by Khanh Ha
The children flashed out of the woods on their bikes when they heard from behind the white fences the shouts of their names calling them home. In single file they streaked down, hollering, waving their hands at Minh in his VW Beetle that chugged its way toward the cul-de-sac on the edge of the woods and pulled up in front of a two-story red-brick house.
Shadows had reached across the lawn, painting the grass dark green. Behind the house the woods blackened into silhouettes flickering red and gold with the sunset.
On the flagstone walkway Minh stood, carry-on bag in hand. A glider, painted white, sat on the open columned porch by the entrance door. Dusk had tinged the windows with a sooty shade, the ruffled white curtains now gray.
He climbed the semicircle stone steps, rapped the brass ring and waited. The week before Lan came home to Maryland when her internship in Washington, D.C. was over. She invited him to spend a weekend with her family, but he took a rain check. The doorknob clicked, and in front of him appeared a girl. Linh, Lan’s next younger sister. She had a straight-ahead look in her eyes.
“Chào cô,” he said. “I’m Minh. I’m a friend of Lan.”
She gave a little gasp and put her fingers to her lips, then stepped back and swung the door open.
“Please, come in.”
Minh stepped into the foyer and set the carry-on bag down against the wall. He could smell the garden, as strong as if he had stepped into it. He inhaled deeply.
“Oh, you like the garden smell?” Linh said. “We leave the back door open for fresh air as much as we can.”
He noticed the dirt stains on her forearms, on the front of her white shorts.
“Doing yard work in the back, Linh?”
Her eyes opened wide.
“Lan told me about each of you,” he said. “Well, I saw your pictures in her photo album.”
Linh giggled to hide her nervousness. “I should’ve guessed.”
“Lan doesn’t expect me. Could you tell her that I’m here?”
“So what made you change your mind?” Then she plugged her lips with her fingers. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to sound nosy.”
“That’s all right.” He looked around. “Where is everybody?”
“Outside in the garden.” She pointed to the back. “Would you like to come out and meet them?”
Straight ahead was an open sliding glass door. The room felt cool and the breeze smelled of tilled soil.
Linh slid open the screen and they stepped out.
“Lan! You have visitor.”
Lan was squatting over a flower bed, hands in gloves, wetting some freshly planted pansies with water from a green watering can. She wore cutoffs, their hems frayed on her thighs, and a blue flannel shirt with sleeves rolled up above her elbows. As she bent over the soil, a few stray locks dangled on her forehead. Minh sensed that everyone had turned to look at him.
Lan sprang up, yanked the garden gloves off her hands and strode toward him. Her smile spread like heaven’s gate just opened. She held out her hands to his.
“What happened?” she said. “Why did you change your mind?”
“Linh asked me the same question a moment ago. I thought it through last night. . . . I missed you.”
Two women came over. Her mother, in a short-sleeve white shirt and olive cotton slacks, wore her hair in an onion-shaped bun. Nearly a head shorter than Lan, her diminutive stature made her look modest.
“Ah,” her mother said, “so you wanted to surprise Lan?”
Lan blushed. Minh turned to bow to her grandmother who stood by her side, leaning forward on her walker, in black pantaloons and a bà ba collarless satin shirt—the apparel Vietnamese women wore at home. The maroon color of her shirt set off the silver-white of her hair.
She bowed back with a reserved smile.
“Cháu ở đâu đến?” her grandmother asked.
“Georgetown—in D.C., Grandma.”
Giggling, Lan turned to her grandmother. “Grandma, it’s less than an hour.” She turned back to Minh. “Grandma’s overwhelmed by this new geography. She still thinks in terms of Saigon, where you can walk to the marketplaces or to see your relatives. Here you can’t get anywhere without a car.”
Behind her mother Minh saw Trang and Trinh. Both looked like twins, wearing shoulder-length hair and sweatshirts of different colors, one in auburn and the other oyster white. They greeted him, their eyes had a curious look. He looked past them at the sunset, then at the woods beyond the white fence.
“Such a nice place you have here,” he said. “So peaceful.”
“How long are you going to stay with us, may I ask?” her mother said.
