Thứ Năm, 19 tháng 7, 2012
Green Hills Literary Lantern
The secretary was able to track down three of the women on May’s list. She had sent them invitations to meet at May’s house at seven p.m. in Tan Duc, an industrial park outside the city. Each woman reacted differently to the perfumed card—with nostalgia and a surprising rancor they didn’t realize they had. But they were curious, and would not miss it.
Since the group parted after their university graduation, they had not bothered to keep in touch. What for? May knew their attempt would be futile against each other’s calculating measure of friendship. How beneficial were they to each other?
On the balcony, May squinted at the bright sun ray reflected off a leaf. Birds and insects were unusually merry during summer. Their endless chirping reminded her of the laughter of a group of girls, their chatter toppling over each other in perfect harmony before breaking off in individual notes. From the front gate, workers entered as swiftly as they left. There was always something to be done—the carpet to clean, the ornaments to polish. And for what cause? May didn’t know. The house seemed lively to passersby—orders from upstairs, shouts of acknowledgment from downstairs. But May’s room was always silent, conversations few and sparse. Once, she had been glad to rid herself of old acquaintances, wearied that gossips would ruin her reputation as a public figure. Now as grey hair deepened on her temples and spread from their roots, her memories of the past ten years began to fade, leaving May with only shadowy laughter and faces that filled her with bitter longing.
Quyen married her economics professor. She found out just because he taught the subject didn’t mean he endorsed it. It was not a right for women to have careers. Quyen was slightly indignant but did not contradict him. Having a degree was enough; if there were children in the future, they would not think their mother was ignorant. Quyen hung the diploma above the television set. Between commercials she would glance up, admiring the cursive. How many years had gone by already? Ten? Twenty? It couldn’t have been that long because there were still no baby cries in the house. Quyen let out a deep sigh. It was two in the afternoon, five hours till the rendezvous. She pushed at the buttons on the remote nervously, flipping channel after channel. It didn’t take too long before she saw May’s face. She was giving a speech about the importance of education for Vietnamese youth. In the audience Quyen spotted the president and the prime minister. On both sides of the stage hung the national flag and one for the Communist party. Quyen disliked the color red. It was everywhere, a hot color, of fire.
Why couldn’t they have picked blue or white? May’s outfit looked expensive—a purple silk blouse and tight fitted knee-length skirt. Quyen had seen it on the mannequin at the new shopping mall in District One, a beautiful outfit—elegant, professional. Everything that May was.
Quyen remembered the day Hung proposed to May. She didn’t even know they were in a relationship.
Hung was a class above them and had already graduated. He still came to the school at lunch time to meet with the girls. Quyen thought that it was her he was interested in. He asked her many questions and listened attentively to the details of her life. She didn’t guess that he only wanted to make a good impression because she was May’s best friend.
The other girls were not surprised. May had many admirers, but they were all turned away quietly with such politeness and tact that the men barely noticed they had just been denied.
“How did he propose?” Quyen inquired.
“He tied some grass together and put it on my finger.” May smiled bashfully.
“Oh, come on. Are you serious?”
“He has an artist’s soul. Don’t be nasty.” May’s browns gathered into a stern expression.
Quyen confessed that she wanted to be happy for May except she had expected to be the one Hung would ask.
“As long as I’m your friend, nobody will look at me,” she cried. May shushed her and gathered Quyen’s head onto her lap. “If you want to marry, that’s easy.”
Quyen went on a string of dates with the professor. May arranged it skillfully. “You’re his favorite student. I only gave him a small push.”
Quyen was engaged within six months and married even sooner than May.
Quyen dialed her husband on the phone. Hey honey, what is the code for our safe? Oh nothing, it’s an emergency expense. What? No, I need something to wear. It’s an important meeting with May, you know, the one that introduced us. Quyen twisted the knob excitedly. They had been saving up for a while for the baby. But when her father-in-law refused his ginseng medicine and passed on a few months later, they’d had to withdraw seven million dong. She thought the whole ceremony a big waste. Both the dead and the mahogany coffin got burned up into fine powder. Quyen had wanted to sob then, but the furnace was blasting with heat; she couldn’t keep her eyes open even for her worried tears to seep through. But today was not a day for grief, today was a day of new expectations. Getting married was the most excitement she’d had, but after so many years, even the most romantic relationships wane. Quyen didn’t know what she needed, but she knew May would.
