A SMALL COUNTRY
The Tale of Kieu
Our mother drives with an elegant, carefree manner, one hand casually on the steering wheel. My sister and I picture her driving through the streets of Cholon in our Peugeot, a hulk of sleek black metal winding its way through this spark plug of a city filled with open-air markets. Cholon is where we live and where she conducts her business. She alone is in charge of our family’s finances. She keeps the records and maintains the books. It is in this unprepossessing Chinese city adjacent to Saigon that she makes our family fortune.
We have a chauffeur, but our mother often drives herself. Demonstrations organized by monks have begun to disrupt the city, but she is not afraid. She is intimately familiar with these streets, even the unmarked ones that dissolve into begrimed dead ends. The Chinese merchants trust her. Perhaps it is because she is herself part Chinese, although you would have to go back several generations to prove it.
Tonight she has just returned from an evening out with our father. The Peugeot is parked in our driveway, its black paint highlighted by swags of molded silver and chrome. Mother is resplendent in her satin ao dai as she arranges its folds on her lap, then sits with her back against the headboard of our bed. Her hair, shiny and black, is tied in a chignon at her neck and she is wearing pearl drop earrings. Daylight slowly extinguishes itself and a lavender darkness creeps through the window. The streetlights have come on. We are inside the meshed enclosure of white mosquito netting. I don’t allow any whiteness to touch my head. White is the color of death and mourning, levitating above me even as I sleep.
Our mother reaches into a straw bag and pulls out a book. But she will not need to read from it; these are well-waxed passages she knows by heart. I lean against her body and ready myself to listen. She and our dad recited these verses to each other when they first met. It is hard to imagine a time when they existed without us, but still, I try to picture their time together before my sister and I were born. The sound of their laughter as they walk hand in hand. The velvet green uplands of rice fields, waiting to greet them.
She smiles, ready to share a great national epic with us. Kieu, beautiful and learned, loves Trong, the young scholar-hero, and Trong loves Kieu. They are bound together by the threat and promise of love. We know that they suffer years of separation because of Kieu’s decision to sell herself as a concubine and a servant to save her family. But what I love most is the part where he longs for her. Our mother runs her hand along the length of my back and, in one long breath, recites Kieu’s heroic renunciations and Trong’s grief. Every child in our country grows up with this story.
He drained the cup of gloom: it filled anew—
one day without her seemed three autumns long.
Silk curtains veiled her windows like dense clouds,
and toward the rose within he’d dream his way.
Her voice has a quieting effect on us. Trong and Kieu, I say out loud. Minh and Quy, I add, pairing our father’s name with our mother’s.
Both wrote a pledge of troth, and with a knife
they cut in two a lock of her long hair.
The stark bright moon was gazing from the skies
as with one voice both mouths pronounced oath
Their hearts’ recesses they explored and probed,
etching their vow of union in their bones.
Once in a while, my mother will lengthen the story with paper and pen if I demand some similar evidence of her bond to our father. Her pen makes swift, scratching sounds as it inks out the strokes of her signature. It combines her name with our father’s, his name first, attached to hers after. Our father’s signature similarly conjoins his name with hers, in reverse order. We know—it is impossible not to—that our parents are linked in many inward and outward ways.
Our mother’s eyes rest on us. My sister, Khanh, smiles back but I know her attention is elsewhere. She is fixated on the book’s pagination, on the tiny numbers tucked in the upper-right-hand corners. Numbers captivate Khanh. She dwells in a world of equations and straight-spined rules that are constant and predictable. Mine is a world of fantasy and mystery, words unloosing themselves, producing secret, tangled lives that float into my imagination. Still, I am certain at that moment that my sister and I share the same lustrous dream. Around each of our necks is an identical chain, fine gold with a circlet of jade, now a pale apple green that over time will mature into a deep dark luster.
It isn’t long before Khanh, fired up and fidgety, nudges our mother to turn the page again. My sister, four years older, is convinced that she will win the Nobel Prize in Physics when she grows up. She looks at page numbers and does mathematical calculations in her head, showing off virtuosic accomplishments with giddy delight. I begin to nod off to sleep. Our mother whispers our names. “Khanh.” “Mai.” Khanh’s breath is warm against my face. Khanh, a name I have known before speech, before memory. Hers is a presence I take on trust. Four years apart, but we are twinned. I hold my sister’s hand, comforting myself with the softness of her palm as she turns this way and that. Soon, our mother’s impeccable chignon begins to loosen, her hair falling with liquid ease into a thick cascade that rests on her shoulders. At that moment of reverential silence, when we are poised to sleep but yet awake, her touch softens. She waits for us to doze off. Inside this coveted sphere, the world is filled with happiness even as the bashful sun disappears.
• • •
Sometimes in the evening, we gather among the ravenous vines that meander through our mother’s garden. There, in an unruly tangle of fernlike shrubbery, are clumps of plants with feelings. The mimosa is sensitive and shy, reluctant to offend, my sister says. It clasps its leaves inward against its chest when touched. I brush my legs against the leaves. All at once, as if they were fully on beat and part of a well-disciplined choir, the entire being of the plant, stems and leaves alike, reorients itself to bend modestly toward the ground. Tonight, against the green stretch of ground cover is an explosion of small, fluffy pink flowers that bloom like stars.
A declivity of earth and bluestone pebbles surrounds the mango tree, and I crouch there behind a giant earthen jar—my favorite place to hide. Next to the mango is our star fruit tree, its branches bearing green fruits the shape of a five-point star. It is how starlight tastes, my sister says. Our mother told us she herself had planted it from an original cutting when she and Father first moved into our house. Khanh has etched her initials and mine on its brindled trunk.
I am still hiding. Tendrils coil and brush against my bare legs. The air smells of frangipani blooms. Khanh leans against me and together we draw into our lungs their flowery fragrance. A violet twilight swaddles us in a benign glow. I love the evening most of all—the ritual, at least when our father is at home, of hiding in the murky night and waiting to be found, his giant black military boots trudging through the brambles and ground cover. From where we hide, he cuts an imposing figure. The jungle green on his military fatigues ripples. Our swing set squeaks. Ordinary noises startle us as we settle into a hushed silence to practice invisibility. Fire crickets rustling their wings. Fireflies flicking dots of umber. Street vendors peddling bean cakes with their syncopated voices. I make myself small behind the jar, holding my breath as if my life depends on it. But of course our father will soon be upon us, swooping us into captivity, cupping my belly with his large hand and flinging me onto his shoulders. I rub my bare legs against the stubbles of his cheeks. His arms, lithely muscled, will hold me in place, perched high above his head.
He is away from home most of the time because there is a war going on and he has to fight in it. On those occasions when he is with us, I love the sight of him, the halo of thick black hair, the symmetry of his body, the tumble of tight, compact muscles shifting quietly under his uniform. His omnipotence is palpable, though not suffocating or overpowering. He is beautiful but his beauty is modest.
In my father’s private room is a framed photo of a lotus flower. The flower, our father once explained, is a reminder of life’s eternal progress toward a simple purity. A plant that grows in mud yet manages to produce a stunning flower that floats pristinely above the water. One night I stood at the doorway, looking at the picture and at Father. He was sitting diagonally across the daybed, cross-legged, studying a book, running his index finger across the page. Closing it to caress its leather spine; reopening it as if to contemplate its mystery. My forehead burned with the realization that this was where our father came to fully occupy himself. He let go of his book and sat in seemingly unremarkable stillness. I listened to the smooth intake of his breath. Something was happening and I felt suddenly like an interloper. I wanted him to need my presence. But everything, the water running through the faucet next door, reckless sounds from the kitchen below, the neighbor’s hammering, was happening outside of him. I wanted to reclaim him, make a noise, claw through the hard distance to pull him back. But I could not imagine how. Here was our father, baffling, elusive. But at that strange moment, he was not. Not our father, nor a soldier fighting in a terrible war. Nor a paratrooper who jumped out of planes. He was instead this new person, even-tempered, with liquid eyes. An almost unbodied presence.