“Ma’am, till tomorrow, with your permission.”
“Of course. But why just one day after you’ve come all the way out here?”
“I have other things to take care of. I’m pressed for time.”
“Lan told me you live with your uncle,” Lan’s mother said. “And that you have no other relatives here. In that case, I’d like to welcome you into our family.” She lifted her gaze to him with a nod. “Right now I must go inside to cook dinner. You can stay and talk with Lan—and Grandma.”
She whisked by and ordered Lan’s sisters inside. Lan gestured with her hand toward the garden.
“Do you like gardening?” Lan asked him.
“I like tending flowers, yes.”
“Would you like to see our garden, then?” Lan turned to her grandmother. “Grandma, you feel like taking a walk with us?”
Grandmother shook her head, fanning them away with her hand. “Go ahead. Let me stay here.”
She gripped her walker, her head trembling. When she turned her head away, Lan nudged Minh in the ribs. “Grandma sits out here all day. She hates lying around in bed. Wintertime kills her.”
They entered the garden through a white two-hoop arbor twined with climbing roses. At dusk small lanterns lit up behind the arbor, illuminating the flower beds that edged the garden path.
“Lovely,” Minh said.
“Come see the pond.”
She took him toward an oval pond rimmed with red bricks that sat beyond the Canada red cherry. Its water looked as dark as the sky above and lily pads floated on its calm surface.
“The owner of this house built it himself,” Lan said.
The flagstone path stopped in front of a summerhouse backed against the fence. Beyond the fence were the woods.
“Every house this side of the road needs a garden fence,” Lan said. “Otherwise deer sometimes come out of the woods and eat our most prized plantings.” She stopped over beds and plots of vegetables, which cut up the garden into squares and stripes. “And this is mom’s territory.”
The red peppers grew wild in one patch, then the curly-leafed parsley in another. In the middle of a vegetable patch stood a scarecrow with a yellow woolen cap on his head.
Evening began to darken Lan’s face, and in the stillness the wind chime clinked a melancholy note.
“Mom can’t take care of the house by herself,” Lan said as they walked back. “We rent it with an option to buy. My sisters help cut grass and shovel snow now that they get older.”
Minh and Lan assisted Grandmother into the family room. Lights had come on in the house, and the air was saturated with the aromas of cooking. In the kitchen, Lan’s mother stood over the stove with her back toward them while Linh washed vegetables in a strainer at the kitchen sink. The Vietnamese music sounded from the dining room where Trang and Trinh set the table.
Lan went into the kitchen to help her mother, and Minh stayed with Grandmother in the family room. A small, oblong room with fawn carpet, its plastered ceiling was low. In the center of the ceiling a shiny metal hook supported a clay pot of cinnamon fern that spilled over the rim with its lacy fronds. Hung on the wall above the sofa was a wood-framed oil portrait of Lan’s mother wearing her hair in a chignon.
Grandmother stooped to fetch the newspaper on the coffee table and handed Minh the paper.
“Would you like to read?” she asked.
“Thanks, Grandma, but maybe later.”
Slowly she let go of her walker and lowered herself onto the sofa.
“Must be a long day for you,” he said. “Lan told me you like outdoors . . .”
“So I can enjoy the day. I don’t have many days left.”
She leaned back, legs closed, hands laced around the knees. Her face looked like a wrinkled plum, her arms thin, mottled with freckles.
“So I heard your parents are still back home,” she said. “Any reason why?”
“Father told me his roots were in Vietnam, where he was born, and where he would die.”
“A hard decision, and an even harder life.”
“He believed he could live with such a hardship. He was at peace with himself.”
“He has a point.” Grandma’s eyes grew soft with a sympathetic look. “Most of us live in one kind of fear or another. But when you’re at peace with yourself, then it’s irrelevant where you live.”
“Grandma, do you believe that it can be done?”
“Was it fear that made you flee our country?”
Her brows knitted, Grandma stared at a blank spot in front of her.
“I would say it was,” she said at last. “Fear of being left behind, being abandoned. When you have a family, the attachment to one another is the conduit of fear. What would I do if I had no family? I don’t know. I guess if you live without fear, you will do the right thing, the rest is speculation.”
