as she snipped off the loose tag ends, cutting them off here and there all the way to the knots of each mesh. She did this quickly, cleanly.
I asked if she’d throw away the net damaged by a sizable hole. She put away the mending needle as if she didn’t hear me, and then slowly she began removing the guiding twine that had been threaded through the meshes. Finally she spoke without looking up. You never throw away a net, Chú. It’s like throwing away our own money.
Okay then, I said. Annoyed by her quirky mood, I decided not to ask what she or her father would do with such a damaged net.
Don’t you want to know how I’d fix a large hole, Chú? She turned to me, her arms akimbo.
Yes, I do.
I’ll patch it. It takes much longer to patch it. She saw my quizzical expression and shrugged. It’s hard for me to explain. You must see it, Chú. Like you first trim the hole, trim it to a square or a rectangular. Then you cut out a patch from a scrap net and its edges must match the edges of the hole so when you lay the patch in, it fits. Then you can weave.
How often did you have to do that?
Few times. Took a whole evening.
Out here by yourself?
I nodded. Something dark inside me made words sink back. Not pity. More like helplessness. Had she, this child-woman, ever gone to school? Had she the time to rest, a siesta perhaps, between her never-ending labor? What did she dream when she slept?
Do you like to go to school? I asked before thinking it through.
Yes, Chú. Her quiet tone surprised me. I hope someday I can. She started looping the guiding twine around the mending needle and then tossed them into the bag. She spoke into the bag. Auntie Phượng wanted to raise me and put me through school. But Daddy never allowed that.
I see. Well, he can’t do much without you around though. I stopped at the next harsh word about to leave my lips.
Auntie loves me like her own daughter.
But she doesn’t have a daughter.
No, Chú. How could she? She never married!
I chuckled at her illuminating words. Do you love her like you love Mommy?
Her eyes suddenly narrowed like a cat’s eyes. I don’t love her, she said.
And why’s that?
She picked up her bag and slung it over her shoulder.
I knew I shouldn’t have asked. We walked back up the dune, stepping over clumps of brown seaweed, our feet kicking up sand. From under the heaps of seaweed hopped out sand fleas. Tan and gray and a cola shade of brown. Flitting across the sand. Then her voice came. Mommy ran off. She lives with a shrimper now.
Her memories were fragile. At times they were like the blue in the sky, throbbing blue that you could touch, feel. Other times they were fleeting shadows. Chase them and they flit like fish in a creek’s bottom.
On this hot afternoon the taxi we rode in bounced on the rutted road, the red dust hazing the air. We were coming back from the Citadel to see where her father had once lived. Sixty some years in a same place. A servant for the royal family. Then the taxi detoured at my request to take us to Upper Đinh-Xuân, where she had lived for most of her adult life. She asked why, and I said, I want to see it through your eyes.
Through my eyes? She touched her sunglasses, smiling. Thank you for your trust in me.
No, I want to thank you.
You’ve given me a chance to see this country and its culture in a different light.
I need a friend too. She patted my hand.
I felt warm deep down. Now she looked blank, her hands folded in her lap, gazing out. I knew she must be tired. Past the sugarcane field the harsh sun glinted on her glasses. She once said her eyes were sensitive to strong sun. She’d have vertigo without sunglasses on a day like this. In her dark glasses I saw reflections of the foliage against a blue cutout of the sky, but not her eyes.
When the taxi had gone past the cane field, she looked back. Then, still looking, she said, Do you have a childhood friend—not just any childhood friend, you know what I mean? I said, No, and she said, Mine died in that cane field. For a moment I thought her memories had misplaced her recollection. The name of Jonathan Edward came to my lips when she said again, that if one day they took away the cane field, perhaps turning it into a giant shrimp farm, she was afraid she might lose her memories forever.
Inside the house she picked up the teapot and filled two cups. I watched her lift her cup with her thumb and index finger around the rim. She told me she had learned from her father that she’d scald her fingers if she handled the cup differently.
We walked back out to the veranda. A breeze came, light as a breath, and the returning scent of wild flowers brushed the air. We sipped our tea in silence. I’d learned not to press her. Then her gossamer-thin memories seemed to heal on their own.
I wish I could see a town the way you do, I said quietly. With memories, with little stories.
This is where I belong, she said, twirling her teacup. I don’t pay much attention to things around me and they pass me by. But they come back to me—at least today. Thanks to you.
Me? I arched my brows in surprise.
You’re a foreigner. She smiled, wrinkling her lips. Don’t laugh. And you don’t ask me questions that a foreigner would ask. They didn’t have the patience.
Yes, Auntie, I said. I could understand their disappointment if they pressed her harshly.
By the time I retired, she said, the urban transformation had gone by me unnoticed. By then, milk cartons had replaced bottles, ballpoint pens had replaced ink pens and inkpots at the post offices. She touched my breast pocket and pulled out my ballpoint pen. This, she said, I refused to write with it for a long time. . . .