• • •
As a child, I want to talk about the satiny eggplant color on our father’s face when he returns home after months away. I want to talk about his boots, muddied and nicked. I want to talk about old wounds, puckered scars that glisten like mother-of-pearl against his sun-browned abdomen, strange griefs of delicate luster, hidden from view. I never know what exactly he does during those intermittent months. Our father cups his other life away from us inside himself. Khanh and I want what he wouldn’t give us. His stories, his explanations. Rampant and obstreperous, like firecrackers. I know they are inside his skin.
Every time he vanishes into some remote province of our country, I ask my sister, “Why does he have to go? Doesn’t he want to stay here with us?”
“He has to go where he is ordered,” my sister answers.
“The war is far away and he goes to it?” I ask.
My sister stoops over and pulls me toward her. “Yes. But he will come back soon.” There she stands in front of me, rocking on her toes and heels and offering me her promises and reassurances.
“Will it come to us, right here, where we are?”
“The war? No. It won’t come here. That’s why he goes away to fight, so the war can be kept far away.”
She tells me the names of places where the war supposedly is taking place—Qui Nhon, Binh Gia, and more—but they blend together like distant shadows.
Our mother’s side of the family is Catholic so we celebrate Christmas. Every Christmas Eve, Khanh and I place our father’s military boots outside our door. With profligate coatings of thick black polish, they look beautiful, hefty, and brand-new. Santa Claus, we are assured, would leave our presents next to them.
• • •
On the map, Cholon is a separate city from Saigon, but in reality, the two cities are twinned and hardly anyone knows where one ends and the other begins.
Cholon’s commercial district is several blocks from our neighborhood. Our house is tucked away in a more residential area. Here it is, a French colonial–style villa, painted in yellow ocher, the same color as all the other French colonial villas, the same as the grand Opera House on Rue Catinat, as our mother still calls it, although it was changed after the French left to Tu Do Street, Tu Do for “freedom.”
Here I am with my sister. Here is the place where everything that has yet to occur will occur. I do nothing without running it by Khanh; I live my life under her protection. From the window in our bedroom I can see our terrace where our parents go for their after-dinner drinks. More often than not, my sister is permitted to join them while I am sent to bed early, merely because I am younger. In our country a child is one year old when she emerges from the mother’s womb. Although I insist for the sake of argument that I am therefore older, this fact is lost on our mother. She shrugs off my protest with a declaration of her own.
“Time to nest for the night,” our mother would say, tossing her hair. Aggrieved, I would beg our father for more time. Our mother would utter “Anh Minh” and place her hand preemptively on his, as a restraint against his tendency to indulge. They are now a united front. Our nanny, whom we call our Chinese grandmother, would scoop me up and hustle me out. On this bed, I am left to mull over their unconsidered act. The view from the window is partially covered by an adjoining building. Its brick wall cuts a vertical line and creates a narrow, elongated frame through which I can glimpse but a swath of our terrace and garden—a beguiling sliver of an image. Sometimes a full, socketed moon positions itself inside this enclosure, hanging low, as if within reach. From this vantage point I can hear voices, faint but clear enough through the rush of air. Even as they think I have dropped off to sleep, I listen.
Today, Khanh put up a giant poster of Galileo on our bedroom wall. Already my sister has a plan, an ambition, and Galileo is her inspiration. Khanh turns herself with stubborn conviction into someone who will someday win the Nobel Prize. With implacable hunger she devours books, not those about magic carpets or evil genies, but those with equations and proofs about the fundamental principles of the universe. Hers is an intricate vocabulary of numbers. Each new day brings with it a modulation of magic outside the world of Euclidean perfection.
Yes, my sister reads books about matters that lie beyond the norms of conventional understanding. She believes in infinity. Her fingers peck at reality. She draws the mathematical sign representing infinity for me. There is no time in her world. Hers are stories that evoke the balance between science and magic. When a giant star dies and a black hole is created, both time and space stop. In the black hole, the gravitational pull is so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape. Our planet was birthed during a cosmic explosion of dappled colors that hurled matter in all directions. Distant galaxies are still moving away from us at great speeds. I am astounded that such a wistful and scary epic of the universe inspires her.
“Do you understand?” she asks with a proprietorial gaze. She wants me to love what she loves. Stars, especially. She shows me a picture of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. She sees motion in the brushstrokes, swirling patterns of subatomic particles beneath the appearance of solid mass.
I nod. I understand. I wish for my own personal planet. For a genie to grant me my every wish.
When I confide my wishes, she says with a show of exaggerated exasperation, “What an imagination you have, little one.”
In the kitchen, we prepare a smorgasbord of delicacies. We practice eating a well-known Swedish specialty—surströmming, fermented canned herring. My sister has researched the ritual. It cannot be performed indoors. We go to the open-air terrace. She ties a cloth napkin around the tin can, places it on the table, and opens it. The cloth is not included to create an aura of formality but rather to soak up the liquid that spurts from the can due to pressure built up during fermentation. The can, bulging with gas, hisses. We wait for a strong smell to be released. My sister scoops the herring from the briny liquid and spreads it on paper-thin hard bread. We each take a bite. I swallow mine quickly without chewing, pretending it is no more stinky than our traditional nuoc mam sauce of fermented anchovies.
My sister wants to acquire this taste. The Nobel Prize is given in Sweden and she has many ways to prepare for this heroic future awaiting her. Already she is graceful. There is an eloquent flex, an arch to each foot as she positions one lightly in front of the other; she is on a stool, her stage, to deliver her acceptance speech. I stand sheltered, next to her. Ours is a world of mathematical grace. It is alive with possibilities. I lean into Khanh’s body as if the enormous resolve inside her were solid mass.
• • •
Hours later, we eat dinner with our Chinese grandmother, who has been with our family since my sister was born. She comes from a family of Chinese traders and speaks fluent Vietnamese.
She is wearing her usual tunic and trousers. Her hair is tightly coiled and held together by pins. We call her Grandma when we talk to her. When we talk about her to others, we call her our Chinese grandma or our Chinese grandmother. Our real grandmother lives in Saigon, not far from our house, although we rarely see her.
We swirl about the trees and grass, raising ourselves ecstatically skyward, diving with winged arms like planes dodging rocket fire. We take turns. We taxi and take off, swoop and swerve. Our Chinese grandmother grows impatient. A crease of disapproval lines her bark-colored face.
She wipes her mouth with her upper arm and grunts. “Is it possible for the two of you to stop moving and sit down to eat?” she asks as she clops down the garden path in pursuit of us. When she’s excited, a Chinese cadence is unloosed into her Vietnamese, giving it a peculiarly choppy rhythm.
My sister smiles. I hear a giggle as she speeds up and vibrates her wings. I too am flying and doing clever aerial turns. I know our Chinese grandmother wants us to hurry. She wants us to be on schedule. Eat, play (a little bit), then sleep. Once we fall asleep, she will be able to settle, at last, into her nighttime routine of betel nut chewing and reading.
“Stop and eat. Chew. Swallow. Have I not taught you manners?”
She is not pleased that we have developed a habit of bunching our food in the back of our mouths. I want to accommodate our grandma’s demands but I do not want to antagonize my sister.
“Don’t walk away and ignore me when I’m talking to you,” our Chinese grandmother says, enunciating each word.
My sister walks away and ignores her. I too take a few steps before turning back to look. We get no more than a few meters down the garden path before we are collared.
“Huh,” she says, satisfied with her success.
I stand still, to let her know I have succumbed. My sister twists herself loose but then stops and smiles.
“Grandma,” my sister pleads. “I am sorry. I want to make up.”
There is only silence.
“We will sit still and eat, I promise.”
To demonstrate, my sister sets herself on a rock and does not move.