She braced herself on one arm so she could face him, her spindly legs now bent and pressed together at the knees.
“How did you meet Lan?”
Minh blinked. He told her they met during the Vietnamese Parents’ Day at the University of Maryland and left it at that. She strained her eyes to look at her fingernails and then lifted her face to him.
“I’m happy for you because you’ve met someone you love,” she said. “By the same token, I’m happy for Lan. I trust her intuition in choosing a relationship with someone whom she considers more than just a friend. As you must know, Lan gives a whole lot of herself to the person she loves and expects little in return.” Grandma paused as if giving him time to absorb the notion. “But that’s how a meaningful relationship is formed when you live for others more than you live for yourself. If you can give unselfishly, then that giving is happiness itself. And Lan is very much an unselfish girl.”
Minh sensed an urgency in the old lady’s words. She was staring at him as though she wished to measure their effect, yet there was no harshness in her gaze, only a concern that left him feeling inadequate.
“Grandma,” he said, “my appreciation for the attention you paid to our relationship. I’ve known Lan for only a few months, but one thing for certain, she could bring about a change in me before I knew it.”
“She has changed you then?”
“That’s why I came here to visit her and your family. I never thought much of family. Where I came from I wasn’t instilled with such values. But she’s helped bring back that sense of family in me. Family, tradition.” Lips pursed, he waited for his thoughts to come together for fear that he might stumble over what he wanted to say next. “I used to despise the past she revered, and her obsession with it troubled me a lot. But now I know why. It starts with the love for her family.”
“Listen, Son,” Grandma said, “it’s encouraging to hear you say this. Yes, virtue is the bond in a relationship.” Her rheumy eyes sparked as though seeing an old friend in a strange town. “I’ll tell you a story. Lan’s father met her mother when they joined the Resistance to fight the French. He was captured and imprisoned. They were in love but not married. Two years later he became a free man. He went to her house and . . . I still remember what he told me. He said, ‘I’d never forgot that look on her face when she answered the door. The look of disbelief when you see someone you thought was dead walk up to you.’ She hadn’t gone off and married someone else. She told him she had lived with a conviction that he was still alive. Every night she went to bed she’d pray, and then she’d look at her shadow on the wall, pretend it was him and say good night to it. That’s faith, because it manifested the strength of her love. With such faith, love will endure.”
“Grandma, would this happen if you know somebody only for a short time?”
She studied his face, then held out her hands. “Let me see your hands,” she said.
Her bony fingers took hold of his hands. He could see her eyes scrutinizing the abstract lines he had never before paid any attention. He held his breath. She put his hands down, patting them.
“Remember this,” she said, “through thick and thin a relationship develops a bond. For it to grow, you must be unselfish, because selfishness is what kills a relationship, not adversity.”
He wanted to ask Grandma what she saw, but she pressed her palms together on her chest as if to say a prayer, then spoke again in a low voice, not looking at him. “Good omen, bad omen. I had lived through the famine in the North in nineteen forty-five. Over a million died. No rice to eat. The French and the Japanese had stocked up all of our grain, so much that it rotted in their warehouses, then it had to be burned as coal substitute to run their trains. We ate less and spared our foods for the hungry who came begging every day at our door. Every morning I saw coolies cart away corpses on the streets. One morning there were three corpses lying at our door. My father had to pay the coolies to haul them away. One of them not yet dead tried to crawl out but collapsed again with head and arms hanging over the tailgate of the cart. I learned the value of food through the famine.”
She stopped and he felt relieved.
“You’re young and pure,” she said, leaning back as her eyes fluttered to open. “Upheavals in life haven’t touched you. When they take their tolls on you, sometimes you might have to shed your skin and be reborn. Only a few people could.”
“What are you trying to tell me, Grandma?”
Just then Lan came in to announce dinner.
He sat by Grandmother, next to a rosewood china cabinet full of antiques: plates, ivory china figurines, vases on lacquered stands. On the top shelf sat a framed picture of Kuan Shih Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. The wall photographs were arranged in an inverted V. Above them hung a round clock whose shiny silver hands read 8:15.