I laughed as she put the pen back in my pocket. Well, I said, you should take heart from the Vietnamese prosperity and capitalism. Then I leaned my head to look at her. You told me about Jonathan Edward. But who’s this Jonathan Edward, Auntie?
Jonathan Edward, she repeated the name. Silence, then, He was with the Agency for International Development. She smiled to herself then said, I still feel the earnestness in his voice. He had a gentle, deep voice like you. Like that of a much older person.
I smiled a grateful smile, then with curiosity said, So he was with the much maligned AID pacification program.
Yes. They must repeat the French pacification program in Vietnam. Except not fail. And you know what he said? He said it helps if you speak the language. The Vietnamese will treat you like a member of their family.
It caught me off balance. Who told him that?
Well, I said, shaking my head, you might befriend a Vietnamese quicker if you speak to him in his mother tongue. But I don’t know if he’d treat you like a member of his family.
Now she stopped talking. She stood, head down, gazing at her feet. I felt a well of gratitude that I found her. To be a part of her life. To be near her. To be of any help. Her face tranquil, perhaps she might never forget what she’d be better off never to remember.
Twilight. On the lee side of the foredunes, sheltered by tall hedgerows of vetiver grass, the sandpipers rested. It was windy and the waves came in huge swells. An early mist hung pale over the wharf and the waves broke in empty booms against the rocks, the wharf’s pilings, and the buoys clanged.
She wasn’t alone at her daddy’s boat. A man was coming at her and she backed against the side of the boat, jabbing the mending needle at him. I ran across the sand. She turned around to pull on the net and he lunged for her from behind and pulled down her pants. I stumbled and regained my footing and saw her swing around and her arm flying across the man’s face. She saw me and quickly pulled up her pants.
He was an old man. Dropping down on the sand, he cupped the side of his face with his hand. I stood over him. A small, sharp-cheekboned, gaunt-looking man. His sweat-stained brown shirt had holes on the front like cigarette burns. The wind blew sand in my face. I could smell his unwashed body tinged with alcohol.
You leave her alone, I said to him. Or I’ll break every bone in your body.
Yeah? Aint done nothin to her, aint I? he slurred in his viscous twang. And look at what she done to me. Look. He moved his hand off the side of his face. There was a dark red gash from the tip of her mending needle.
I picked up her burning lantern on the sand, brought it against his face.You’re lucky, I said. You could’ve been blind in one eye. Now get lost.
He scrabbled around the sand as if he had lost something. Then his hand came up with a squat-looking bottle. He shook it, then twisted open the cork and sniffed, muttering into the empty bottle as he staggered away. I watched him lick the bottle’s neck as he bobbed across the sand, lost between the dark hulks of sand-docked boats, reappearing, a dark figure on the vast sand flat, and then wending his way like a haunting specter up the sand toward the boat rows above the tide line.
She looked calm as she adjusted her red headscarf . How’d you know I’m out here, Chú?
I didn’t see you at your house. Auntie Phượng said you didn’t come today.
I was at Auntie’s today. Cooked supper and washed dishes.
She said you weren’t there. Said you’d probably be out in the pumpkin patch. Were you?
I were yesterday. But not today.
I knew she got paid to help load up the trucks with pumpkins just harvested. Those ripe pumpkins weren’t light, their rinds now hard in deep orange, hollow sounding when thumped. She said she worked the whole day until her back gave. Then she said, Auntie has moments like that. Got today mixed up with yesterday.
I heaved and brushed the sand off my face.
Don’t you have a handkerchief, Chú? she said. It’s very windy tonight.
I’ll bring one next time. Who’s that guy? A hobo?
You can say that, Chú. He’s drunk most of the time. She knotted a corner of a mesh with a twine and snipped it with her scissors. One time when I was younger, eleven, twelve, he almost got me good. That evening I was coming down the dune over there to look for Daddy, and he jumped out on me from behind a filao tree. Drunk as a skunk. That good-for-nothing old buzzard.
Then? I squinted my eyes at her.
He got my legs locked with his so I couldn’t crawl away, and, and . . .
Pulled your pants down?
Yes, Chú. I threw sand in his face and then I felt something hard in my hand and it was a horseshoe crab shell. It got sharp spines. And then as he bent to try to, to . . . I hit his face with the crab shell and he fell off me.
Did you tell your daddy?
Daddy knew he was crazy ever since Daddy was a boy. Said next time just outrun him. That old drunkard.
I shook my head, told her that if it’d happened in America, he’d have been locked up for good. She grinned, said, Because America is rich. Mentally I agreed. Manpower, facilities. She said, Did you see anything, Chú?
See what thing?
What he did to me.
Yes. He pulled down your pants. I paused. And your panties.
Chú! You saw?
Well, you asked me.
No, you didn’t see. Okay?
Okay. I didn’t.
Can you help me hold the net down?