Immediately our Chinese grandmother responds. She can be placated with the right move. “All right then. You can sit right . . .”
“But we will need to have some Coca-Cola,” my sister says sweetly. “Please?”
Our mother doesn’t allow us to drink soda pop, but once in a while our Chinese grandma rewards our good behavior with a few sips of Coke.
Today my sister is trying a new experiment. She is asking for the drink in exchange for good behavior that has yet to come.
Perhaps because she is exhausted, our Chinese grandmother consents.
I am astonished. Khanh runs to the kitchen, finds a bottle, and takes a good, long draw. Her face is radiant.
We quickly finish eating and then return to the task of piloting our planes. As we hover in the air and look down, making sputtering sounds with our mouths, the rice fields below are alive and voluptuous, a glorious green. We take care to avoid the rain-collecting cistern that sits squarely against our wall, positioned just so to be gravity fed, its open mouth ready to intercept the rainwater that flows off our roof. Our mother harvests the rain and redirects it for our garden. During the monsoon season, she puts out an additional four or five cisterns under the eaves of our house. When they are empty, my sister and I use them for games of hide-and-seek.
I lift the lid and dip my hand into the cistern, spraying my sister with water. We run out the front door with Grandma in tow. “Not so fast,” she says. Her face is brown and weathered. She can be crotchety if challenged. She is bestowed a degree of authority over us but doesn’t possess any intrinsic authority of her own. Khanh and I listen to her, but only enough so that she does not complain about us to our mother. Grandma sighs at our impudence. I glance nervously at Khanh who is busy placating her.
“We’re very careful,” my sister says, glancing back to give our Chinese grandmother a compliant nod.
We do not want to lose time. We are in a hurry. Khanh and I head straight to the front gate, make a right turn, and race down our block, Ngo Quyen Street, named after a Vietnamese general who decisively defeated the Chinese in the tenth century and declared Vietnam’s independence after one thousand years of Chinese rule. Our street is lined with tamarind trees. Tamarind pods, fully ripe and plump, lie scattered about. Their shells are dry and brittle. I pocket a few to crack open later. With a sprinkling of sugar, their brown juicy pulp, normally acidic, becomes sweet and tangy.
We walk by an ornate moss-covered tomb, its stone marker engraved with Chinese calligraphy. The tomb is in our neighbor’s garden a few houses down from ours, and although it is not his ancestral tomb, he is reluctant to remove it for fear that something bad might result from dislodging ancient spirits. We turn left into a side street with Khanh leading the way. I am learning how to snap my fingers. We snap our fingers in unison as if in doing so we button our parts together to make a corresponding whole.
As usual, we are hoping to find the American soldiers who gather every day in and around the South Vietnamese military police compound, a modular building with a roof made of galvanized iron sheets. A guard-duty station stands at a corner, and as we round it, the Rolling Stones thump “Tell Me” accompanied by a strong slide guitar and driving bass. We are surrounded by coils of concertina wire. Because the South Vietnamese military police is headquartered here, this is a secure and well-guarded street, always patrolled by soldiers.
It isn’t long before James Baker catches sight of us. James is our special friend. He is an American serviceman whom we often see with the South Vietnamese units at the military compound. We found him about a year ago when we followed the thumping bass line and the squeal and transport of electric guitars emanating from his portable cassette player. We were coming home from school. My sister, running after the music, caught up with him, tugged at his shirt, and grinned. “Mick. Mick Jagger.” He pointed to the music box and winked.
“We love it,” my sister said, speaking for herself and me. We didn’t want delicacy. We wanted the big sound of rock and roll. James turned the volume up and offered us two sticks of Wrigley’s gum.
We have learned his routine. We know when he is off duty.
“We’re here,” he says when he sees us this evening. “Me and the Rolling Stones.” My sister beams. James is eager to show off his liquid moves. There is no getting around the music. It pulls you into its center, coaxes you to take leave of the ordinary world. There, in the midst of the acoustic guitars and bass drums, is a new kind of sound, loud and enormous enough to assault and liberate at the same time. You can feel it up your spine. James throws more music on the turntable. It erupts with life, snaps and crackles with a bigger and bigger bang. Grandma grimaces. I jump into the shrill, raucous rumble as the music rises. James strips down to his white undershirt and begins to shift his feet, sway his body. His back is long and lean. He reaches for Khanh and me and swings us each a half-turn. The three of us hold hands by hooking fingers. Our private ritual.
Rock and roll has its way of gathering momentum, of transcending barriers and demanding acquiescence even in this smoldering heat. We watch James, his James-ness, as he shakes his shoulders and lowers his body to the drum’s beat, lower, lower, lower, until he is squatting against pronounced resistance on his haunches, the Vietnamese way.
James had told us about his family. His parents come from a long line of potato farmers in a place he calls the East End. I imagine the same flatness of farmland we have here, absorbing the same iridescent green, extending infinitely from plot to plot. He likes to tell us about his two-story clapboard house sitting on a flat field overlooking the Long Island Sound. That is where he played soccer. The game the entire world loves, James calls it. We nod in agreement.
I look at his distinctive chin, the way he thrusts it outward, the way the dimple dances when he moves. A low growl rumbles from the record player. We are all still caught inside its grip. I see Grandma out of the corner of my eye. She shakes her head. She likes James but she does not like his music.
“It’s time to go home,” she declares.
We protest; we have barely arrived. Khanh picks up an album cover and studies it. The singers have long hair and stare sulkily into space.
“Don’t ignore me when I’m talking to you,” Grandma says.
Khanh keeps her eyes on the album cover. She feels the drum’s beat underfoot. I see the pursed lips, the palpable defiance. Her hair, knotted and tangled, is plastered in sweat.
“Do you hear me?” Grandma asks. “You still have homework to do and it is almost your bedtime.” A definite Chinese-ness has insinuated itself into her Vietnamese.
Khanh pretends sudden interest in her watch, doing quick multiplications and divisions with the numbers, a stalling tactic. She shoots our grandma an imperious look, juts out her jaw defiantly. Grandma scowls. James prudently intercedes.
“One more song,” he says cordially. A perfect voice, soft and melancholy, fills the air. “Yesterday, ” sung with aching abandon. Grandma, becalmed but still petulant, begins to relax. The hardness she affects is usually short-lived. Most of the time she can be jostled out of it. She allows herself to enter Paul’s loose, liquid voice. I slip into her arms and stay there while the Beatles sing.
James winks. Despite her outward displeasure, Grandma is inclined to indulge him. His weekly volunteer work at the orphanage in the neighborhood behind our house gives him a gravitas that his youth alone does not. James often buys chocolate and gum from the American PX and hands it out to the children there.
“He is a nice young man,” Grandma often says with an intonation meant to convey not just affection but also admiration.
James pulls a camera from his knapsack and fiddles with it. He aims it at us and maneuvers the lens into focus. “Just point and shoot,” he says, then mimics what he wants to convey by pushing his index finger toward the camera’s button. He hands it to our Chinese grandmother and asks her to snap a photo of him and my sister and me. So that the camera’s lens will take me in and I will not be cut from the picture’s edges, I lean as deeply as I can into my sister and James.
Our Chinese grandmother looks through the viewfinder and pushes. I hear a click. The shutter is released. James tells her he is sure the photo will be just fine.
For I Remember Yet
MR. MINH, 2006, 1963
I wake from a long night’s sleep to discover that it snowed heavily overnight. Wind has blown a swell of snow onto my windowsill. The shimmering expanse of white covering the grass reflects the sun’s glare. Roofs, trees, cars—everything is covered in snow. Beyond them, against a stretch of acquisitive white, a steeple dances in the mist. A pure silvery world has been created, separate from the world of yesterday.
Once I used to wish for the infinite beauty of a snowfall. As a child in Saigon, I read about it, the wind-whipped powder, the geometric flakes, tree branches sheathed in white. So different from the tropical swelter I was born into.