Trang went over to the stereo stand and turned down the volume. Lan’s mother came in, a ceramic tureen in her hands.
“You must pardon us for the simplicity of our dinner tonight,” she said. “I didn’t have time to prepare. I promise to cook a truly good meal for you before you leave tomorrow. Just let me know what you want to eat. I want you to feel like a part of our family.”
“Thank you, Ma’am,” Minh said. “My family is small and I’m the only son. I’ve never had a chance to enjoy a full family like this.”
While they talked, Lan was serving soup from the tureen—crab meat soup with chopped asparagus. Minh’s tongue could taste the soup’s creamy broth, rich and peppery, and his nose felt wet with its steam.
Her mother stood up and began carving the fish on the platter next to the tureen. A flounder fried to a crispy skin, golden brown, whose upper side was covered with ginger and spring onions and garnished with coriander leaves and hot peppers. Beneath it lay a puddle of dark soy sauce and tamarind liquid and slices of onions. She removed the bones from the fish, then transferred the bones to a plate.
“My family eats a lot of fish, more so than meat,” she said. “Fish and vegetables.”
“I heard they improve your complexion,” Minh said.
She looked at him with a teasing smile. “What do you think?”
“Well, I think it’s true, judging from everyone here in your family. And that begins with Lan.”
“We’ll make a convert out of you,” Lan said as she reached for his iced tea and, with a wink at him, brought the glass to her lips. He could see her sisters’ eyes follow her motion with their smile held in check. Her mother tapped Lan on the hand.
“Get yourself your own glass, dear. Or have you forgotten your hygiene already?”
Lan set the glass down, pouting. “No, I’m not thirsty. I just wanted to remind Minh that he hasn’t touched his drink yet.” She looked at his bowl where he’d shoved the fried hot peppers to one side. “Mom, look, Minh can’t eat hot food. See all the hot peppers he tried to get rid of?”
Grandmother covered her mouth to suppress a cough. “So did I. Your mother made it quite hot this time.” She nodded at Minh’s bowl. “That makes two of us. My daughter and my granddaughters don’t like bland food.”
Lan passed Minh’s rice bowl to her mother for a refill. “Mom, you must teach Minh how to cook a few dishes. Otherwise I’m afraid he’ll eat frozen dinners.”
“But he’s leaving tomorrow, dear.” Her mother was stirring the rice with chopsticks to separate its grains from clumping up in the rice cooker. “I can give him a few recipes. Would you like to learn how to cook, Minh?”
“If you’d be kind enough to spare me a few tips,” Minh said. “Maybe someday I’ll come back here and cook a dinner for your family.”
The girls laughed. Trang covered her mouth so she could slip the ice cube she had been sucking back into her hand. “If you can cook for us, then I’ll paint you a portrait.”
Lan thrust her chin at her sister. “Don’t underestimate him. He’ll do what he says.”
Minh glanced at Trang, and she fretted in her chair.
“Trang, do you want to bet?” he said.
“Wow, that would be neat,” Trang said. “I’ll paint you a portrait if you can cook a meal for us. And I mean a real meal, like Mom’s.
“That’s a tall order. And if I can’t?”
Lan cut in. “She’ll show you her work later and you can be the judge.”
Her mother was serving the next dish, garlic beef. “Minh,” she said, “if you want a portrait of yourself, you should concede now.”
“What about you, Trinh?” he asked.
Trinh gave a nervous smile.
Her mother turned to Minh and shook her head. “My little girl, she’s very modest. But she’s gifted in music. She excels past her peers in music classes.”
“You two are quite artistic, and Lan,” Minh said, nodding at Lan, “she’s got that flair for theater. It’s too bad that she can’t take advantage of it.”
He met Lan’s eyes, and the look in them told him he had made a mistake. Her mother reached for the dish of garlic beef, picked up a portion of it with her chopsticks and put it on Lan’s plate.
“We cautioned her against the theater,” she said. “Do you know why?” Her lips curled into a grim smile. “Because it will expose her to the public and somewhere along the line it’ll rub her against a few bad seeds, and that’s all it takes to turn her life upside down. In the old days you didn’t see girls with a good upbringing go into the theatrical trade—acting, singing and all that. Our parents used to call them the lowly troupe, those who joined this trade.”