May put the incense into the ceramic bowl on her husband’s shrine. The smoke smelled of a mixture of cinnamon and wood. It burned her pupils, but she kept her eyes open. You couldn’t love me now even if you were alive.
May looked at her watch, the metal band cold and thin, the face engraved in diamonds. She tried to wiggle her toes, but the shoe cap held them tightly in place. Her feet felt like marble, stiff and callous. She had started wearing high heels after he died. Thirteen years. Without thinking, she had gone to the funeral barefoot, hands cradling the new life growing inside her. You’re a father! I wish I could have told you. Her eyes were stunned as if the realization had hit her, then dispersed like a dream, then hit her again over and over until her face was numb. The family of the trucker who crashed into her husband’s moped sent a million dong in compensation. It was enough for two months rent. May couldn’t blame them; poverty struck everyone the same way.
She gave birth alone. Her mother was there, but in the hallway, afraid of blood. The ceiling was blue, with thick lumps of paint hanging from the flat surface like rain drops. She struggled to scream, instead gritted her teeth and cried sharp, salty tears. She cried as if she was not giving birth, but from another pain altogether. When she stopped pushing, the doctor administered anesthesia and glided a sharp metal blade into her belly. The baby tore its way out of her. It choked on air and screamed a piercing wail. The nurse shuddered and deposited the baby into May’s arms. She put its head close to her neck. The baby’s cry drowned out her own and she was calm.
Tonight May would reunite with her girl friends from college. She felt as if new buds had blossomed inside her. As chairwoman of a billion dollar corporation, not much could excite her. She had reformed the education system in Vietnam, accompanied the president on business trips. The board had chosen her as businesswoman of the year five consecutive times. As she got older her accomplishments did not dwindle as they often did with many others, but only became greater in size and value. Yes, she was successful, more so than she ever could have imagined as the young girl of fifteen years ago. She remembered putting the flame over her notebook, filled with poems and vague dreams. Her best friend Quyen had stolen it out of her bag and read it out loud in class. There were a few gentle chuckles but nobody laughed. They were good poems, some of her classmates had said. Yet she had felt humiliated—watching her private thoughts debased by the others’ vulgar, careless comments. Now, she sometimes wished to have such simple things to cherish. But poetry never entered her mind. As her sharp metal Chanel heels crushed the dry summer leaves, she didn’t stop to contemplate it as if poetry—its beauty and secrets—had all been burned up with the pages of that notebook.
The housekeeper bustled around to prepare dinner—snails boiled in lemon grass and salted duck eggs, the girls’ favorite. They used to sit for hours on the sidewalk restaurant, poking at the snail’s tail with a toothpick. When one of them managed to pull out the entire snail without breaking bits off, they would give it to each other.
May waited impatiently. The girls would be here in about an hour.
Thuy was the first to arrive. May almost didn’t recognize her if not for the curious, insecure way she still looked around herself, constantly wary of potential watchers. Her dark hair rested on her shoulder in large waves, not a streak of gray. She wore a sheer, long-sleeve tunic tugged inside a fitted skirt. Her figure was striking—she had lost considerable weight since graduation.
Before greeting her friend at the entrance, May checked her reflection—her own hair was up in an elegant bun, which her daughter had taught her how to do. It appeared complex but was simple enough to manage without a helping hand.
“Holy—May! Look at this place. May! Where the hell are you?”
May sighed, feeling the anxiety swept from her. Thuy was still Thuy after all, and May needed that.
“You look stunning.” May opened her arms for an embrace, but Thuy continued to look up and down the house, her eyes shining with excitement. “You got one of those chandeliers! Where did you get it, May? France? I was there last Spring . . .” Finally, she turned and faced May. “I missed you,” she said solemnly.