Virginia is not a state that gets heavy snow. Cars stall or slip aimlessly in the whisper of frost. Those who do not dare to wander out will stand by their windows to watch the snow lash soundlessly toward them.
The clock on my bedside table shows that it is still early morning, but in this weather, my daughter might already have left for work. I run my thumb over the tips of my fingers, shriveled in the cold. I exhale and watch the uneasy vapor drift. Reflexively, I touch the familiar patch of abdominal scar tissue. How long ago that was, that dark rainy night when I parachuted into enemy territory, crawled through black earth crowded with underbrush of thorn and thistle and rotting trees. The wound on my stomach had turned necrotic and I had no antibiotics. The medical kit was lost in the storm that downed the helicopter. I knew how to improvise. Luckily, a swarm of flies was buzzing about, attracted to decayed flesh. I dropped to my knees, unbuttoned my shirt, and proffered my wound to them. The next day the bandaged area teemed with an infestation of maggots. I kept it covered up, checking only once in the morning to make sure the maggots were eating abscessed tissue, not healthy pink flesh. I could feel them wriggle and swarm. The stench of blood lingered, refusing to be fanned away.
What I need is a lighter tread into the past. I take in a deep breath.
I am what you can call lean. One American neighbor in this building sometimes calls me Bob. His American mouth, the muscles of his tongue, cannot form the sort of sounds that our Vietnamese names demand. Neither my first nor my last name starts with a B. So I know Bob is not a pun on my real name. Of course I eventually figure it out. Bag of bones. He means it affectionately, I think.
I touch the skeletal outline of my body, its softness, its diminishing musculature. It is hard to eat prepackaged convenience food—Jell-O, hard-boiled eggs, toast. Once your tongue has known a more belligerent, embellished flavor, it yearns for what it once had. Cloves, cinnamon, peppercorn, ginger, fennel. I crave the pinch of five-spice powder that blends sour with sweet, bitter with savory and salty, the many-layered coatings of char siu seasonings on pork that turn the meat a dark lurid red, burned and charred along the edges, tender in the middle. The sweetness of honey, the sharp bite of salt. Their aromatic dust drifts about, teasing, winking for memory’s sake in this subdued January light.
Against the wall opposite my bed is a sideboard with a television set and a row of photographs. I stare at the one of a little girl with wide inquisitive eyes, long black lashes, black hair that curls and loops. She must have been six when the picture was taken. I close my eyes. I remember when I first felt the kicking of her foot against her mother’s rib cage. I see her as she came out of the womb, to the sound of prayers accompanying her birth, with a tuft of spiky black hair on her newborn head. She is still connected to her mother by an umbilical cord. Her skin is warm, suffused with heat from her mother’s body.
After all these years, let me say who I am still: a father. A husband also. I call up lines from a poem by one of France’s most romantic poets, Alfred de Musset. “The first love, and the tenderest; / Do you remember or forget—/ Ah me, for I remember yet.”
Surely, I remember yet. Here, in this room I am inside the rattle and rush of history. I remember “La Nuit de Mai,” that beautiful poem dedicated to Alfred’s doomed love affair with George Sand, the woman he lost but never forgot.
In another photograph, next to the one of my little daughter, a young woman looks back at me, her neck long and slender, her face slightly tilted, as if in contemplation. This is how I remember her, as she was when we first met. She is here, but not.
If we are fortunate, all of us find, at some point in our lives, the one special person for whom everything is possible, for whom love itself rearranges one’s entire being. That is how it all begins. My wife, Quy, was that person for me. I am still there with her.
I am reminded of the quiet, inward beauty of yin, a feminine, peaceful acceptance that is but the other side of yang. I lie back to enjoy the whisper of falling snow. There it is, a strange beauty, equal parts loneliness and equal parts poetry. I watch the translucent specks and imagine their desire to let go and drift carelessly toward the earth. Here is the irresistible compulsion to float and fall.
A muffled groan lodges itself inside my chest, followed by a series of fitful coughs. Pert footsteps stop at my bedroom door. My child? Yes, though not a child any longer, of course. A grown woman who must get to the office in the snow. I see the faint creases on her face, creases that deepen when she is deep in thought.
“Mai?” I ask tentatively.
She nods. I smile. She can be sweet and caring, if on occasion distant. We do not always speak to each other in our language. Sometimes it is easier to speak a new language. Dispensing with normal courtesy—How are you? How do you feel today?—she comes straight over to inspect me. With a certain theatricality, she rolls up my shirtsleeve and peeks at my upper arm. Revealed thus, I can see my own true unprosperous thinness. As if in grief, there it is. The dull, mottled skin. The angular wrist. The brittleness of bones. The ache inside.
“It is better,” she announces reassuringly, working her hand around my neck to prop me up.
What is better? And then I remember. Sometime, a few days before, perhaps, I had fallen and scraped a patch of skin from my arm. A searing pain registered through my arthritic joint. A tingling feeling radiated from my nerves. I can still hear the hushed chorus.
It could have been serious. An old person’s broken tissue can easily become ulcerated.
A punctilious vigil was maintained. Mai paid the Korean housewife in the ground-floor apartment to watch over me while she worked and when Mrs. An could not be here. I cooperate. It is important in a place like this to be pleasant. Nothing happens here that is not noticed.
Mai and I live in an apartment in Sleepy Hollow Manor, a small complex housing an amalgam of transplants displaced and dislocated from the world over. In the evenings, I hear the clash and clangor of Hindi and Tagalog, Korean and Chinese, and of course the familiar and comforting elocution of southern Vietnamese. Much of life spills forth and is conducted outdoors here. Pleasantries and gossip as well as business exchanges and proposals are discussed in the front yard and back garden, on sidewalks and stoops. Women in saris may work as receptionists or nurses during the day but after hours they double as gold merchants or moneylenders willing to finance under-the-table businesses for the ambitious—ticket scalping, catering, hairdressing, marriage brokering. At Sleepy Hollow Manor, New World ingenuity combines with Old World desires and networks to spin a furtive, anarchist version of the American Dream.
Still, no one here knows how things were for me. Years ago, my now-crooked fingers were made to perform wondrous feats. Through these fingers ropes and cords were passed through tangles and loops and emerged as knots that came with names: the double Blackwall hitch, fisherman’s bend, Turk’s head, cat’s paw. It was all part of the training. We rehearsed every contingency while blindfolded. Cyanide pills were sewn inside shirtsleeves and trouser hems. I practiced the motion with my hands tied. Body curled forward to receive the end to suffering, I bit open the seams. The pills would be within tongue’s reach if a mission failed. I could swallow death.
It is almost eight in the morning, but the light is beginning to darken under the weight of hanging clouds.
Mai seems shaky, perhaps because she dreads having to drive in this weather. She searches for her handbag, a huge leather pocketbook that contains her wallet, books, papers, and other miscellaneous items that she often cannot find because they are buried at the bottom.
“Your cell phone is over there.” I point to the chest of drawers by the door. “Where you left it last night.”
“Thank you,” she says. She picks it up and starts thumbing messages on the tiny keyboard. She usually sticks it in the back pocket of her pants but I notice that these trousers have no pockets.
There is the sound of a key jiggling in the lock. “Hello, hello,” a voice calls from the threshold.
It is Mrs. An. The high cheekbones, knife-blade sharp, make her stand out in any setting. She has been in this country almost as long as I have but, unlike me, she escaped by boat after the war. She still dresses conspicuously native, in silk shirts and sparkling gold threads. She is rather slender, but she knows how to position her body for leverage and can lift me with one hand. She floats my way and wedges a pillow behind my back, exuding benevolence. I have known her for decades and am comfortable speaking my language with her. It is lucky that she lives with her family on the same floor, only two doors down from us.
“I’m sorry I’m here so early, but I am on my way to work earlier than usual. I’m worried the road will turn icy,” Mrs. An explains. She sputters. When she feels overwhelmed, her facial muscles pull. I watch the left half of her face dance upward. She pushes her palm against it as if to press it into submission. “Argghh,” she lets out a fierce sigh. The tick continues, up, down, sideways. She is losing patience with its incalcitrance.
“Oh, good, you are still here!” she exclaims when she sees Mai.
Looking at my daughter, I can sense the mass of unarticulated feelings hovering about her. She is small-boned, almost deceptively delicate, her skin smooth and supple. Her thick hair falls in sheets and shines in almost lacquered blackness. Her eyes are charcoal black, like the seed of a longan. I fed longans long ago to my daughters. Dragon eye, literally. The fruit is round with a thin, brown shell. Its flesh, white, soft, and juicy, surrounds a large black seed.
Mrs. An cranes her neck and looks toward the kitchen, checking to see if there is food on the counter for me. She manages a derisive laugh when I ask her who is working the shift with her today. “The young ones won’t bother to get out of bed on a day like this.” She sulks, though with a discernible degree of satisfaction. “The nursing home has a lot of trouble finding reliable aides.”
She and Mai give me my meals on most days, although I can manage by myself more than they believe. She is the one who noticed my swollen feet and hands and worried about my ability to breathe. A month ago, at the hospital, they removed one gallon of water from my lungs. Even now my breath comes out in serrated gasps like a fish out of water. I close my eyes, separating myself from my physical body.
“It’s all right, Aunt An, I can stay home awhile,” Mai says. “I am not going in for another two hours.” Mrs. An is not really her aunt. It is simply the Vietnamese way of bringing close friends into the family fold.
Mrs. An nods. A long effervescent hiss comes out of the coiled pipes.
I glance at the basket on the credenza. There is a plate of sticky rice, dried shrimp, and Chinese sausage. A bag of persimmons, unskinned. I also smell simmered catfish and rice, even though both are in a tight-lidded stainless steel tiffin box. There are four canisters stacked one on top of the other, held together by latches and fitted into a metal frame with handles on top. Each box contains a different treat.
Mai subscribes to what we traditionally call com thang, monthly rice. Her subscription entitles her to home-cooked Vietnamese food made by two women who have over the years developed a steadfast following. We now dine on whatever the two women choose to prepare and deliver each day.
They typically bring comfort foods. Fried vermicelli; catfish caramelized in soy sauce, fish sauce, and melted sugar; potbellied tomatoes stuffed with minced pork and onions; a clear broth soup that is so delicate it tastes more like tea than soup; eggs scrambled with bitter melon. Today there is also a thermos of tea and sticky rice.
Although I can do it myself, Mai feeds me, scooping the sticky rice from the plate with her fingers and rolling it into a ball. I open my mouth and swallow what she slips into me. Time floats, then curls and curves backward into itself. Coaxed by the lure of memory, my mind drifts into an imagined world from years past. The distant chant of an itinerant peddler hawking food swims in my ears. Tamarind pods fall on the misshapen sidewalks, cracked open by the Saigon heat.
I shake my head, almost too violently. Saigon still wraps itself around me and squeezes with sudden force.
Mai turns on the television. A weather map shows precipitation remaining in our area, which, combined with the cold temperature, is certain to mean more snow. I see arrows and lines and a shaded spectrum of pink and red that looks almost ornamental.
“Are you cold?” she asks as she hands me a tissue for my runny nose. Her narrow shoulders slope inward, giving her a meek, seemingly serene appearance, but I know better. Poor child, I think. Memories course through both of us and sometimes they short-circuit inside her. My hand trembles as I try to protectively clasp hers.
I nod. “This is so good. I love that you order this food. Remember how your sister loved caramel pork?”
Her face darkens but she gives me a tentative smile and offers me a cup of tea poured from the thermos. The thick, smoky flavor of a full-bodied black tea rises. She tilts the cup at just the angle that makes the flow manageable. I am touched by her tenderness.
On television, the undulating green of a rice field grabs my attention. I can almost taste the succulence of a blade of rice, green and sharp, against my tongue. Pagoda roofs slope with architectural deliberateness against the Saigon skyline. Above, a helicopter hovers. Conical hats ruminate, bowing toward black earth covered by a shimmering liquid green. I reach for the remote control and raise the volume notch by notch. Tanks roll, truckloads of soldiers hop into chaos, voices emerge brittle with anxiety and sorrow. The number of dead is chronicled, one by one. How quickly they are counted. A precise tabulation of American dead, American wounded.
Scraps and remnants of glistening green present themselves to me, from a distance. Many layers of forests, thickly canopied. I can see the earth where death is interred. The scarred trees, the dark shades of green that spill over from branch to branch, as each overgrown layer fights off vines and tendrils in search of sunlight, space, and growth.
I take a deep breath and look again, though I wish to forestall insurgent introspection. Over and over, newscasters recall Vietnam from the American consciousness.
Now stretches of monochromatic orange and brown desert sand tremble in the sun’s haze. Desert towns are besieged against a drifting landscape of sand and sloping plateaus. I hear of continuing fights in embattled cities along the Euphrates. Basra. Nasiriyah. Najaf. In the background, outside the focus of the camera’s lens, a cactus blooms amid the sunburned sagebrush. I see the crumbled sections of mosques, the traveling dust storms, the treacherous movement of shadows against gentle date palms. There is no assurance of order here in this self-canceling landscape where sand obliterates sand. Everything now occurs here, the way it occurred there so many years ago. A disputed town is controlled by a clutch of government soldiers one day, unofficial militias of one religious sect or another the next. A soldier’s body is found floating in the Euphrates. Armies slip across borders, attack, and retreat. I think of Phnom Penh, Cambodia; Vientiane, Laos. I might have been echoing them in my sleep.
The names that once ignited high passion have changed, but the ends of the earth were once found there, as if they had been there forever.
I lie still as she takes my hand and places it on her knee. I know what she is doing but my mind is on the screen. I take in a deep breath and hold it inside me before letting it out. I can feel the squeaky lungs bucking and rebelling. But still, after a few minutes I manage to find a rhythm of alternating inhalation and exhalation. The body still hurts and disobeys but I am learning to ignore it. I can move on. I look into Mai’s face. She starts with my baby finger and clips her way to the thumb. The clippers make crisp, snappy sounds, sending the jagged edges of my nails flying. As I slip back into the slow pulse of that place from long ago, I hear the tart scraping sounds of the broom against the floor. It must be a Vietnamese broom by the full throaty contact it makes on tile. The rice straws, bundled and bound together by vines, scrape and scratch. I feel a tear run down my cheek. I listen to the sweeping motions, left to right, left to right. My nails are being recovered and swept into a dustpan.
A television announcer asks about exit strategies, that pernicious little phrase. I know the calamity of being this country’s ally. The unleashing of warring factions, of fire and chaos, and then the declaration of victory. The escalating cost is proving to be too much—too much blood, too much treasury, all adding up to a pointless generosity. I can see politicians in Washington, D.C., preening for the next news cycle. How can they be blamed! They didn’t know things would turn out like this. I watch what is going on as someone who was born in a poor country. I see how they swing the wrecking ball. I know how the weak country has to wheedle.
With each successive moment they are deeper into the very war from which they wish to exit. It is familiar, a shadowed history that stalks and does not recede.
It has been more than thirty years since Vietnam fell. But 1975 is still here, held to enormous scale inside me.
It is now 2006. The year hardly matters. Why would it be different now? They continue to cartwheel from one disposable country to the next, saving the masses and abandoning them.
Mai has returned to my bedside and wipes my face with a washcloth. She does not seem to mind my occasional lapses; she has her own phantoms and demons. I know that she makes private but regular sojourns to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. I know that under her neatly folded shirts are pamphlets and booklets about the history, conception, and construction of this haunting structure. Once, I happened upon her stash when I folded the laundry. The mere photograph of it on a book’s glossy cover tugged at my heart. Two black triangular granite walls coming together to form a V, sunken belowground like a scar in the earth. Names of American dead are etched row by row on its shiny surface. A diamond next to the name means the person was killed; a cross means the person is missing.
Mai props me up and plumps several cushions behind my back. She has become the keepsake of my memory. “Tell me,” she says. And inevitably, I do.
It is 1963 and I am back in Saigon—the suffocating haze of heat. One day before the coup.
It was late afternoon and I had awoken from a long nap. I thought of nothing, not of motives or consequences, and that itself was of enormous consolation and satisfaction. I lay in bed staring at the ceiling, a calm beige. There was a lightness in my body, an abiding sense of possibility, merely because for that singular moment I hoped for nothing. Perhaps the lightness would stay. But at the very moment I wished for it to remain, the feeling collapsed inside me. The door opened and a sliver of half-light entered the room. My wife slipped into bed and positioned her head on my chest. I whispered, “Em, darling. Quy.” She breathed softly into my neck. Her hair floated, its long soft strands brushing against my face. She wore loose clothing that flowed. The cotton fabric was so thin I could almost feel the full nakedness of her body pressed against mine. Ours was an old-fashioned courtship that continued right through the domesticity of marriage. Her mouth rested on the nape of my neck; her skin settled into mine. I shifted her body and allowed my palm to ride the length of her back. I closed my eyes. If only I were a painter, I’d have been able to capture her form and essence with a few brushstrokes, a fluid line here, another there.
My wife pulled me closer. She hummed the slow, cantabile passage from Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu. We were surrounded in each other’s warmth. I exhaled. A feeling of contentment worked its way slowly into my being, the same feeling that had entered me when I first walked alone with my wife not long after we met. I hoped for nothing; I was already certain that we would spend our lives together. All around us was a vast rice field, the single point of access into the country’s soul. I loved its opalescence, rich earth redolent of harvest; the froth and swell that churned and roiled when the monsoon swept through the country, draining off years of accumulated wrongs and faithlessness.
The first time I kissed her as we stood by that field had surprised us both. She tasted faintly of sugar. I did not quite know what love would feel like, but in that moment, I believed I understood everything. Something moved inside me. “Anh,” she had said, softly. “My love.” Her voice was polished, like a stone rubbed smooth by a river’s flow.
“I have never kissed before,” she whispered. She called my name. “Minh.”
Right through my heart surged a thrill so fierce it made me desire not consummation but restraint. I wanted to prolong the moment. I wanted to fall to my knees in complete surrender.
“How old are you?” she asked.
She hesitated. “I am not yet twenty.”
I said nothing.
She drew herself closer to me, her face against my shirt. She too was holding back, leaning against me, but not quite. Her breath danced against my skin. I felt the ping ping ping of my nerves dancing up and down my spine.
I would not reveal any of this to her. I knew these protesting facts—the ways of old Vietnam. Status mattered and I had none. I was an errant son from a distant land. My parents were Vietnamese but made their living as shopkeepers in Vientiane, Laos, where I was born. I was only traveling through Vietnam, panning for gold in the tributaries of the Mekong River.
Still, over the course of weeks, months, she convinced me that we would find our way into the world by love’s intuition alone, the way each day inevitably followed the next. We hung on to this belief, even when her parents disapproved of the marriage and disowned her.
If I could be granted one wish, it would be this: to go back to that time when I first fell in love by the rice fields. I would return to the place I had left and it would still be there, waiting. Just as my wife would be. There, among a profusion of green, in a flowing purple ao dai.
• • •
How did a small, skinny country clinging to the coast of the South China Sea attract the attention of a great power?
I see the cursed geography of Vietnam. A conquered country cleaved into two halves, the northern half under Ho Chi Minh and the southern under Ngo Dinh Diem. The differences between the two were stark. The North was tightly clasped inside the iron-clad scaffold of the Communist Party. The South was a loose archipelago of centrifugal impulses, each spilling away from the center, each seething with its particular desires, fractious babble, and fierce passion.
Our efforts to forge a national identity out of the South’s divisions were opposed by a tangle of local, religious, and secular interests. President Diem himself was impeded by his own police and secret service, all of whom had split loyalties. From the Hoa Hao to the Cao Dai to the Binh Xuyen sects, each commanding its own sprawling army, from the biggest to the smallest landlords, from the French to the Chinese monopolists with coffers of silver and gold, everyone had something to fear from the president’s ambition for a strong, centralized national government. And everyone in this group did what could be done to sabotage this dreaded possibility. The rest simply waited.
Saigon in 1963 was battered down by factional rivalries and conspiratorial politics. It was a city driven by appetites, afflicted with vertigo. Plots were recklessly hatched. A common desire ran through the city, to charge and push outward, to enlarge the sphere of influence.
One November day, our collective fate would be redirected. After that, everything faltered and changed.
• • •
I was in a government-issued jeep driving to the military headquarters. The streets of Cholon, sloped and tilted, were slicked with spilled diesel. Still, as if to defy, trucks, cars, motorcycles, assaulted the concrete landscape. Here, in this traffic, was where the highest level of gamesmanship would be played out. Everyone believed he had right-of-way and no one yielded to anyone. Drivers turned their steering wheels wherever they needed to go and blasted their horns.
My jeep was stuck among ox-drawn carts, construction trucks, cars, and bicycles. This section of the road was under repair and traffic converged into one lane. Everyone was heading home for the afternoon nap or lunch. High school girls floated in their virgin-white ao dais. The acrid smell of diesel and tar lingered in the air, trapped in the earth’s steam. My eyes smarted from the sting of smoke. A persistent sourness like the odor of damp laundry lifted from the street. It had rained and a certain unpleasant moistness remained trapped inside the black asphalt. Vendors thrust wedges of green, unripe mangoes toward me, their sourness to be tempered by chili-spiced salt wrapped in plastic. I bought a glass of sweet jelly grass cubes mixed with syrup and hand-shaved ice. The midday sun hovered fiercely above, suspended against the bruised sky. On the sidewalks shoeshine boys squatted, running their rags over rows of military boots just like mine. Perhaps it was the military boots that triggered it; suddenly I could feel it, the way you could feel your throat tighten and your heart clutch when you sense the beginnings of danger.
I drove the jeep onto the main boulevard of Saigon, heading toward the Presidential Palace. I had received the order to attend a routine meeting at the Officers’ Club in the General Staff headquarters. Such meetings were necessary to maintain an esprit de corps among the president’s officers.
During those chaotic, troubled times, forthrightness was neither prudent nor desirable. People presented impassive faces and learned to produce oblique answers that were ambiguous enough to satisfy the country’s many competing factions. But I was not a political man and, unfortunately for me, saw only what was right before my eyes, not what was brewing underneath.
Months before, I had watched as flags were hoisted along the major streets of Saigon. The mood was celebratory. Multitudes were expected to gather for the Buddha’s birthday. Against the indigo sky the flags luffed and billowed. I noted with some trepidation that all the flags were Buddhist flags and not one was the national flag of three red horizontal stripes against a background of yellow. It was a fact worthy of observation because the government had ordered that religious flags could be flown only in temples or churches and political flags only in political headquarters. The government had decreed that national flags must be bigger in size and hoisted above all other flags. We were trying to forge a common identity and a sense of duty to the nation, after all.
As I stood that day watching events unfurl in Saigon, something similar was happening in Hue, home of the most militant and organized Buddhist hierarchy in the country. Among the ancient, mildewed sidewalks in that old imperial city, along the banks of the Perfume River, Buddhist flags were being hoisted. It was there, in Hue, that fate conspired with politics to spin complications. In a country of Buddhists, President Diem was Catholic. All his brothers were Catholic, including the archbishop, whom the Vatican had appointed to Hue.
Hidden in the gray-hued shadows of the royal citadel and the tranquil tombs of the emperors, the Hue monks, committed to their transcendental quest, conspired to remake the country’s political fortunes.
As they flexed their muscles, rumor had it that the increasingly desperate archbishop of Hue turned to his brother the president for commiseration. And so the president ordered that government regulations regarding national and religious flags be strictly observed, even in Buddhist Hue.
This was of symbolic importance, but it had an immediate effect. The defiant snap of Buddhist flags could be heard around the country. There, right there, was the tug of opposing forces, the struggle between central control and religious expression. After several years of fighting and finally quelling armed rebellions by the religious sects, the government opted decisively for national identity over religious autonomy.
Even the most obstinate and thick-skinned official in Hue could sense the stirring of whipped-up discontent. Far from Saigon and surrounded by a sea of angry monks, government officials succumbed, turning a blind eye to the president’s directive. They watched as Buddhist symbols were tacked on doors and Buddhist flags hoisted, in historical centers among crowded shops, along the river’s old-fashioned promenade and the boulevards winding through the old city.
In city after city, passions spilled over. A venerable old monk doused his clothes with kerosene and set himself on fire. Radio stations were seized. Buddhist leaders issued fiery sermons denouncing the Catholic presidency, authoritarian rule, and, most searingly, the arrogance of the president’s brother and the supercilious dragon-lady style of his flashy sister-in-law. The newspapers were full of stories about Hue. Day after day, security forces with batons and guns stood clench-fisted, facing broad, patient rows of razored heads and fixed, unforgiving eyes. Over time, university students joined the monks to jabber about injustice. At barricaded intersections, they locked arms. A few lobbed stones at scorched vehicles. As the crowd became animated, soldiers tapped their nightsticks and prepared to unleash water jets.
Armored cars sputtered, clearing the way, and troops advanced in frontal formation toward a radio station, where two big explosions ripped through the hyperkinetic heat. In the dense orange haze, the crowd swiftly dispersed. The scent of blood and charred flesh lingered in the heat.
Much later, it was determined that what the soldiers carried, MK III grenades, could not have killed and maimed so many. MK IIIs are used for training only and do not have the power to shred arms and legs. The smell of conspiracy hung in the air. Was it a Vietcong grenade? Did the Vietcong possess such a weapon in their arsenal so early on, even before receiving massive Soviet and Chinese aid? Could the explosives have been part of a twisted CIA plot? To turn the population against a president who no longer met its needs?
A few weeks after that terrible explosion, elements of the government’s Special Forces attacked the famous Xa Loi Pagoda in Saigon. Monks and nuns were beaten and rounded up. The president’s supporters shuddered. I knew this new government of ours was stumbling badly.
I looked at my watch, worried that I would be late for the scheduled meeting at the Officers’ Club. I had learned to become wary of bottlenecks, stalled traffic, sputtering scooters that slowed down just enough to hurl a bomb into crowded intersections. Anything could be hidden under the buckled sidewalks, inside the sewers beneath the road’s surface.
Finally I lurched the jeep into a patch of shade in the parking lot and hurried to report to the General Staff headquarters. Soldiers with fully loaded M1 assault rifles stood guard. An M66 machine gun pointed from a guard tower surrounded by concertina wires and fortified with sandbags.
I was ushered along with fellow senior officers into the cavernous conference room. Others were directed straight into the Officers’ Club down the hall. This was not routine. Next to me was the commander of the Special Forces, Colonel Tung. I stared at his blank, broad face, the fierce, narrowed eyes, the short bristled crew cut. He was as unsure of what was happening as I was. His eyes blinked in nervous tics.
After a while a man wearing a military police uniform opened the door. His voice was matter-of-fact. “Please follow me, sir. Colonel Tung, sir. The general is waiting for you.” Colonel Tung was then swiftly hustled out. The MP’s hand stayed detectably insistent on Tung’s lower back. I searched for signs of normality. Diesel fumes leaked into the room through the door’s crack. Saigon dust, dry specks of grittiness, blew in through the partially open window. Silence. Then laughter down the long hallway in the direction of the Officers’ Club. And then, cutting through the November evening, the sound of gunshots.
I stood up, braced myself for whatever would happen next. Another knock at the door, and the same MP appeared before me. “Please, Colonel,” said the voice with eerie formality. “The general would like to meet with you now.”
I followed him out of the conference room, down the familiar hallway toward the office of the chief of the General Staff. From behind, a sudden pounce. Big rough hands, several, in fact, squeezed my wrists into handcuffs. Utter panic passed over me.
General Minh motioned me to come in. On instinct, I tried to snap him a salute. The general proceeded to inform me he was orchestrating a coup d’état against the president. He looked me over, then asked, “Colonel, we would like to know your view. Will you be with us? Will you mobilize the troops under your command?” His voice was flat, uninflected.
The general’s aide-de-camp, the MP who had led me here, stood still. His fingers moved ever so lightly over the unholstered pistol against his thigh. I heard the sound of the safety clicking off. The general fingered his pearl-handled pistol and rattled off names, explaining the convergence of events that made the planning of an elaborate coup possible.
For every gesture of trust, there is, is there not, a countervailing gesture of betrayal?
General Dinh, a close friend of the president who had been put in charge of organizing countercoups, had himself joined the plot. He had sent the Special Forces out of Saigon to address a supposed Vietcong buildup, leaving the Presidential Palace vulnerable. If General Dinh had turned against the president, the matter was practically hopeless, I feared. Another of the president’s most trusted officers, the one he relied on to counter intrigues, chief of the General Staff himself, was recuperating from lung cancer treatment. Bad luck. His temporary replacement, General Don, had taken over, led the charge, and also joined the coup. Other generals entrusted with the task of commanding the areas north of Saigon had also turned. The list of cohorts willing to shift allegiance grew. I was astonished to hear the names. The coup had been punctiliously planned. These very generals had convinced the president to let them move troops into Saigon as a massive show of force to frighten potential coup plotters.
Blood rushed to my head. It was now clear that there were two camps: those in the Officers’ Club who were aware of the coup and supported it, and those in the conference room who were gullible and believed this to be a routine meeting.
I could feel a primitive rage rise through me, spiraling inward into itself until it turned inexplicably and with effortless delicacy into something else altogether, into a deeper reserve of calm, a subterranean well of steady, shadowless tranquillity. I could disappear, unstretched, unbeset, into its bottomless comfort—even standing before the mouth of a .45-caliber pistol.
“General, this is a matter of enormous magnitude. I was not contacted beforehand. I cannot join you now while under threat.”
It was straightforward in its own strange way, this direct threat of death. I felt no fright, no grief, no terror. And I certainly felt no courage.
The chief of military security requested that I make an announcement on the national radio in favor of the coup. I refused.
“In that case I’m afraid we have no choice.” The general’s voice hardened.
I was dismissed, arrested, and returned to the conference room to be sequestered. I thought of what had happened to Tung and waited.
The booted thump of MPs sounded on the tiled floors outside. I was under guard, waiting to be executed. From the window of the darkened room I could see the courtyard, and above it clusters of forlorn clouds. Below, standing next to General Minh on an outstretched patch of earth, was one of my closest friends—Phong. How many evenings had we spent together sipping coffee and playing Chinese chess until our wives insisted on an end to the game? How many arguments had we had, how many times had we surfed the ocean waters of Vung Tau together and felt the tug of its undertow? How many meals had we shared? And now suddenly, the dependable, trustworthy side of him, that which defined him to me, could have been altogether inauthentic. Phong’s body shook. I recognized the familiar wheezy cough, the quickening steps that signaled private turmoil, the cigarette loosely held between his fingers, flicking ashes.
A church bell sounded mournfully. I blinked and looked away, my heart seized by a fierce, vengeful pinch. I did not want to see Phong standing next to a coup leader.
Yes, blunders had been made and had been left uncorrected. But President Diem had also managed a series of reassuring accomplishments. The disciplined resettlement in the South of almost one million North Vietnamese fleeing Ho Chi Minh’s Communists. The crushing defeat of the warlords’ militia controlled by an array of wayward factions. Assembling with surprising swiftness a strong central government.
Once upon a time, President Diem had made the construction of a centralized government free of local feuds and factions a national priority. It had to start with a desire and a will and a commitment to implement it—to butt heads with opponents, to be forceful, to take unpopular steps, to take away privileges, to threaten. Diem broke conventions and gave offense. At what point did power become too concentrated? When did he become a dictator? Somewhere between a measure to clamp down on the press and another to muffle dissidents, somewhere between what we had imagined and what we ended up with, I too began to have doubts.
But much more than his actions or inactions, his blunders or virtues, it was his character that touched me. He was frugal and uncorrupted. I understood him. He was an unmarried man drawn to a spartan lifestyle and uninterested in the accumulation of personal wealth. His sin was an overinflated sense of loyalty to his family. But who among us in this land of Confucius could not understand such a sense of duty?
My eyes returned to the courtyard. An MP walked toward the general, conveying a message furtively. My friend Phong remained at the general’s side.
Hours later, an apocalyptic darkness was settling in, bringing with it its own noises and surprises. There were red ribbons of tracer rounds, lolloping curves, each sizzling against the moon’s molten silhouette. Metal fire streamed from every corner of the city. The Saigon skyline glowed. A rocket shot straight up, pulling lilies of white phosphorus that intertwined, then scattered across the sky. The sounds were overwhelming. I hated to think it, but the sky looked beautiful.
The fighting continued into the night. Tanks and cannons would fire into the Presidential Palace. The Presidential Guard’s headquarters would be subjected to an intense artillery barrage. I waited for the MP’s return. And for my own death.
I could see into a row of windows across the courtyard where Phong stood, making grand gestures with his hands. Facing him was General Minh, large and imposing. One talking, quickly, almost pleading, the other listening, then nodding in apparent agreement. Phong smiled. He pulled the cigarette’s end from his mouth and smashed it triumphantly into an ashtray. He looked up and for one instant I thought our eyes locked. I stared unblinking until someone pulled a curtain.
There were crescendos of massed voices in the hall, rising and falling. But the MP never came. The passing hours clicked by. One day passed, then the next. Finally the door swung open, and I was released into a new day.
Never had it been as clear to me as it was at that moment: For every act of betrayal, there is also a simultaneous act of friendship. I knew full well to what I owed my life. To the mere chance that Phong, one of the coup’s leaders in the Revolutionary Military Council, was my friend. How fragile the rules of survival were. These were the elemental calculations of loyalty and treachery. He had betrayed the president but had saved me. The poignant incongruity of it all stayed with me.
• • •
A fine crimson dust coated the windshield as I drove home, encumbered by a new and heavy debt. I maneuvered my way toward the labyrinthine decrepitude of Cholon as the radio announced the revolution’s success. It was reported that the president and his brother had committed suicide. Nobody would believe such a story, of course, as they were Catholics. When published photographs of the president’s corpse showed his hands tied behind his back, the official cause of death was amended to “accidental suicide.”
From the beginning there was the word. Murder. Murder that was being passed off as revolutionary wonderment. What awaited the country now? Something had changed irreversibly. Fighting had stopped but a sense of emergency persisted. An unprosperous future lay ahead of us.
I let the jeep sputter in the back lot by the bedroom before turning the ignition off. I resisted the urge to rush to the house, to shake off the ghostly fog that cast its long shadow over me that late afternoon.
“Is it you?” The voice was frantic. “Minh?”
My wife was at home. Of course she would be home when Saigon was still seized by the aftermath of a military coup. I negotiated my way up the front steps and came into the room, eager to throw off the stale uniform and undershirt. She ran toward me. “You’re safe,” she whispered, pushing her body against me. I felt the fluttering beat of her heart. The world was full of mistakes and punishment, but here, in the sanctuary of her arms, I would be safe. I dropped to my knees, from exhaustion and relief. My arms wrapped around her legs as I pressed my face against her flesh.
I scanned the room, searching for my daughters. “They are with their Chinese grandmother,” she said reassuringly.
There were radios on both night tables, each tuned to a different station. I could make out snippets of the news reports: The emphasis was on change but also continuity. A new prime minister would be appointed. The country would embark on a strong, steady, newly charted course. Corruption and authoritarianism would be yesterday’s problems. The Revolutionary Military Council had seized power to build a strong regime and to terminate the fake anti-Communist policy of the prior government, which was aimed not at winning but at engaging in an illicit peace dialogue with the enemy. And to top it off, the new regime, the announcer assured, had also been promised continued American support.
The statement carried within it a dreadful truth. Its gravity ran right down to my core. American support for the coup had been secured not after its success but before its attempt.
My wife clicked both radios off and let out a muffled groan. She wanted to insulate me from reality. She wanted to console.
I heaved myself up. “Of course the Americans are behind this coup,” I said.
“Shhh. All that matters is that you’re home and safe.” Her voice came out as a long, low moan. She flicked specks of dust from my face. She stood on tiptoe and pressed her cheeks against mine. Touched my hair. Pinched the fabric of my uniform between her fingers and thumbs, as if to test the authenticity of my physical presence. I felt the soft fluttering of her eyelashes against my face and heaving sobs against my chest.
“I am here,” I whispered, suppressing my own emotions in order to soothe hers. I reached for her hand and held it.
My wife headed for the bathroom and ran a hot bath. I lowered myself into the water and relinquished my body to the steaming heat while she sat on the edge of the tub.
“Let it go,” she finally said. Three limpid words. I looked at her. I wanted to be blotted out, erased.
“Let it all go,” she said again, as if to herself this time.
I leaned against the tub and allowed my wife to scrub my back with a sponge. “Quy,” I said, not knowing what else would follow. “Quy.” I merely wanted to call out her name. Her fingers worked my shoulders, massaging the complications of muscle and bone. I wanted to collapse into something, the rampaging thump of love renewed, the unashamed confession of fears and failures. But for the rest of my time in the tub, neither of us talked. We both gave each other the gift of silence.
Outside the phone rang. I could see a flutter of shadow through the door’s crack. My body went rigid. Yesterday’s experience had made me watchful.
The nanny knocked on the door.
“It’s Mr. Phong,” she said.
What does he want, I wondered, and reached for the towel.
My wife rushed toward the door. “Stay,” she said emphatically. “You lean back and rest. I’ll handle it.”
I obeyed. In fact, I was relieved that my wife took the initiative to handle the phone call herself. I would not know what to say to him and I needed the time alone to mull over and allay my suspicions.
Later that evening, my wife surprised me by initiating our lovemaking. The surprise was not the initiation but the timing. I was settling myself and trying to fall asleep. The neighbor’s cat yowled. A tree branch jumped against the moonlight. My wife cleared her throat softly and leaned over to kiss me. I allowed myself to be kissed, to catch up with her desires and abandon myself to her care. I raised my head off the pillow and kissed her back. As I pulled her closer, I felt a slight resistance from her that I registered but swiftly flicked away.
Two Sisters and One Thousand and One Nights
Outside the wind blows steadily and drives sheets of rain against the walls and windows. Once again our mother reaches into a straw bag and pulls out a book. Khanh is skeptical but our mother smiles and pulls her into the circle of folded arms. The overhead fan briskly stirs the air as our mother reads one story after another. It all began once Scheherazade was in the sultan’s chambers. “Shahriyar,” I whisper. Shahriyar, the sultan who out of spite married a virgin each day and beheaded her the next. Scheherazade volunteered to spend one night with Shahriyar, to save herself and her sister, knowing that her sister too would eventually be next in line to be the sultan’s wife and then his murder victim.