Lan kept her head down. Minh wanted to apologize to her for having brought up the subject. Instead he turned his face away and caught Linh watching them.
“Lan told me you’re going to college next year,” he said.
“I am,” Linh said. “But I’m not sure I’m ready for it.”
“Still like being a little girl?”
“Still want to be home.”
Her mother leaned forward with a cluck of her tongue. “She doesn’t want to go anywhere in her life. When she was five we put her in a kindergarten, which was around the corner from our house. One day during a class recess, she sneaked back home by herself.”
Linh’s cheeks reddened, and she touched the tip of her nose. “I don’t know. I guess I’m attached to home more than anybody else in the family. I hate that god-awful feeling of being alone.”
They finished dinner at nine o’clock, and his palms began to feel damp, tingling. He had saved this until the right moment. His stomach knotted. This same severe anxiety hit him once, just before he was set to leave Vietnam. What if the communist authorities stopped him at the airport at the last minute and revoked his passport?
Lan’s mother brought out a bowl of chè bắp—sweet-corn pudding—for dessert.
Minh took his first sip. This was what he’d lost over the years living overseas. With a dash of coconut milk, the finely grated corn tasted sweet. He was used to eating what Uncle Vinh’s wife cooked—the American dishes. Every other meal there was Caesar salad, quiche Lorraine, baked potatoes. Their refrigerator was filled with lean cold cuts, Kraft cheese, bagels, Wonder white bread. And Perrier.
He glanced up at Lan’s mother and caught her looking at him.
“How do you like it?” she asked.
“I . . . I like it very much. I mean it’s been a long time . . . but . . .” He paused. “I have something I would like to say to you and everyone else here.”
“What is it?” Lan’s mother said.
He took a deep breath. “May I have your permission to propose to Lan?”
Lan’s mother stared at him, wide-eyed. “Have you talked to each other about this?”
“Not yet,” he said.
Lan blushed. “I’m flattered,” she said, “but . . . it came as a shock to me. I’ll need time. I’ll need to talk with my mom.”
“Of course,” he said.
“I only give her my advice,” her mother said, looking at Minh then at Lan, then back to Minh. “She knows what’s best for her. What’s your Chinese horoscope sign?”
Lan’s mother’s eyes lost focus for a brief moment.
“Lan was born in the year of the rat. Based on the tam hợp—the compatible three—monkey, rat, and dragon get along with one another. Is that right, mother?”
“Tam hợp,” Grandmother said with a sigh. “I suppose so.”
“Well then,” Lan’s mother turned to Minh, “if you’ve given it serious thought, I accept your proposal to her on behalf of my husband and my family.”
The girls clapped their hands and raised their glasses. Grandmother nodded as if rocking herself to sleep, but she didn’t smile.
Lan placed her hand on Minh’s, her face radiant. “We’ll wait till my dad comes to America. Then we’ll have . . . a family reunion, and . . . our engagement ceremony at the same time.”
The excitement filled the air. The unspoken wish to see their father released from a prison camp in North Vietnam had been the palpable heartbeats in their lives.
After dessert, they drank chrysanthemum tea in the family room. Lan asked Trinh to play the violin and she obliged.
Minh sat on one end of the sofa with Lan in the middle and then her mother. He watched Trinh play. She sat cross-legged on the floor, head tilted, hair skimming the ridge of her shoulder. She clutched the heel of the bow, jabbed it, plucked a few notes, then in one graceful motion her hand began to glide back and forth in The Blue Danube. On one sofa, Linh and Trang sat with Grandmother, and their heads swayed and their eyes closed like they were cats being stroked between the ears.
Lan’s profile was silhouetted against the corner light. In the floating melody, Minh’s heart was filled with such tenderness he longed to hold her against him, and let himself drowse in her scent.
When they broke up, the clock read a quarter to ten. While the girls helped wash dishes in the kitchen, Grandmother asked him to take her down to the basement.
The air smelled of sawdust and the cement floor was spotted with clumps of curling wood shavings under the work bench. She ambled to a corner table where she flicked on the light and rummaged through a cardboard box. Then she made her way back and handed him a wooden statuette.