They walked down the corridor together. “You haven’t aged a day,” they kept saying to each other, then blushed and rubbed their nose when the compliment was returned. After praises were spent, they began on the furniture—Thuy pointing out the white frame around a picture of a house in the snow. How considerate of you to notice. Then both were silent, overwhelmed by the years which hung between them like stalagmite, too precious to break off. They had plenty of reasons to separate—they never agreed on love or politics; one of them had a child and the other didn’t. Yet as they walked, close enough to smell the other’s perfume but not ask about it, they silently prayed that maybe, maybe it wasn’t too late.
They reached the dining room and raised their voices to match the commotion of the servers going back and forth from the kitchen.
Tentatively, May asked, “How is the kid? Must be all grown up by now?”
“I wouldn’t know.” Thuy stared at a white wall across the room.
May waited, letting her stomach stir then settle.
“I gave him up,” Thuy said, her face pale, her forehead slightly wrinkled. She darted toward the feast on the table. “Mm, yum,” she picked up a piece of roasted pork with her fingers, sandwiched it between two slices of sweet bread and took a bite.
May took Thuy by the arms. “Come on, we can eat when the others get here. Let me give you a tour of the house.”
May remembered when Thuy gave birth. She and Quyen were checking the announcement board to see which master program they had gotten into. “Poor Thuy,” they agreed; she had gotten better grades than both of them on her entrance exam, but that was irrelevant now. Upon receiving a phone call from Thuy’s father, they rushed to the hospital on Quyen’s moped. Her family had been more wealthy than May’s. May rode to school each day on a bicycle she inherited from her grandfather.
They held onto each other as they walked down the brightly lit hall. Neither wanted to acknowledge they did not want to be there, to look into their friend’s rheumy eyes, and coddle the unfamiliar presence in the room. What do you say to a baby? Yet as they reached the door, they felt enlivened by a new smell. What is it? Milk streaming from a mother’s breasts? Or the soft, fleshy skin of a newborn?
But they did not come in right away; their heels held steadfast outside the door frame. They were startled by a picture, as if ripped out of a catalogue—a man leaning over their friend’s bed, holding her hand in his, and resting his lips on her soft blue veins. Quyen spoke first. “Hung?” May watched her fiancé’s expression—anxious, oblivious of his surroundings, yet focused and tense. Expectant. May swallowed and walked in.
The stairs spiraled up to the blue ceiling, painted with nude angels. Two years ago when the house was built, journalists and photographers had come from all over the country to study the architecture. Seven bedrooms in total. Who were they for? My parents. My daughter, the nanny, the driver. Is your daughter home? Can we interview her? No, she studies abroad.
The truth was her daughter was married. Hearing May had included her room in the new house, decorated with old dolls and dusty yearbooks, she had feigned polite gratitude. It did not bother May. The house was made of stone, like a cathedral. It would be here for many more decades, long after her daughter’s marriage had deteriorated. Human relationships could not outlive the waste of time, May knew that, especially romantic ones, too ethereal for this world. Only maternal love was unconditional, and only what was unconditional was strengthened rather than destroyed by the endlessness of time.
May let the reporters look through every room, even open drawers if they needed to. Clean, empty drawers, not even dust bunnies. They glanced at them quickly, jotted in their notebooks then walked away, bored and disappointed.
Thuy was astonished at each spacious bedroom, fully furnished, color coded, and themed. Yet realizing their extreme tidiness, she turned to May and spoke softly, “Do you live here alone?”
“I’m not the one who needs help, Thuy,” May snapped accusingly.
“I knew you would be furious at me. That’s why I couldn’t tell you. But—I thought you would be relieved too.” Thuy grabbed a stuffed rabbit from the bed and hugged it close to her chest.
“Do you remember Khanh?” Thuy continued.
“Of course. She is the only one beside you and Quyen who isn’t out of town.”
“Khanh’s dead, May. I thought you knew.” Thuy threw the stuffed rabbit back on the bed. “Her husband left her.
She went crazy supposedly. She was always a bit of a nut, wasn’t she?”
“A bit,” May replied. “That’s ’cause she loves too much and too diversely. She was smitten with all of us, at one point or another—”
They had been flat mates before May was married. Khanh had begged her not to go through with the wedding.
They could continue to live together like they had since freshman year of college. He is not worth a strand of your hair. Khanh wept, but May did not feel sorry for her. It was time for them to become women, not girls anymore. In a way, May thought that her release would teach Khanh independence.
Khanh was free now, perhaps not in the way May had thought, but what was the difference? “Always drawing attention to herself,” May thought bitterly. She wouldn’t take any less, always present, always profound, then exiting in that manner—theatrically—not lingering like the rest of us. Not lingering at all.
“I should have stayed with her.” May’s voice quivered, smiling mournfully.
“She was a grown woman. She was capable of a lot more than you thought.” Thuy lifted the curtain and looked down to the street. “She adopted my child.” Thuy breathed on the glass window and traced her finger over the fog.
“What—why would she do that?” May chuckled, her voice full of irony
“I know. It’s hard to believe. Everyone thinks we hated each other.” Thuy laughed. “I think she put up with me for your sake. I suspect she adopted the child for your sake too.”
After Thuy and the baby fell asleep, Hung and May walked back to the university to collect May’s bicycle. A large cloud hung like dark grey smoke over rooftops, almost touching, almost crushing them with its weight.
Hung lit a cigarette, barely put it over his lips, then dropped it to the pavement, his foot crushing the brown tobacco leaves. “Sorry, I know you don’t like it.”
May shook her head, smiling wistfully, “That’s the least of my worries.”
“I only care about you.” He grabbed her hand. His fingers were frigid.
“You’re a father now,” she said sternly. The sun had only started to fall from the sky, yet she could already see the moon—transparent, almost invisible, yet impossible to ignore.
“No. Not yet—not until it’s our child.” He pronounced each syllable distinctly, depending entirely on the crisp words to evince his loyalty. He was a hard man. The type who did not falter.
May was startled by his growing weakness, his desperation. She put one hand over her empty stomach.
What’s the point? She was surprised at how much she wanted to be the mother of Hung’s child, the first to carry and perpetuate their love.
“I still want to marry you.” His voice was high-pitched, almost to the point of begging.
“That’s good.” May swallowed. She did not want to speak anymore. Looking down at the gravel, Hung’s shadow was stretching upward, towering over her.
“Everything is as before.” She hurried ahead of him. “But I want the child. I should be the one to raise him.”
The dogs got up from their nap and ran to the front gate. They could hear the approaching vehicle. “I think Quyen’s here.” Thuy closed the curtain and started for the door. May followed.
They both could not contain themselves and hastened outside the house. For a second, the headlights of the cab blinded her eyes so May could see only the outline of a small, plump figure. The pastures from both sides were illuminated, as well as the rows of factories leading up to the iron gate.
Quyen stepped from the cab, slung a handbag over her shoulder and said, “Can I get a taxi from here late at night?”
May nodded. “Yes, if not my driver will take you.”
“I thought you weren’t going to show, Quyen!” Thuy said abruptly, dispelling the approaching silence.
“Are you hungry?” May asked, stopping herself from staring—Quyen’s shoulders drooped, blue veins protruding from the thin layer of skin on her neck. The only features still youthful were her hands—long and slender fingers, inert hands.
“Maybe later,” she said distractedly. “This is crazy. Is all of it yours?” Quyen gestured toward the industrial park.
At night, they looked like abandoned buildings.
“About a thousand acres from where we’re standing,” May said with pride. This was something she knew well.
“Do you mind if we walk around? I feel a little sick from the drive,” Quyen said shyly, still avoiding eye contact.
Thuy laughed. She could always do that, then walked up and linked her arm with Quyen’s. “Come on,” she waved for May.
The three shadows, arm in arm, like laughing children, strolled away from the house into the darkness. For a few seconds, before their eyes were adjusted, the gaps between them ceased. They spoke in their girlish voices, not letting go of each other. For now, they could not see the lines that traced the outline of their mouths, the disappointment under their eyes, or the hollow echoes of the years scratching at them. They were free to be girls.
* * *
The banyan tree was older than anything inside the industrial park. Around here the soils were rich; unattended grass grew past a human head. On Sunday, the workers went around the side walls of the factories cutting down bright green weeds that sprang up as fast as they were removed. The tree grew from its roots, which hung from the branches, expanding like hundred of arms hovering only a few inches from the earth. One cannot cut down a banyan tree. It would not be only one trunk that the lumberjack would have to axe, but many more. A sturdy structure, the tree grasped on tightly where it stood—it grew its own family with different stocks, yet forever connected, never alone.
Quyen leaned against the tree trunk, waving away the smoke that fell from Thuy’s cigarette. Every time she inhaled the bitter nicotine, both Quyen and May held their breath. They watched her, fascinated, entranced in the motion of her slender fingers flicking off the ash, then again raising the cigarette to her lips—in and out, its orange burn the only light in the darkness. Thuy’s lipstick had almost completely faded now, revealing her bare, dark lips.
“Did you visit her? Help her? She would have needed it.” May smoothed the curls on her temples. Without the blaming light of day shining on their faces, she felt safe to ask questions.
“I didn’t want to confuse who the baby’s mother was—from that moment on.” Thuy cleared her throat. Her voice was heavy, a weight dropped down on the night’s stillness.
“She needed you,” May repeated. “She had no one.”
“She didn’t want to see us.” Quyen spoke quickly, “She said we were a bad influence. She was waiting for you to claim the child. I don’t think she planned to keep it. Not at first.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? Why—” May broke off. Could she have done any different? It was too much at the time, too much. After Hung’s funeral, she had not spoken to anyone, not even her family. All of them had tried so hard to convince her to get rid of the baby barely growing inside her. They haven’t seen you, yet they already deserted you. But perhaps they were right—the child was not a child, more like an expanding shadow. No matter how much May tried to love her, she could not compensate for the absence of the father. A partial child, a fatherless phantom, she fled as soon as she was out of my womb. Never was mine.
“We thought it was better for you—we assumed you wouldn’t want to hear the mention of that child ever again. After all—” Quyen said, then looked at Thuy expectantly, but Thuy pretended not to acknowledge her friend’s gaze and continued turning the cigarettes upside down then reinserting them into the pack.
“Things happened so fast. One minute we were all together, the next—” Quyen continued.
“Alone,” May replied.
* * *
The three of them could have been happy. They were eager to begin—the life they thought unlived, postponed while they were at school. May too had dreamed of that world—a room filled with men in stuffy collars and checkered ties, business deals signed over champagne and caviar, not many women yet, but soon. She had got what she wanted—the eye of the public that captured her as a woman of power, and at once protected her from remembering the desperation of a young widow. As she stood beside the girls, their gaze fluttered past her stiff posture, the square shoulder pads hiding her small frame underneath. She could tell they were impressed at first, but only for a moment, before memories flooded back into them and they saw her. She too, startled at her love for them, regretted that it couldn’t have been rendered differently, so it seemed not love, but blame, contempt, fear too.
The neighborhood was tidy—neat alley ways paved in red bricks and little children art murals on ceramics inset on the wall. Thuy took lead. The path was small, only enough for one person to fit through in a single line. Quyen and May followed behind. In the corner of an apartment stairwell, a vagrant with peppered beard sat, singing a quiet hymn.
“Does anyone live here, sir?” Thuy inquired. “This used to be Khanh’s house.”
The old man scratched his chin as if awakened from a trance and looked at them. May felt shy of his moist eyes, a cloudy white, staring at them unblinking. “We used to go to college together,” she offered.
“Ah,” he breathed, baring his tobacco teeth, “I know Khanh. You think I’m blind and stupid, but I can still hear.
This whole block knows. Some of the family moved away after—afraid of bad spirit. What do you want?” He paused then spoke again suddenly, sounding alert, “Who else’s there? I know there are three of you. Speak up.”
“Sorry,” Quyen murmured, “I’m Quyen. We’re looking for her son. Does he live here?”
“Upstairs,” he coughed, his whole frame shook. Waving his finger upward then dropping his arm onto his lap, he started humming again—seemed to have forgotten them.
“Thank you,” May pushed a bill into his trembling hand. She turned to look at the girls, half afraid they would disappear, half hoping they would.
Unsteadily she climbed the metal staircase then knocked twice on the front door pealing with green paint.
A ghost opened the door. May introduced herself to keep from gasping. He smiled at her—uncertain—his curly head tilted slightly to the right as if confused. His bright eyes were of both kindness and mischief. Just like his father.
The women stepped at once into what was both a bedroom and kitchen. There was a single stool at the window sill, stack of books and papers strewn on the floor, a half glass of water. The place hadn’t changed much, different paint for the walls maybe, tidier. The bunk bed May and Khanh used to share was gone, replaced by a folded couch. “I’m preparing for the university entrance exam,” Liem explained.
“Ah,” May breathed out, “which one?”
“Business School,” he chuckled dryly, “if I can get in.”
The girls nodded in approving silence. Thuy had taken a seat on the stool, cracking the window slightly then lighting her cigarette. The boy was apprehensive, shrinking from her, putting a distance between them in the crowded room.
“Your mother—you both lived here,” May spoke, not intending for it to sound like a question.
“Sure,” the boy turned away, hiding his face, “I have seen you before, Mrs. May, on the news, that’s right. How did you know my mother?”
May looked at Quyen, who was fingering a paper swan on the floor. Thuy was still at the window, on her second cigarette. It seemed nothing could ever move her from that spot.
“We were best friends.” The words finally escaped her. She let them pull at her, then drop carelessly into the clean, white room. She inhaled, tried to detect a scent—any hint that a crazy woman might have lived here. Instead she could only picture Khanh sitting on the sofa (the sheet might have been a different color—pink nylon?), swaying the boy to sleep. Khanh—with frail arms bearing the burden of another, waiting hopelessly for them who didn’t show up. Then spiraling into what they called madness around here. But May knew better; she had been there before. Months after the funeral, she could not sleep without hugging the shorts Hung had worn the night before the accident close to her chest, bracing herself on the too large bed, running to the door whenever the bell rung, expecting to see him there. Hope. Pure hope that only escalated as the waiting got longer.
“I’m sorry, Liem,”Quyen cried suddenly, face buried in her palms.
“Oh don’t. It was so long ago,” the boy said with patience.
“It was nobody’s fault. Nobody,” he repeated, accentuating the syllables the way Hung had once done.
“That may be true,” Thuy said inaudibly so her voice sounded like a soft echo. “It may as well—like reading a piece of news on the paper true, like not being here true.” She opened her mouth as if to speak again, but the silence was gone from the room. Liem had walked to the kitchen sink, toppled over a pile of dishes, and refilled his cup with water. May thought perhaps he had not heard Thuy, or did but regarded it as the mumble jumble of a stranger, but worst not a complete stranger, the type one could discuss the weather with, but a distant connection—imposing enough to make him uncomfortable.
“I need to get back to my studies,” he said with a sudden indifference.
Out of the corner of May’s eyes, May saw Quyen blink, startled at the boy’s abrupt aloofness. She wiped her tears on her sleeve and stood.
The three women stepped from the room. Dismissed like school children. May felt the door slam behind them.
Over the bridge May stood, listening to the humming of an ice cream cart. It was barely morning, the open horizon still a deep blue with soft particles of light. Leaning over the rail, May watched pouches of dust explode into millions of sparkling grains. They didn’t have a favorite spot, not really. As a young couple, she and Hung, like a hundred other lovers, had parked the bicycle dangerously close to traffic to get a glimpse of the silvery water. On their first date, she had tried to say something clever, ask deliberate questions to create an atmosphere of falling in love. At the city, bubbling with electricity, she pointed. “Which is your favorite light?”
She did not want him to forget this moment. He stretched his arm upward then around her waist but didn’t speak. “Hm?” she asked again, impatient. “I’m thinking,” he said. His eyes were focused, studying the individual light. This was why she loved him.
She no longer remembered what his answer was. That whole day was shedding away from her bit by bit.
Slices of memory replaced by their painful silence a year later. He did not ask her to forgive him. She already had by agreeing to come to the bridge. He was trying to forgive himself first, she could tell. Perhaps it was the way he cupped his hand over his cheeks and pulled downward, looking defeated, that convinced her he truly didn’t mean it; he had made a mistake. But still she did not feel sorry for him. She thought she might make it worse for him by helping Thuy raise the baby—arguing over which brand of milk powder was better. The child of course would grow up to love her more than his own mother. Thuy could not feign maternal interests even if she tried. Yes, May would force him to look at them, to live with the error that could have been prevented had he any common sense, or self-control.
The sun reflected off May’s watch and scattered round spots of light on the girls’ faces, like tears. A strand of gray hair fell from Thuy’s temple to the glistening water below. May tried to catch it.
“Was it here?” Quyen asked only to say something.
“Right where you’re standing. That’s where they found the baby basket,” Thuy replied.
May nodded absently. The body, so heavy, once already falling, had no fear of vertigo. There was a time that
May too felt pulled by such depth. But she could not bear the thought of her daughter inside her, already submerged in water, desperately fighting for life. If anything, they deserved separate deaths. Saved by the mere thought of another’s life. Not Khanh.
There was nobody in the basket of course. Liem would have been six or seven by then. When the car mechanic stumbled upon the basket, his nervous oil-stained fingers perused the layers of blanket, relieved to find nothing but a few photographs, curled at the corners. These were the faces of young girls, so filled with hope they were bound to be disappointed. He put them in his shirt pocket and noticed the floating shape on the water.
“People used to think we were twins,” Thuy spoke, her words small and tired. “I didn’t think we looked alike—but in the end I sort of hoped we did.”
Was Thuy hoping somehow the boy would see a mother in her? May wondered. Apparently there was more than one ghost in the room.
“She was always sending me baby pictures. I thought she was mocking me—I was trying myself, but nothing worked. I didn’t know to be glad or sad for her,” Quyen added.
“No matter what I did, I was betraying somebody—who could I be happy for anyway?”
May looked around. They were all here, the closest to a memorial they could manage for their friend. No flowers, not even a prepared speech, only incomplete memories, mouthful yet not enough to fill the silence.
What about May? What could she possibly say to ease what they did, turned away from?
For a fleeting moment, she considered awarding Liem this year’s scholarship. Saving the child of a suicide victim, the news headline might say. Business Woman of the Year, May doesn’t forget a friend. The boy would not accept it, May knew.
“Let’s not wonder too far,” she finally muttered. Senseless though the words seemed, she felt her heart retreat back into the hollow space in her chest. The rhythm cautious and steady.
The three roads from the bridge all led to the same place, where May and Khanh spent hours awake as college girls, where Liem lived now. From all different directions they were brought back once more.
Tomorrow the construction team would be here. May had signed the contract to compensate families with houses built in or alongside the river. In their places would rise the first five star hotel in the country. She imagined the resort expanding, indoor swimming pools, garden bars, and live concerts. When the sun set, electric lanterns buzzed to the call of white-eared Night herons. It was a perfect location for international events, to show foreign ambassadors what this country was made of. May strategized the building plan so that on one side visitors were enveloped by exotic tropical plants and soothing nature. Over the bridge they would see the robust city, constantly growing.
May pictured the three of them gathered at a round table on the day of the hotel opening, holding their smile just long enough for the photographer. There was something they needed to say—but perhaps for another time.
And maybe, as May listened to the mournful chirping of the heron, she would ask “Is that you, Khanh?”
Abbigail N. Rosewood has no idea who she is unless she is writing. She likes the city for its richness of character and the country for its various silences. She appreciates the company of strong, outspoken people since she is so quiet herself. She finds New York city a difficult place to live, but is fascinated by the stories told by taxi drivers and street performers there. Today she is lucky enough to experience the small town serenity that many writers thrive on. She started to send out her works for the first time in December of 2011. Her stories have been published by BlazeVox, PensOnFire, The Bad Version, and The Missing Slate. She is the recipient of the 2012 Michael Baughman Fiction Award by Southern Oregon University, where she studies creative writing. Currently she works as a barista and gets free caffeine, a necessary ingredient in her writing.