There was a large rip toward the center of the net, still damp, heavy from seawater and smelling of fish. She’d cut out a patch from some throwaway net and the patch was draped over the gunwale. As she put the patch in place, I said, Such a big hole. What happened?
It was rough out there today, she said. Daddy didn’t go out far. He set the net closer to shore. Lots of sharp rocks near the shore.
I watched her weave. There was a dry sound of wing beats overhead and looking up I saw a lone gull flying out into the darkening ocean now misted over. Straggling fishing boats were coming home, bobbing past the buoys toward the wharf where several gulls were already perched on the pilings, waiting. In a moment I knew they would shriek with pleasure when the fishermen hauled up their seins heavy with fish.
It was dark when she finished mending the net. The wind-combed waves swelled and the wind blew out her lantern. She lit it again, her face suddenly awash in the orange illumination, her eyes a wet brown. I asked her if she had dinner. She said, nodding, Yes, I ate at Auntie’s before I left. Then she opened her canvas bag, rummaging around with her hand, and came up with two packs of cigarettes.
They finally had them today at the market, she said. The kind you smoke, Chú.
I took the packs from her bony hand and said, Thank you. Then, as I put the money in her bag, she refusing to take the cash, I said, I still don’t know your name.
Didn’t you ask Auntie?
Why can’t I ask you?
Well. I promise I won’t.
Despite my serious tone, she slung the bag over her shoulder, picked up the lantern, and briskly footed across the sand. We moved toward the boat rows, the windblown sand gritty on my face, and I stood back until she stopped, turned around.
Look, I said, raising my voice, if you don’t tell me your name, I’ll make up a name for you.
She stood in one place like a statue, lantern in hand, the sand aglow at her feet, her red kerchief covering her head, half her face, fluttering. As she turned to head up the sand, she said, Cam.
Cam. Orange. Why d’you think I’d laugh? I asked her.
It’s a weird name.
I thought so myself. I remembered her moodiness and understood why she’d acted that way. She looked down at her feet, then bent, hovering the lantern over the loose sand. A ghost crab, tan-colored, was coming out of a burrow, its eyestalks trembling like two black peppercorns as it froze momentarily in the lantern light. Off-white, you couldn’t tell it from the sand that helped camouflage its carapace. Then it sprinted down the slope toward the sand flat.
Where’s he going? I asked her.
Follow him, Chú, she said, smiling for the first time.
I couldn’t see the ghost crab very well, as if it had blended with the sand, but I knew she could by watching her pacing in a straight line, the lantern light a warm orange ghosting on the sand, and soon we stepped onto the damp sand now as dark as the color of water. Three feet away was the pale tiny crab just barely above the tide line where waves washed in, died and trailed back. Before I could think, the crab sped backward, farther and farther up the sand flat, turned a sharp angle and stopped in front of a drenched-looking heap of perforated, round-leafed sea lettuce.
Don’t come near him, she said from behind. He can see you.
Can he? Then I looked again at its round eyestalks that usually guarantees a 360-degree vision. I turned to her, laughed and said, I thought he went down for a bath.
She raised the lantern high enough so as not to alarm but to see the crab better. Daddy said he needs water to breathe. I mean, the, the . . .
Yes. In the water.
I took a step up and she grabbed my arm. Don’t scare him, Chú. Let him get his meal.
Eating sea lettuce?
No. He eats beach fleas, mole crabs. They hide in those seaweeds.
I stepped back. She turned, said, I’m going to check on Auntie. Poor Auntie.
I’m going with you.
As we cut across the sand, the crosswind blew out her lantern. She sat it down on the sand in the dark, fumbling in her bag for the matchbox. In the cloaked blackness the sea came heavily on the wind with a wet, briny tang, the hollow booms of waves, and then suddenly the sea glowed in a long swath of light, pulsing like stars. I called out to her. Beyond the wharf, veiled in a white mist, the ocean was burning with an electric light of ghostly cold blue and glittering red and frosty green. She said those were sea lamps. At my exclaimed ignorance she laughed and said the sea lamps aglow on the dark water came from the myriad luminescent planktons. I said I wished I could capture the magical sea lamps with a camera. She rose now, having lit her lantern, and stood waiting for me to light my cigarette. I blew the smoke, saw it wisp away instantly.
Chú, she said, you can’t make those rings when it’s windy like this.
I’m not a magician.
You ever seen sea lamps back in America?
No. I’m sure they’re there. At the right time. I wish I were there.
Would be lovely.
When are you going back?
I thought then shrugged. I don’t have a date, I said. Soon though.
Are you going to marry her soon?
I glanced at her. Why’re you interested?
I hope you’ll marry her. If you don’t, you’ll break her heart.
What if she doesn’t want to marry me?
You’re a man, Chú. You can take it.
Like your dad?
Yes. Except he gets drunk to forget her.
So men aren’t tougher than women.
They are but women have more to lose.
I grinned in the dark as I walked by her side, shielding the lamp with my body, following the luminescent globe the lantern made on the sand, tan-colored, tide-littered with brine-soaked seaweeds, broken shells, broken oars, sometimes scraps of sein. In the shore blackness you could hear the sibilant hiss of windblown sand, and then suddenly there were flashes of fiery sparks shattering out of crashing waves. I imagined the sea lamps being carried back into the sea’s womb.
What d’you call your girlfriend, Chú?
Her name? April.
She said the name to herself. Do American names have meaning?
Some do. Her name does. Tháng tư, the month. And it means spring for new life.
What’s she doing in America?
She studies, a senior in college. Then, smiling, I shook my head. But that won’t help with me saying it, right?
I know she’s a student. And what d’you do, Chú?
I’m working on my master’s degree. Well, forget that. I’m a student too.
So you have to go back to school after summer.
You met her in school?
Yes. Well, no. We go to the same school, though, but we met by chance out of school.
She turned to look at me, the lower part of her face aglow from the lantern’s light, her lips slightly parted.
We met at a Christmas party, I said, taken in by the look in her eyes. I was twenty-two, a college senior. Her name is April McGillis, a freshman from a small town in Virginia. She went to my school. That evening she played the piano to the applause of the crowd. Then she pounded away “Up on the Housetop” and the crowd tapped their feet and clapped their hands. She winked at me leaning against the door a few feet away as she sang, Give her a dollie that laughs and cries, One that will open and shut her eyes.
Then she sang “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” and the crowd hummed along. . . . On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me, Twelve drummers drumming, Eleven pipers piping . . . Every time she sang those words My true love sent to me, her eyes would casually meet mine. I had butterflies in my stomach. . . .
But, now, as we walked on, I felt as if I’d been talking to myself and, still hearing my own words, I felt insensitive.
She was quiet as we left the dunes and followed a well-worn path that went along the marsh. We could have gone down a back dune to get to Miss Phượng’s, but it was too dark. So we took the longer way, rounding a curve where trees and bushes made the night as dark as ink, where the marsh came flush to the shoulder of the path so I could see water gleaming in the pond. Walking in the wavering lamplight with the wind coming in from the sea and down the back dune, we could smell a strong, musky smell. I asked her what kind of smell and she said nothing. She had been silent, walking like a local guide slightly ahead of me, the wax odor of the lantern tingeing the air. We walked past the pond’s shimmering liquid edge, which wrinkled when fish and frogs plopped into it. In the lull I heard peepers and crickets and bullfrogs in the undergrowth.
You want to hear a funny story? I asked her.
What is it, Chú?
About a Frenchman who trained his house cats to jump through the burning hoops.
So they jump through the hoops like circus tigers? She broke the silence.
Just like them, I said. He lured them with a fish he dipped in gasoline and lit it up and held it behind the burning hoops. One by one, the cats jumped through the hoops. If a cat failed, he’d hold it up by the tail and shout obscenity into its anus. That cat made the jump the next time.
It just did. Maybe those cats understood French.
She shook her head but I could see that she smiled. Then the musky smell came back. I sniffled. She said that was a fox’s smell and that he must be somewhere on the dune. She said sometimes if he is near and if you keep still, you could hear the soft padding of his feet on the filao needles. She knew it was him, a cross fox, his fur smoke-colored, slate-gray down his back and across his shoulders.
We made it around the marsh, dense now by a dripping fog. Blurred, motionless figures on stilts stirred among the grasses that fringed the pond. The lamplight had spooked the night herons and I could smell them strongly on the wind as we walked into the dense fog.
There was no light behind the window shutters of Miss Phượng’s house. We went up on the veranda and stood listening for any sound in the house. Auntie must be in bed now, I told her. The girl said nothing, standing with the lantern atop the rail of the veranda. We stood apart like two strangers. I could hear the wind and then the sound of falling filao cones on the roof.
She wasn’t home when I came by at noon. I didn’t see the helping girl either. I went back to the lodging house, picked up my notebook and made my way down the hill then through the pumpkin patch.
I sat down under a filao and read April’s letter. I forgot how many times I’d read her letter, but I read it again slowly so it wouldn’t end, lying on my back, the slivers of sun in my eyes. I covered them with her handwritten letter. The sea-salt odor was thick in the air, waves boomed against tidal rocks, swishing as they ebbed. She asked in the letter how people made perfume from wild ginger, for I had told her a local—I didn’t want to say a girl, the helping girl—had taken me out to hunt wild ginger, the two of us going deep into the marsh behind the dune, where the soil was damp, the ground cool, searching under shade trees where grass didn’t grow until we came upon a patch of heart-shaped leaves like a groundcover. Crouching, we could make out little maroon jug-shaped flowers that seemed to bloom out of the earth. They bore a scent like gingerroot. The girl said, while digging up the roots, they made perfume from the oil found in the root. I knew that wasn’t her intention, but she didn’t tell me. Later back in the lodging I came upon a newspaper article written about wild ginger, which said its root was used for many things, one of which was for irregular menstruation.
There was no one at the house. The next day I went back and found Miss Phượng sitting at the table, sipping morning tea. When I asked I received a vacant look in her eyes, her face placid. The helping girl said, Chú, Auntie won’t remember a thing.
What thing? I said.
I went with Auntie to the hospital yesterday. They kept her there until late.
Why did you go there with her?
Auntie wandered out on the road the night before. Someone found her by the marsh and took her back.
I felt like sitting down. Instead I looked at the large lacquered painting of the Imperial Throne Room on the wall. Then I went to the door, looking out past the fenced-in garden, where sand drift had strangled vegetation and most of them, save for the tops of those still fighting, had given up the ghost. What did the doctor say? I asked without turning my head.
He said she has amnesia. Hospital wouldn’t be able to help.
Said they have a place in Huế where they look after people like Auntie.
Yeah. I turned around and walked to the table. She didn’t look at me but at a space behind me where the girl was standing in the shadowed nook slicing a lemon. It would be a hot day. The girl always made a fresh jug of lemonade whenever she came in the morning. I wish there’s a long-term plan for Auntie, I said. I wish I could be here a little longer.
So you leaving soon, Chú?
In a couple days.
There was a silence. I glanced at Miss Phượng as she set her cup down and reached for the teapot. Her cup was still full. Auntie, I said, putting my hand over hers. She withdrew her hand and rested it on the table. A sudden cry from the girl. I looked over. She was dropping the knife and clutching her hand.
You cut yourself? I asked.
She balled her hand. Blood was dripping. I grabbed an already squeezed lemon wedge and packed it around her cut finger. After a while I wrapped the cut with gauze.
Keep your mind on what you’re doing, I said. What were you thinking?
She bit her lips, hard. I looked back at Miss Phượng. She was looking toward the door, her hair slanted across her jaw line. I wonder what I can do today, she said to no one.
I shook my head in dismay.
Yet she could remember what her father once told her the day the last emperor had decreed the abrogation of the concubine system, which set free all concubines from the court, leaving each the right either to return to her family or to stay on to tend the previous emperor’s necropolis.
That night her father wished Ân-Phi a good night’s sleep and left to return to his quarters. In the far corners of the garden foxfire glowed on dead wood. He stopped at a magnolia tree where Ân-Phi had hung a pot of dawn orchids on a branch. The tree was only her height the day she was inducted into the imperial palace and now it stood like a giant umbrella.
From Ân-Phi’s chamber drifted the sound of piano, a melody he had never heard before. Moss burned a phosphorescent blue on the tree trunks and the magnolia blossoms were so thick in his throat he had to breathe slowly. The piano stirred in him something of beauty and womanhood that he longed for. The only thing that came back was the sound of his solitude.
Six years after Ân-Phi left the imperial palace, the last emperor of the Nguyễn dynasty abolished the age-old eunuch system. Her father became a civilian following sixty-three years of serving the royal families.
With money he saved, her father built a house in the hamlet of Upper Đinh-Xuân, fifteen kilometers southwest of Huế. He was seventy-three years old when he settled in Upper Đinh-Xuân. Occasionally he visited his former fellows. One eunuch married a lady-in-waiting and their wedding became the village joke. His deputy, upon leaving the palace, married another eunuch. Her father presided over their ceremony, blessed them and wished them many happy years together. He understood the urge to have a companion, man or woman. Yet some like him chose loneliness rather than the persistent throb of longing.
Three months after he settled in Upper Đinh-Xuân, he came face-to-face with an aching void in him that had refused to fill. He missed his many years with Ân-Phi.
Bộ, her father, did not have to wait long at Sir Đông Các’s residence. Ân-Phi’s father was in his early sixties, the only one left of the four supreme mandarins of the court—the French had ousted the rest. The house was warm. A brazier crackled under the mahogany divan. Bộ admired the ironwood pillars and crossbeams held together by mortise and tenon that gleamed, dustless.
Bộ immediately inquired about Ân-Phi. An uneasy silence fell.
My daughter no longer lives here with our family, Đông Các said.
Where does she live now, Sir?
Let me consult with my wife. Please wait.
Bộ drew a deep breath and leaned back in his chair. He wondered why her whereabouts would be confidential. Đông Các returned. A corner of his mouth jerked as he said, My daughter stays at the Thiên Lăng mausoleum.
The deceased emperor’s concubines and some eunuchs had tended the sixty-year-old mausoleum of Emperor Tự Đức, nested among pine hills south of the capital, for many years. Originally there were 103 concubines, most of them long dead. Bộ had gone to Thiên Lăng years earlier to visit a terminally ill eunuch.
Now Bộ’s voice dropped. May I ask why she stays there?
She was pregnant.
Sir? How? Bộ mumbled. Forgive me.
The corner of Đông Các’s mouth twitched again. It’s a mystery to us.
Bộ arrived at Thiên Lăng at noon. He got off the ferry under the shade of a banyan tree, tripping over a huge serpentine root and lost his shoe. As he put it back on, he thought of Ân-Phi. A virgin to the emperor, now pregnant and about to become a mother. He had one single thought on his mind: Who was the man she let into her life? Disturbed, he emerged from the Worship Hall, shading his eyes against the sun. A row of wooden shacks stood in the rear. By an earthen vat an old concubine squatted, washing clothes. She beat and wrung a garment on gray flagstone, unaware that Bộ stood near her. He cleared his throat. The old concubine blinked her rheumy eyes and flashed a toothless smile.
Aren’t you the grand eunuch? You came here some years ago.
Yes, Madam. He remembered her too. She was in her nineties, having tended her emperor’s tomb for seventy-five years. He stooped and raised his voice slightly so she could hear. I was told that Ân-Phi stays here.
The concubine hung her head. Bộ thought she hadn’t heard him, but then she nodded.
May I see her?
The concubine rose with difficulty. What is the purpose of your visit?
I used to serve her, Madam. I came because I’m concerned about her welfare.
That she’s expecting a baby?
Yes. Bộ dabbed at his brow.
The concubine asked him to wait and went into the last shack on the row. When she returned, she brought a eunuch with her.
Bộ, the eunuch said, it’s a surprise to see you here. He beckoned for the older man to follow him to the last shack and ducked his head to enter. There was a bamboo cot in a corner with white mosquito netting around it. An old woman sat on a low stool by the cot, hunched over a pot of boiling water. She was the midwife. The old concubine shuffled to the cot and whispered into the mosquito net. Bộ heard a voice from inside and the concubine shuffled to the door, waving for the eunuchs to approach the cot. Then Bộ heard Ân-Phi’s voice clearly.
How glad I am to see you again, Bộ.
He came closer and she asked him to roll up the mosquito net. In the dim light her face was pale. Her hair was knotted above her nape and she lay under a woolen blanket, her belly huge. She hadn’t aged—she was as graceful as he remembered.
Ân-Phi, Bộ said, bowing, it’s such a joy to see you again.
Ân-Phi gestured for him to sit, so he lowered himself onto the stool, which was too small for him. The skin under her eyes was moist. Tell me what you have done since I left.
Bộ told her, eyes half downcast, and she nodded. How are you, Ân-Phi? He paused. I always worried about you after you left.
I don’t remember much of those final months. But I remember you, Bộ. How could I ever forget you?
Ân-Phi’s eyes narrowed in reflection. The serenity about her made Bộ’s heart well with affection. How many years of her youth had been wasted?
He glanced at Ân-Phi’s belly and for a while neither of them spoke. She told him she would take an herbal medicine to induce labor, because her water had broken. Numbed by the happenstance of her impending maternity upon his visit, Bộ asked, How did your pregnancy come about, Ân-Phi?
She laced her fingers on her chest. Sadness filled her face.
Do you know what happened to you, Ân-Phi?
Were you clear-minded, Ân-Phi? He kept his voice even.
Again she nodded.
Someone who won your heart, Ân-Phi?
She shook her head. Bộ didn’t dare ask anything further.
My father sold me to a French general. He drugged me and took me.
Bộ shook his head repeatedly.
My father kept his position with the court.
After Ân-Phi took the herbal medicine she went into labor. The cramps in her legs had her grip the frame of her cot and bite down so hard on her lips they bled. While the midwife massaged her calves, softly coaxing her to push, Ân-Phi could feel lives trying to exit her body in a monstrous mass of pain knotted in her lower abdomen. The pain cut deep into her bowels, screaming in her pelvis. Stubborn pain. It sucked her strength quickly and her bones ached. She tasted her own sweat on her cut lips. This blackest agony in childbirth. This merciless torture of labor. Yet from this she saw how it took all the human suffering to create life. Such a precious life must be honored and cherished.
An hour later she delivered a girl. Then she began to bleed.
Inside the shack three candles burned brightly. A wicker basket sat on the cot beside Ân-Phi. In it was a tiny baby wrapped in blankets. The midwife and the old concubine crouched over her and the infant’ cries pierced the quiet. The midwife held a white towel, blotched crimson. Ân-Phi lay still, sweat glistening on her brow, her eyes half closed, gazing down on her baby.
She saw Bộ bend over the women, his voice shaking. What can we do to stop the bleeding?
The midwife folded the towel in half and slipped it under Ân-Phi’s blanket. Give her some spinach.
The old concubine ground spinach in a mortar, added water and made Ân-Phi drink. She sipped, one hand holding the basket in which the infant cried, stopped, cried again.
Did you feed the baby? Bộ asked.
The midwife said, She cries, but not because she’s hungry.
Bộ. At her weak voice, Bộ knelt by the cot. Ân-Phi, he said softly.
Ân-Phi opened her eyes. Listen, Bộ, came her whisper, in my life as a concubine . . . She paused, wet her lips. I counted on you, you served me since I was fifteen, I always turned to you for advice, you had my unspoken trust . . .
Bộ bowed in silence. Ân-Phi drew her breath in. Bộ. She half opened her eyes to look at him. Can I count on you now?
I am at your service, Ân-Phi.
If I die, will you take care of my daughter?
His quick and sincere yes reinforced her belief that he would honor her wish. She sensed that the yes was in his heart before his mind could rationalize. Ân-Phi stopped talking when the midwife changed the towels and the old concubine dunked two blood-soaked towels in a pail of water. It reddened quickly. Ân-Phi drank another cup of spinach water. Her voice was hoarse.
I’m grateful to you, Bộ. Can you promise me—she paused and Bộ leaned toward her—that you will never tell my daughter who I am, how she came into the world?
Ân-Phi, Bộ said. She would want to know you.
Bộ. Ân-Phi tried to focus on him. I had a pair of ruby phoenixes. The emperor gave them to my father as a gift. I gave one to a beggar on the street. I want my daughter to have the one I have left. She stopped, her breathing shallow.
The midwife made her drink another cup of water and her hands shook as she held the cup. The midwife replaced the third towel with a fresh one. A brass pan sat on the fire. The old concubine dropped the blood-sodden towels into the boiling water and stirred them.
Ân-Phi closed her eyes to rest. She heard the old concubine tell Bộ that Ân-Phi’s family had let her wear only fake jewelry, because she used to show up on the streets, giving her jewelry to beggars. She heard it as though it were somebody else’s story, yet it made her realize at the same time the extraordinary derangement of her life whose darkest events had blotted out much of her remembrance—in it a silent void that had no explanation.
She felt Bộ wait beside her cot. Steam warmed the room as the soiled towels were boiled, washed, and wrung. Sometime in the evening the old concubine began to feed the infant. Ân-Phi asked to see the baby. Her eyes runny, she blinked to see the tiny human stir with busy movements and when she could not see the baby anymore without straining her eyes, she touched the baby. The soft skin warmed her heart.
The midwife changed towels, then felt Ân-Phi’s feet. Getting cold, she said and started to rub the insteps. Ân-Phi shivered, the midwife asked for another blanket and the old concubine gave her a quilted one. Ân-Phi’s teeth chattered even after they covered her with two blankets. The old concubine found a coal brazier, built a fire and put it under her cot.
The baby cried as she fed and then fell asleep. The three candles burned down, dripping wax onto the hollow dish. In the quiet the coals popped with a warm glow.
In that light Ân-Phi left.
She hadn’t been at Miss Phượng’s for three days.
It was midmorning when I came to her hut and found her lying wrapped in a blanket on her cot. She said she had bouts of diarrhea followed by a fever. She’d thrown up in bed. Her father had ground beefsteak leaves with garlic, mixed them with rice liquor and made her drink. The fever didn’t come down, the diarrhea didn’t stop.
I looked at her tongue. Blackened. I took off her shawl and dabbed her perspiring forehead.
It’s some fish I ate three days ago, she said in a thin voice. Daddy caught them. I said they were probably polluted by chemicals from the shrimp farms.
Your dad won’t be back until late today, I said, looking down at her blistered lips. You need to go to the hospital.
Am I going to die?
No, silly. I tried to smile. You’re a good girl. You can’t die.
Her teeth chattered. I’m cold, Chú.
I stood up. Okay, I’ll be back shortly.
The doctor at the town hospital diagnosed typhoid and treated her with antibiotics. He injected syringe after syringe of sodium solution. I came back the next day while she convalesced. She looked thinner. I held her hand. I knew how close to death she had been.
I bought you soy milk Auntie made for you, I said.
How was Auntie doing?
She said when you get well, you can eat spring rolls she made with anchovy. Is that your favorite food?
She nodded then said she loved steamed anchovy wrapped in rice paper with lettuce. You dip them in a shrimp sauce flavored with minced pineapple and garlic, a pinch of sugar, and a dash of lemon.
I removed the brown bag and gave her a glass jar of fresh soy milk. She palmed it, her cheeks flushed from the heat inside the small room. Can I drink it, Chú? she said and wet her dry lips.
Sure. It’s good for you.
She sat up. I handed her a glass and watched her drain it down, not wasting a drop of the clear white soymilk Auntie had made. Still holding the empty glass in her hand, she looked at me, then at the unlit cigarette between my fingers. Why don’t you light it, Chú?
I’d rather not, I said and put it back in my shirt pocket. The smoke will make you cough.
Am I going home today?
Home. Her father was like a ghost coming and going in their house. Wait for the doctor, I said.
She complained that her abdomen still hurt as she turned on her side to put the glass back on the table and the burn scar on her cheek, salmon-colored, shone in the table lamplight.
Did you burn yourself? I asked, pointing at my own cheek.
She squinted her eyes at me. The first time when I met her I asked about it and she gave me the evil eye. I leaned back in the chair under her gaze and shrugged.
I didn’t burn myself, she said finally. Mommy did.
She didn’t like the fish soup I cooked, said why don’t you and your dad eat this and she threw the bowl in my face.
Hell, I said, shaking my head.
Chú, she said, leaning forward to hand me the jar, Don’t you want a sip of Auntie’s soy milk?
I’m not thirsty. It’s for you.
She sat back. Who brought you cigarettes now?
I did. I went to town. Auntie asked me to pick up a few things for her.
I’ll be back to take care of her tomorrow.
Take another day’s rest. You said your tummy still hurts.
It’s tolerable now, not like couple days ago. It hurt bad then and I had tears in my eyes. She was stopped by a sudden cough. But I’m feeling much better now. I want to go home and check on Daddy. Does he know where I am, Chú?
Certainly. Did he drop by while I wasn’t here?
I don’t know. He might. Before sunrise. He goes to sea very early. I must be sleeping when he came.
I looked away hearing her wishful voice.
Auntie, look here.
I gave her a grass ball I had picked up from a hollow in the sand. She weighed it in her hand, a tennis ball made of sticks and grass and seaweed. Who made this, she said. I shook my head, said, I don’t know where they came from. The helping girl, tightening her headscarf because of the wind, chimed in. I’ve seen them before, Chú. Daddy said the waves roll them together and the wind blows them up the shore.
While the girl stood, I knelt beside Miss Phượng by a clump of grass. The wind blew sand up the beach and you could hear the sibilance of sand. She watched the grass blades bend and dip, drawing their tips in the sand. Arcs and circles. She said arcs foretold disquiet weather, and circles fair weather. She said she hadn’t been to the beach in a long time. She asked what lay in a depression between the dunes. The girl said vines, sometimes cranberry sometimes bayberry. Densely clad, they carpeted the hollows in shining green.
We came upon tracks in the wet sand. The girl said, That fox was out here early. I said, It could be a dog’s footprints. The girl shook her head, said, I know they’re his tracks. She said his footprints were clean-looking, each with a two-toed, two-clawed impression in front. She stood back and gazed at the tracks where the fox’s footmarks suddenly became erratic, gapped. What is it, I asked. She squinted her eyes, thought, and said, He must’ve been scared by something and I wonder what that might be.
On the wet sand there were shore birds’ footprints. As the girl stood back with Miss Phượng watching the sun set, I followed the birds’ tracks down the beach until I saw ahead of me a flock of sandpipers, tan-colored, white-breasted, running with the waves. Twilight now. They were still hunting for food, probing every spot of sand, every ripple marks for mollusks. When they saw me, they scooted up the beach in ghostly silhouettes. I followed their tracks until they were washed over by the waves. Alone on the sand stood a sandpiper in a pool of water. Sunset was red glimmers in the pool. The bird looked out over the sea and gave a lonely cry.
Before I left the girl said, Chú, wait. She ran into the guest room where she would stay for the night with Auntie, and when she came back out she gave me something wrapped in an old newspaper. I unwrapped it. A necklace made of bull nuts. Those glossy black bull nuts she picked from the pond. I felt them. Each of them looked like a goat-horned devil.
For your girlfriend, she said, biting her fingernail.
Thank you, Cam.
She shook her head as if in denial of hearing her name.
I wanted to hug the girl but she stepped back and ran into the guest room. I called out to her. As she closed the door I could hear her voice, I hate you, Chú.
I hugged Miss Phượng. She held my hands in hers, said, I don’t pay much attention to things around me and they pass me by. But they come back to me—at least today. Thanks to you.
I walked with her to the veranda. Then she stood back and watched me leave. When I turned to look back, the door was closed and the windows were lit and a blurred shadow moved behind the curtains. I stood until the light in the windows went out.
The neighborhood dirt path was dark. I lit a cigarette. A dry bark came. In the garden stood a long-bodied, bushy-tailed creature. A fox. As I watched the fox, it dawned on me that it must have seen the cigarette light. Maybe animals also gravitated to light. The fox too, a solitary hunter.
In the blue light of darkness I thought of Jonathan Edward. The Việt Cọng killed him in the sugarcane field. They believed he was CIA. I thought of angels and though I had never said a prayer, I believed in one now in this unbearable moment. Auntie. I called to her in my heart and closed my eyes, holding her face in them.
Khanh Ha’s debut novel is FLESH (June 2012, Black Heron Press). He graduated from Ohio University with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism. During his teen years he began writing short stories which won him several awards in the Vietnamese adolescent magazines. He is at work on a new novel. A short story, reshaped from this novel, has been acquired by Red Savina Review (RSR) and will be published in its 2013 Spring inaugural edition. It was also nominated for the Winter Literary Award in the Tethered by Letters Journal but was withrawn because of conflict of interest. For further information on FLESH, please follow the links regarding author’s website, blog, professional as well as reader’s reviews (http://www.authorkhanhha.com).