“See if you recognize it,” she said.
The smoothly burnished acorn-brown statuette fit the palm of his hand.
“The Laughing Buddha,” he said.
The Buddha wore a robe rippled with draped folds, unbuttoned on the front showing his big, round belly that made Minh think of a small watermelon. On his face was that immortal, ear-to-ear smile—his trademark.
“I want you to keep it as a souvenir,” Grandmother said. “A monk from a Vietnamese Buddhist pagoda in Silver Spring gave it to me. Lan’s mother said it looked too small among the others on the altar.”
“Cám ơn bà,” he said. “I’ll keep it on my bedside table.”
“May it bring you happiness along your way,” Grandmother said with a quiet smile.
In his sleep, Minh heard a noise at the door.
Lan stood by the night table, looking down at him. Her white nightgown shimmered in the glow of the clock dial. Behind her the door was open a crack.
He pushed himself up on his elbow. “What keeps you up?”
“I don’t know,” she said in a whisper, as she sat down on the edge of the bed.
He ran his hands through her hair, brushing it back behind her ears. “I miss you.”
She tilted her head, trapping his hand against her shoulder. “How much?”
He opened his arms and pulled her to his chest. She held still. “Everyone’s in bed except you,” he said and heard a hoot of a barn owl behind her house in the suburb of Maryland.
“I’m glad you came to visit me and my family,” she said, her face pressed into his chest. “It was dreadful last week during the trip back from D.C. At home my sisters said I looked like a sleepwalker.”
She raised her face at him. He bent his head and kissed her on the neck, the spot below her earlobe. Then his face eclipsed hers. She parted her lips with a sigh and her mouth drew itself to his. After he stopped, she cuddled against him.
“You ever kissed anyone before?” He traced the curves of her brows.
“Why’d you ask?”
She smiled, her eyes gleaming. “I have a story about a jealous wife. You want to hear?”
“One day,” she said,“the king summoned his favorite mandarin and the mandarin’s wife into his palace. He’d heard that the wife was unable to bear children. That meant the end of the mandarin’s lineage. He offered help. ‘I grant you the right to have a concubine,’ the king said to the mandarin. ‘Hopefully, you would be blessed with a son.’ At the wife’s silence, he chided her. ‘You seem in disagreement with my decree, do you not?’ She nodded, again in silence. The king said, ‘I give you one chance to redeem yourself. If you abide by my decision, you will be rewarded with the cup of tea on your left; if you oppose it, drink the cup of poison on your right.’ The wife kowtowed to him, then picked up the cup of poison and drank it. The king sighed and said to the mandarin, ‘Your fate has been decided, and I cannot change it for you. Both cups are tea.’”
Lan raised her hand and rested it on the top of Minh’s head. “And I didn’t date anyone in school either, so your soul can rest in peace.”
“Oh dear.” He chuckled, then, “So am I your first love?”
“Yes.” She snuggled her face against his collarbone.“You ever thought about a family for ourselves?”
“Only about you.” Then he smiled. “Maybe a baby for us.”
“Childbirth scares me.”
“You’d rather not go through it?”
“I’ve seen abnormal babies. Typical Mongoloid. Their mothers lived in the defoliated zones during the war.”
“Where did you see these babies?”
“In a Saigon hospital during my senior year in high school. We toured the hospital and one of the children I saw was a Mongoloid. She had only one cross line in her palms, a prominent forehead. Her left foot had six toes and both her feet and hands could be bent back in the wrong direction. The nurse said that the child had abnormal tear ducts. When she cried, her tears didn’t run out onto her eyes but down into her nose, choking her. She had permanent infection of the eyes. She couldn’t walk, couldn’t talk, except to say Mama.” She squeezed his hand. “I’m not afraid of childbirth, the pain of it. I’m more afraid of the abnormal childbirth.”
“Let’s not talk about it.”
She cuddled against him in the lock of his arms. He looked down into her eyes, those coffee-brown eyes crisscrossed with tiny lights. He lowered his face. He felt her lips parted to receive him. His hand felt hot, as if he had a fever. He kneaded her abdomen in circular motion, then stopped. His fingers slipped in through the front of her gown, fumbling at the buttons. She grabbed his hand.
“Please, don’t—” she said, panting.
His hand stopped. His breathing labored in her ear. She cupped the back of his hand and meshed their fingers.
“We must wait.” She gulped. “I . . . I want to save it ’til we have a bond between us.”
He leaned his face into the mass of her hair. In its thick scent he felt like he’d just lost a golden key.
In the quiet, a sudden laugh in the next room shot through the wall. Minh could hear Grandmother as if she were talking to someone in her room.
“Grandma talking in her sleep?” he said.
“You can say that. But she’s not sleeping.”
“Then who’s she talking to?”
“Herself—most of the time.”
Grandmother’s laughter cackled, followed by her throaty groans. Minh’s ears pricked, his muscles tensed. What in the world got into Grandma? He shook his head just as she began to sound coherent.
“Listen up, listen and learn. I have the royal blood in me from one of my reincarnations. I was a concubine of Emperor Tự Đức, living in the Palace of Trinh Minh inside the Forbidden Purple City. When the Emperor died, I lived on to serve the young Emperor Hàm Nghi. I had to flee the capital when Huế fell to the French. All night the sky blazed and cannon boomed while the Lord Marshall’s royal troops with armed convicts and elephants charged the French Mang Cá garrison. Oh Heaven and Earth, for three days on end, the French murdered and looted the capital. Unburied corpses rotted in the sun. A plague of cholera broke out killing hundreds more.”
A silence. Minh squirmed. He had goosebumps on his arms.
“You sure she’s not sick? Mentally?” he asked.
“No, on the contrary, she’s very lucid.”
“You ever heard this before?” Minh dropped his voice to a whisper during the silence from Grandma’s room.
“Never.” Slowly Lan exhaled. “I hope she’s not about to die. Mom said some people can suddenly see their previous reincarnations just before they die—like the blinders being lifted from their eyes. I don’t see Grandma about to . . . do you?”
“She seemed healthy. Maybe your mom might know something that you don’t. Strange.”
Grandmother’s voice rose again. “I was reborn in the North in my present reincarnation. On my wedding day at the age of twenty-three in nineteen twenty-six, I asked my husband if we could travel to Huế for our honeymoon. Why, he wanted to know. To witness the burial of Emperor Khải Định in Huế. It was our honeymoon. We rode the train, then the sampan, to arrive in Huế on the twenty-ninth of January. While I stood on the roadside watching the mile-long procession, it struck me with an odd feeling. Hadn’t I seen this before? Indeed I had. I had marched in the funeral procession of Emperor Tự Đức—my deceased husband. I had been one of the mourners in that long march which took three days to reach the mausoleum. I had prostrated myself in the vault with other concubines before dawn, waiting for the Emperor’s coffin. Together we wept and we cried. People said they could hear our lamentations from deep down in the vault before we climbed out for the vault doors to be sealed. The Emperor was buried with all of his paraphernalia, and with seven diamonds put in his mouth.”
Minh could hear a guttural incantation. Is she praying? Suddenly, Grandmother’s voice rose, “Of the two million Vietnamese people scattered all over the world, how many are misfits like me? O the language, O the culture. What a mountain to climb. O distance, O omen. What will it be this time?”
In silence Minh drew Lan closer and felt a tremor.
“Poor Grandma,” he said. “Does she talk like this every night?”
“Just about. But she’s got no one to talk to during the day. No one’s home. Don’t you think she’s comforting herself?”
“I think she is.”
Lan rose. “I must leave. Someone might catch us.”
She bent down and her gown smelled like linen fresh from the drawer. She let him cup her face in his hands, her eyes shut. They were wet as he kissed them. He realized she had cried.
“Poor Grandma,” she said in a hushed voice, then walked backward to the door, where briefly she stood, a figure in white framed by the door’s opening, her contour gleaming against the night-light. In that moment, she seemed like an angel.
Note on A Night in the House of Maya:
Apart from A Night in the House of Maya, Eastlit has published the following work by Khanh Ha: