My Name Is Chiyo
By Khanh Ha
One rainy afternoon I walked under my umbrella to the school bus stop a few blocks from my house and stood among a small gathering of people waiting for their children. It was cold in late October and the rain glued fallen leaves, brown and yellow, to the broken sidewalks and the grass was sodden and pale.
I tilted the umbrella forward, so from the bus that came blinking up the road, my daughter couldn’t tell that it was me. Chiyo always walked home by herself. It was raining hard and the children came running to their parents. Chiyo stepped down gingerly in her gray sweatshirt, shoulders hunched under her backpack. The last one to leave the bus, she must be chiding herself why she didn’t listen to her father’s words earlier that day. Chiyo, take your umbrella with you. Rain in the forecast by the time you get home.
I left the corner and crossed the street. She saw me, the only one left, and her face beamed with a smile. My eleven-year-old daughter’s smile could make my heart tremble with joy. I wiped her face with my hand and moved the umbrella over her head. She looked up. “Papa,” she said, “you’ll get wet. You’re not covering yourself.”
Gently she pushed my hand that gripped the umbrella’s handle toward the other side. We were walking into the wind-driven rain, hearing it patter on the canopy, and our shoes squelched on the sidewalk. A minty hint of lemon balm trailed in the wind, perhaps from the garden of a Vietnamese home. I thought of the heart-shaped leaves, wrinkled and wet with rain, and if you crushed the scallop-edged leaf with your fingers, a lemon scent would stay on your fingertips.
I brushed a curl of wet hair from Chiyo’s forehead. Every two months I had a hairstylist cut Chiyo’s hair, so it hung in layered locks about her neck, cupping her oval face. The satiny black of her hair made you admire the smooth white of her skin. As we turned onto the cross-street that led to our townhome, I whistled softly. She peered up at me.
“Papa,” she said, dabbing her damp forehead with the back of her hand, “you always whistle that tune.”
“Mm.” I smiled, looking into her crinkled eyes. Gently aslant outward, they flowed gracefully in their elongated shapes. Her eyebrows arched with the soft curves like they were drawn by an artist.
Nostalgia welled up in me.
“Papa,” Chiyo said, “you’ve whistled that tune ever since I was a first grader.”
“I know,” I said. “And I don’t even remember when I started this habit.”
“It’s not a habit, Papa. Habit is something different.”
“Yes.” I nodded, taken by her astuteness. “I was just saying it because sometimes when you’re mentally lazy, you don’t say things right.”
“Ah, memory,” she said, and her longish eyes narrowed. “That’s what I meant, Papa.”
“It comes not from a habit but from memory. And you’re right.”
“Memory of who?”
“Your mother,” I said abruptly. And knew it was a lie.
Chiyo squinted at me. When something puzzled her she would squint at me, and the quizzical look in those almond-shaped eyes lingered long enough until I said, “What?”
“What is it called? That tune, Papa.”
“A Spanish song?”
“But Mama is Japanese.”
“It was a song that we danced to―the first time together.”
We arrived at our door, and the sound of my words stayed in my head. The words were partially true. That part of a dance forever felt closer to my heart than the other part of unspoken truthfulness.
After we got in, I fixed Chiyo a cup of chocolate milk. It was a cup she had made in her arts and crafts class. She wouldn’t drink from any other cup. She had painted her it an azure blue and decorated its side with a large six-petaled flower in red, each petal curving gently, its edge rounded so soft like a trembling butterfly’s wings, the red painted boldly against the yolk-like yellow carpel.
Sitting at the kitchen table, she sipped her milk―she never swigged it even when she was thirsty―while I warmed a mochi for her. She loved mochi with sweetened red-bean paste inside. Every other week I’d buy a box of frozen mochi and steam the mochi buns until they were ready to snack. Chiyo loved to hold a mochi between her fingers before she took the first bite. Once she remarked that it looked like a Vietnamese steamed bun―bánh bao. “Did Mama love bánh bao, Papa?” she asked me out of the blue on the day I brought home those steamed buns from a Vietnamese deli. Her accented pronunciation of the words bánh bao had me smile every time. “She loved Vietnamese bánh bao,” I said, “as much as I loved Japanese Daifukumochi.”
I placed a round mochi on a saucer in front of Chiyo. She tested its warmth with her fingertip. “Can you take me to visit the World Trade Center, Papa, when you have a chance?”
The first time she visited New York City, she was nine years old. I chaperoned her during her school’s field trip which took four hours by bus from Maryland.
“Sure,” I said, pulling out a chair to sit down. “But why?”
“Last month we watched a slide show in our World History class. It was the tenth anniversary of the nine-eleven terrorist attacks.” She reached out and held my hand. “Papa, you can see the official memorial in New York City now. You know what takes place of the original twin towers?”
“Two reflecting pools set in the footprints of the twin towers?”
“Yes, Papa,” Chiyo said with a pout. “You always have an answer for whatever I ask you.”
I looked at her as she took a small bite. “Next time,” I said, “I’ll play dumb. And whenever you come to me with questions about math and economy and world history, I’ll play dumb too.”
My tone had her look up. She searched my face for any seriousness until I smiled. The worried look gone from her face, she brought her mochi to my lips. I didn’t want to eat but knowing her kind nature I bit gently into it, my teeth grating her fingertips, and she giggled, “Papa, not my fingers.”
“Finish your snack.” I rose. “I’m going to make some coffee and get back to work.”
As I brewed coffee, my back toward her, Chiyo’s voice came. “Papa.”
“Yes?” I said without turning my head.
“Can you help me with a story I’m going to write?”
“For your English class?”
“For our school’s journal. A writing contest.”
“What kind of help, dear?”
“A themed composition about mother.”
I turned around. She had eaten her snack and, the saucer in hand, walked to the kitchen sink. I said nothing, watching her clean the saucer, and after a while I said, “That’s clean enough, Chiyo.” Her fastidious habit tested my nerves sometimes.
She wiped her hands with the towel hung over the sink, then came and leaned against me, resting her head on my shoulder. “I want to win this contest, Papa.” She wrapped her arms around me. “I know I can. But I need your help. I know so little about Mama.”
“Well, Chiyo,” I said, taking a sharp breath, “Mama died when you were two years old. It is difficult to write about someone you have practically no knowledge of, or relationship with. Why? Because you must write about what you know. And you must write from the heart.”
Chiyo said nothing. She excelled in her English class. She loved books and writing. Once she said to me, “I want to become a writer like you, Papa, when I grow up.” I felt as if I had shooed her away. But worst, I had refused to help by not exploring the alternatives.
Finally, Chiyo lifted her head from my shoulder. “Papa, I can’t make things up like you. For me to write this composition, I must know what Mama was really like.”
I had made up things for Chiyo about her mother ever since she became mature enough to ask questions, and memories were like a handkerchief one dabbed at one’s skin and the kerchief retained one’s scent until it was washed. I had given her scents in the name of lies.
“Did Mama carry your last name?” Chiyo asked, watching me spoon condensed milk and add it to my coffee.
“Yes, of course.” I stirred the coffee with the spoon.
“So Mama was called Yumiko Lê? Or Yumiko Oshiro Lê?”
Chiyo pronounced the “Lê” with a lilt, Leh.
“She was Yumiko Oshiro-Lê,” I said then felt ashamed with the raw lies just tumbling out of my mouth. But I went on. “With a hyphen between her maiden name and my last name.”
Chiyo nodded. “I forgot the dash.”
“Hyphen,” I said, “not dash. Remember now, hyphen is used to link the parts of a compound word. Dash is used as a punctuation mark either intended for pause in a sentence, or an abrupt break. And if you want to write good English, you must know the difference between the two, among other things in the English language.”
“Yes, Papa. My teacher of English never brought this up.” She tugged at my hand that held the mug. “Can I have a sip?”
I shook my head, sighing. Then, like always, I gave in. I watched her hold the mug with both hands, then tilt it and sip gingerly. She was ten when she had her first taste of the ca phe sua da―the Vietnamese drip coffee, chilled and sweetened with condensed milk. Told repeatedly that she was too young to drink coffee, Chiyo would say, “A sip won’t hurt, Papa.” So, time and again, just to get back to work, I’d make her half a cup. Black coffee with condensed milk. And she drank it―hot or cold. Whenever I opened a fresh can of Café Bustelo, the Cuban roast, she’d wait until I poured the can into the canister, then she’d hold the empty can with brown flecks of coffee dust and inhale the coffee aroma still left in there.
After the first sip, Chiyo paused, savoring the taste. “Did Mama speak English?” she said, then lifted the mug to her lips and sipped again.
“Of course. With an accent though.” At least that was true.
“Did you speak to her in Japanese?”
“No, I couldn’t.”
“You said you lived in Japan.”
“I was born there, but when South Vietnam fell to communism in nineteen seventy-five, our embassy in Tokyo was closed. We moved to America. I was only four at that time.”
“So Grandpa was an ambassador of South Vietnam to Japan?”
“Yes. Grandpa and Grandma could speak some Japanese though. Grandpa moved his family to Japan in nineteen sixty-nine and two years later I was born.”
“What about Mama?”
“What about her?”
“How did you meet her?”
I needed a puff of cigarette. Usually I refrained from smoking with Chiyo in the house. Second-hand smoke would be a health risk to her. I wet my lips. “Mama’s father was a Minister for Foreign Affairs. He was a good friend of Grandpa. Mama came here to study at Boston College.”
“You met her in college, Papa?”
“No. I was working then. I was much older than she was though.”
“Oh. I thought she was your age.”
“I was eight years older. But our family and hers had a tie back in Japan. So whenever her parents visited her, both families got together on those occasions.”
“So Mama was very young then. Right, Papa?”
I met Chiyo’s gaze, and the dreamy look in her eyes made me look away.
“I need a cigarette,” I said. “I’ll be outside.”
That night I went into Chiyo’s bedroom to kiss her goodnight and saw her still up, sitting on the bed, sketching something on a sheet of paper. My photo album, which she’d borrowed from me after dinner, lay opened in her lap. She was about done―sketching Yumiko from a photograph of me and Yumiko standing next to each other. At five feet and eight inches tall―about my height―Yumiko stood half a head taller than I in the picture in her high-heeled pumps. She looked stunning in her impeccably tailored white suit, the jacket’s hem kissing her hips, the front fastened low with a single glossy round button. Her flannel pants hugged her hips tight, their curves round, as the pant legs dropped straight, sharply creased down the center. On one side, her raven-black hair was swept back behind her ear and, on the other side, let fall in luxuriant strands touching her shoulder.
Chiyo sketched only Yumiko. I sat down on the bed. Chiyo, nibbling the pencil’s cap eraser, waited until I looked the sketch over.
“That’s okaasan,” she said. Mama.
The face in the sketch didn’t look much like Yumiko, but the eyebrows did. Ink-jet black.
“You sketch beautifully, dear,” I said.
“If Mama was alive and here with us, would I call her Mama or okaasan?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess it’d be up to her. Every child grows up in her mother’s image.” I looked at the sketch again. Yumiko, a college sophomore. The twenty-year-old princess whose eyebrows, thick with a high arch, were ink-black like the color of her pupils. The eyes exuded intelligence. Always with a glitter in them.
“Papa?” Chiyo put her finger on the photograph.
“What is it?”
“Do you think I look like Mama?”
“Mama has single eyelids. I don’t.”
“I don’t look like Mama.” Chiyo glanced at me, her lips puckered. “Do you think I look like Mama?”
“You look more like Papa. How’s that?”
“Papa,” Chiyo said, shaking her head, “that’s not true.”
“Well, the truth is a child can bear little resemblance to either one of her parents.” I looked at my watch. “It’s past eleven. Go to bed.”
“Yes, Papa.” Chiyo closed the album. “Why’d Mama die?”
The words came out of me as though I was reading from a script. “Mama died from leukemia.” I nodded at Chiyo. “You know what that is?”
“It’s a form of bone-marrow cancer when your bone marrow produces abnormal white blood cells which eventually affects the normal blood cells from doing their work.”
Frowning, Chiyo gazed at the sketch in her hands.
I woke before the alarm clock went off at 6:30 a.m. But before waking I had smelled an aroma of coffee. Lying in bed I breathed in the scent. Rich, endearing. The aroma of Café Bustelo. Darkness became redolent of brewed coffee and, as I glanced at the red glimmer of the clock’s dial, something strange hit me.
I quickly got out of bed just as the clock’s alarm rang. I shut it off. On the way downstairs I could smell a whiff of brewed coffee in the air. A fresh pot of morning coffee for Papa. Like how it used to be when she was pregnant with Chiyo. At dawn, still dark in wintertime, or pale with a gleam of eastern light in summertime, the aroma of coffee hung in the air coming from downstairs.
It was our new townhome and she was carrying our first child barely three months old. I kept telling her, Rest, love, don’t go up and down the stairs like that, and she’d say, The doctor said it’s okay though―exercise is good, and you love to have a first sip of coffee when you go downstairs, don’t you, Anh? That Vietnamese word of kinship is meant for a man in a love relationship, or for a husband, when a woman addresses him. She spoke Vietnamese with a distinct northern accent, something her mother had taught her since she was a child, something my own parents had never tried. Though I understood them when they spoke Vietnamese to each other, and I was bilingual as any child would be by the nature of things, I simply could not converse in Vietnamese to them. But the first time she spoke to me in Vietnamese, I thought she came from Vietnam. No, Anh, she said, I’m Vietnamese but was born and raised here in Ohio.
I walked into the kitchen and turned on the light. Chiyo had never used our coffee maker and I’d never shown her how. But now I thought she must somehow have gotten the machine to brew. The coffee maker sat with its coffee pot empty. The brew light was off. Puzzled, I went back upstairs just as Chiyo opened her bedroom door. Standing sleepy-eyed in her pale blue pajamas, she said, “Papa, you make coffee so early this morning.”
“No, I didn’t make any coffee. You smell coffee too, dear?”
“Yes, Papa. It smelled so strong. That’s why I woke up.”
Chiyo usually got up at seven when I was already downstairs making coffee and reading the morning newspaper.
“Don’t you want to sleep some more,” I said. “I’ll wake you up again at seven.”
“I’m not sleepy anymore, Papa.”
“You’ve got all your homework done?”
“Yes, last night, Papa.” She rubbed her eyes. “I’ll be looking at some more pictures and then go down for breakfast.”
“Looking at what pictures?”
“Mama’s pictures.” Chiyo held me in her gaze with her longish eyes narrowed like a cat’s. “Our teacher of English said each picture tells a story. So I guess I’ll be making up stories with each picture of Mama. I’ll just have to use my imagination so I can write about her.”
“Okay, dear,” I said, drawing a deep breath, and headed into my bedroom. Chiyo’s voice came from behind.
“Where’s the coffee smell coming from, Papa?”
“I don’t know,” I said without looking back.
When Chiyo came down into the kitchen at a quarter after seven, she had with her the backpack and the umbrella. I felt pleased that she finally paid attention to the weather. The morning was cloudy and rain throughout the day was again in the forecast. She hadn’t combed her hair. I got a hairbrush and, while she was eating her oatmeal, brushed her hair. When it was shorter, brushing her hair used to be easier. Now her hair, long and layered in thick strands, got tangled easily in the morning, so brushing had to be gentle.
I’d stop now and then when the brush got caught in a tangled lock, seeing her wince, hearing her say “Ouch,” and I kissed her on the top of her head and she said, “I’m okay, Papa.”
When I took away her empty bowl, she lifted her face, said, “Thanks, Papa,” and, in that instance, her mint-fresh face bore a cut-out image of her mother’s.
“You bought candies for tonight, Papa?” she asked as she rose from the chair.
“Halloween,” I said, frowning. “I’ll go buy them today. But I’ll go with you tonight, dear, if the weather is good.”
“I hate rain.”
The year before, it was wet and blowy on Halloween night. There wasn’t a soul on the streets after dark, and the pumpkin lantern Chiyo made sat flickering on our porch like a solitary beacon all evening until rain and wind finally snuffed out its candle.
We came back at nine o’clock just as evening rain began to fall. It had turned colder quickly after sunset and Chiyo, clad only in a sweatshirt under a black cape, was shivering on the way back. Inside the house, she took off her black witch’s hat, left it on the wood console table in the foyer, and carried her bag of Halloween candies up to her room. She said she was going to take a shower and then work on her composition.
Half past midnight, on the way downstairs to get a bottle of spring water, I stopped by Chiyo’s room. The bedside lamp was still on, but she had fallen asleep, lying on her side with her arm flung over the photo album. Gently I lifted her arm and removed the album. Pasted on several album pictures, all having Yumiko in them, were yellow stickies, each numbered. On each yellow sticky note, she scribbled phrases that said something about the pictures. As I put things away on her desk, I noticed her spiraled notebook on the floor. What story did she come up about Yumiko? I kept turning the sheets in the notebook. Pencil sketches of Yumiko from different pictures, then only sketches of Yumiko’s face. Eleven of them. Then no more sketches but what she wrote: “Write from the heart.” Nineteen times. Each line going down looked darker and bigger, like when you press the pencil harder to pin your thought. Then something else:
You are a green leaf the wind plucks from a tree.
You don’t know what tree.
Where do you want to go?
I looked at her handwriting, its cursives neat, unhurried. I re-read the words, letting them sink into my mind. Standing by the light, I heard in my head a tiny voice crying for help.
I slept briefly, for the clock read 1 a.m. when I woke. I could not fall back asleep. I could hear rain come and go, tattooing the windowpanes when the winds came howling. In my mind I saw the face of an affectionate child made barren in her soul. The face she sketched. The same face sketched over and over. To bring closer to the child the face of another? To imagine a feeling of affection? Can one feel anything from a picture if one has no connection to it?
I got up. From the closet I brought back to bed a carousel slide projector. The box of slides had a rubber band wrapped around it, for its old flap was half gone. I set the projector up and turned it on. It had been many years now since I last viewed these slides. I forgot what order they came in the tray, but the first slide showed large and bright on the facing wall. Me sitting at our kitchen table in our new townhome. Wearing a black turtleneck cradling Chiyo in my arms. On the wall hung an oil painting of a girl seated by a vase of flowers. Eyes screwed, I made out the date printed on the bottom-right corner of the slide: 1/19/2000. Chiyo was exactly three weeks old on that day. Click. Me spoon-feeding Chiyo baby food, her baby seat strapped onto a chair. She was six months old. Her mother took these pictures. I kept clicking. Bright images from the 2-by-2 inch slides. One hundred and forty of them in the tray. We used to watch them at night in bed whenever we added new slides to the tray, sometimes having to take out many old slides for the new ones. The room would be dark except for the illuminations the projector made on the wall. We always kept the thermostat at 68 degrees at night so that, with the air cool and the window sometimes opened just a crack, we could sleep better. In the early days when Chiyo was a few weeks old, we slept with the baby lying between us, and all night long the air in the dark would smell of the baby’s scent.
I lay my head back on the pillow and closed my eyes. I could smell the unmistakable newborn scent, as if it had simply settled like dust, a long time in memory, and now, at a mere brush of recollection, suddenly rose back to life.
I heard the door creaked.
In the doorway Chiyo stood, a pale-blue figure from a slide’s reflection on the wall.
“Papa,” she said as she walked to the bed.
“Yes, dear,” I said, concerned. “Why’re you up?”
“I smelled coffee. I thought you were making coffee. So I went downstairs.”
“I know,” I said, my tone sober.
“Was somebody trying to make coffee for us, Papa?” Giggling, she climbed onto the bed.
I didn’t answer her. She snuggled against me. Until nine, she used to sleep with me, sleeping with her arm flung over my chest, her head on my shoulder, and the silky strands of her hair tickled the side of my face and kept me awake in the fresh scent of her hair.
“What’re you watching, Papa?” She canted her face toward the illuminated picture on the wall.
“A slide show.” I clicked to move the tray counter-clockwise. The Japanese flowering cherry trees that ringed Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. It dawned on me that I had arranged the slides, many years before, so they progressed chronologically. The slides of me and the baby in the kitchen were the last of the one hundred and forty slides in the time line.
“I remember that,” Chiyo said, pointing toward the wall. “The Cherry Blossom Festival.”
“We went there―you and me―two, three years ago?”
“Three. The year before I went to New York City on a field trip.”
“Chiyo,” I said.
She lifted her face at me.
“I’m going to show you some things here,” I said, looking into her eyes, innocent and beautiful, “and I’m going to explain them to you. Things you might never know before, the same things that after I’m done explaining to you, might put your world in a new light, hopefully a better light, that’d help you know more about Papa and Mama, the two people in your life who love you very much, although―” I bent my head and kissed Chiyo on the top of her head, “―although I’ve never told you much about your mother. But a child in her heart always loves her mother―even knowing nothing about her.”
The grave tone of my voice had Chiyo’s attention. She sat up beside me, quietly gazing at the wall. In the stillness came the wind roaring over the roof of the house. The rain had stopped, trickling from the eaves.
“The Cherry Blossom Festival,” I said as we viewed a new slide. Yumiko clad in a black cardigan standing under a cherry tree.
“That’s Mama,” Chiyo said.
“That’s Yumiko, yes,” I said and the way I spoke had Chiyo quickly glance at me and back to the image on the wall.
Spring break, I told Chiyo. Yumiko rode the Amtrak train from Boston to Washington, D.C. to see me. A balmy weekend and around Tidal Basin the massive pink blossoms hung low, so low a tall person had to duck his head entering a kingdom of light. Slides of Yumiko in which the black of her cardigan stood out in the light now pearly now pink, filtered through the profuse pendulous bloom.
“So beautiful, Papa,” Chiyo said. “Just like when I was there. And where have all the gulls gone?”
“They went north,” I said, surprised at her observation. “You have the swallows around that time in the city.”
“How often did Mama come to see you?”
“During her semester breaks. Sometimes she took a long weekend break.” I clicked on until we saw a slide of Yumiko, dressed in a blue parka, sitting on a log by a stream. It was dark and the camera’s flash had her face whitened as dough.
We went duck hunting, I told Chiyo.
Yumiko loved to explore things like that. She didn’t mind getting up at three in the morning. We left the house in the late October chill and drove to the deep woods in southern Maryland. In the dark we sat waiting, then, at one-half hour before sunrise, we could shoot. Hunting regulations, I told Yumiko, as she uncapped the thermos of black coffee and took a sip. In the stillness that hung over the woods, we could hear the rustling hunters made as they trod on the leaves that carpeted the ground. I pulled down my cap, tight, turned up my coat collar, as she leaned against me, stroking the rifle’s stock laid across my lap. She drew her parka snugly around her shoulders, took the cigarette from my lips and puffed on it. She almost coughed and quickly covered her mouth with her hand. This outdoor life, this harsh odor of cigarettes, this feel of a rifle, excited her. But more so, I sensed in her a desire to belong, be a part of something, someone.
At five-thirty the pond, lacquered black, began glimmering. Yumiko had fallen asleep, her forehead pillowed on her drawn-up knees. I sipped coffee from the thermos, waiting.
The first sound echoed from upstream was the call of wood ducks, then the rush of wings, then soon the black ducks and mallards woke, quacking loud.
By six-thirty the pond was grayish, the tide up, brimming. I put away the thermos as the noisy sounds downstream woke Yumiko. She reached for the thermos just as the first glints of sun streaked golden across the pond, and suddenly the ducks charged out of the water.
My shot went off, froze a duck and it dropped like a lead ball to the marsh. I pulled Yumiko up, and we walked in our boots through the mud and found the duck lying on its side in the tall grass. I asked Yumiko to pick it up. At first she said no, and I asked her if she’d rather be an onlooker, never belonging to the thrill she sought, or be a participant, hooked by the blood-pumping, drunken-elation excitement.
Yumiko picked up the mallard by its orange-colored feet. Her hands shook. On its cinnamon-hued breast, a nickel-sized mushy hole was oozing blood.
“I don’t like the look of him,” she said, wincing at the camera’s flash.
“How would you feel if I ask you to field dress him? And I’m going to show you that.”
“You’ll be plucking him while he’s still warm. Once he’s gone cold, it’d be hard to pull out his feathers.”
“Can I watch you? I only want to be out here with you.”
“So did Mama pluck the duck?” Frowning, Chiyo looked at the mallard in the slide in Yumiko’s hands, the bird’s iridescent plumage dripping water.
“Yes. She finally did it and I helped. She got her hands dirty and bloody.”
“Mama was brave,” Chiyo said, shuddering, with a hint of affection in her voice.
“She was dainty―you know what it means, don’t you?”
“But she did things with me, things uncharacteristically her nature, so she could be a part of my life. And―”
“What about you, Papa?”
I paused at being interrupted and clicked several times until we came to a slide that showed Yumiko wearing a black floral print yukata tied with a pink brocaded obi. She was kneeling on the tatami, her feet clad in white tabi with only her toes touching the mat.
“Is that Mama when she was younger?” Chiyo asked.
“When she was about your age.” I pointed at the slide’s image. “This is what her parents had her practice every day―the art of shodo. Or calligraphy.” I explained that to Chiyo. “You learn shodo at a young age by practicing your penmanship to perfect your calligraphy. See the brush in her hand? That’s the ofude.” Chiyo, rapt, gazed at the image. I pointed to the sumi stick, granite-black, finger-length. “You make ink by grinding the sumi stick in the ink well, adding water until it thickens to the right consistency.”
“Did Mama show you all this?”
“She demonstrated it. She bought an ink stick, an inkstone, an ofude, a sheaf of rice paper, from a souvenir shop in Boston. She wrote kanji with a flick of her wrist. I watched, mesmerized. She wanted me to learn shodo. At my ignorance, she explained the steps a foreigner must take on the way to master shodo. He is to master hiragana, the syllabic script for native Japanese words, then he can learn the characters, the writing of kanji, then the composition.”
“So can you write Japanese, Papa?”
“No.” I shook my head at the disappointed look on Chiyo’s face. “There’re things in life you learn by losing yourself into doing it. They call it dedication. Something I never had for what she wanted for me. I love the fusume, the byōbu. The partition sliding doors, the folding screens. I remember the ujigami shrine in our house, which your grandpa told me years later that it was there because your grandma used to have a shrine like that in their home in Vietnam. ‘Altar,’ they called it, to worship the household god. Grandpa said in Vietnam we had worshiped shrines when you go out to the countryside. When I mentioned that to Yumiko, she said it was the same in Japan. When she was a little girl, she went sometimes with her okaasan to a park where a shrine sat beneath giant cedar trees, and her mother went inside the shrine, put a coin in the votive box and prayed. We found out from each other that both of our cultures shared a lot in common. From the language foundation to the way we write letters.”
Chiyo pulled at my arm. “But isn’t Vietnamese language, as you told me, based on the Latin alphabet, and Japanese is not?”
“Yes. But both languages share several similarities. Grandpa said the Vietnamese quoc ngu, the national language, is what kana is for the Japanese, and the Vietnamese han ngu, the Chinese-borrowed words, is what kanji is in Japanese. Grandpa said our loanwords for foreign terminology is the counterpart of romanized Japanese called rōmaji.” I pinched my forehead, nodding to myself. “Once I asked Yumiko what your grandpa had told me about the way the Vietnamese wrote their letters. She said it was the same way as the Japanese. Like both cultures share the same formula.”
“And what is that, Papa?”
“Since you never wrote letters, it’ll take some explanation. But grandpa said at an early age, youngsters like him were taught to never begin a letter talking about himself. It must begin with your inquiry into the other person’s general well-being, his family’s health, everybody in the household. Next, you ask about the weather. Then for each inquiry addressed to the recipient, you proceed to tell him about the state of your own health, and if you have a family, mention the welfare of your family. Then you remark about the weather where you live. Once all this has been established, you can move into the real subject of the letter.”
Chiyo broke out laughing. “That sounds so weird. People write letters like that in Vietnam and in Japan?”
“Yes. That’s what Grandpa and Yumiko said. Since I wasn’t born and raised in Vietnam, I had no way of knowing that. There’re things so natural to a native people―like the way they write letters, or certain kinds of food they eat―a foreigner may find them unorthodox or indigestible. Things like fermented bean curd, prawns steeped in sake. The ethnological things, like Yumiko used to say, Nihonjin ja nai to. Unless one is Japanese. The little things if I loved, would’ve made me a part of Yumiko’s life.”
Chiyo sat quietly listening and following the images on the wall. The tray hummed as it turned, the wall dimming then brightening, my low voice commenting on each slide. We could hear rain trickling from the eaves, the winds groaning, and the windowpanes rattling in their quick-dying tremors. The air no longer smelled of coffee but a faint herbal scent from Chiyo’s hair, as she leaned against my shoulder.
“Hold it there, Papa,” Chiyo said. “I love that.”
On the wall was Yumiko standing next to me in her white trouser suit. Chiyo turned her head toward me. “Where was it, Papa?”
“At your grandparents’ home in New Hampshire on Christmas Eve, nineteen ninety-nine. Yumiko’s parents visited her in Boston at that time and came to see Grandpa upon his invitation.” I paused then, without looking at Chiyo, said, “Grandpa had lived by himself since Grandma passed away four years earlier.”
“She died of a brain tumor, didn’t she?”
Chiyo tilted her face at the image on the wall. “Mama looks so beautiful in white.”
It was also the last time the two families saw each other, I told Chiyo. She asked why. I said, Things changed.
But it was a pleasant evening. By nine o’clock snow had fallen thick and white on the pine boughs, falling steadily and silently and soon the sky and the landscape blended together, powder-white, soft looking as cake frosting. My father asked our guests to stay the night, for driving back from Brookline, New Hampshire, to Boston might take up to two hours in that snowy condition. They retired to the basement in the cozy warmth of the fireplace and sat drinking sake, with a low-lying table between the host and the guests, a ceramic pitcher of hot water standing on the table warming the tokkuri, a serving sake flask made of pewter, and the host raising his ochoko with both hands toasted to the guests’ health in the glow the dancing flames made in the hearth.
Upstairs in the living room, we were alone, Yumiko and I. It was quiet and we could hear their voices muffled behind the closed door, as if from a crypt below. We could hear the occasional banging and whistling the age-old cast-iron radiators made. In his leisure, my father had primed and painted every steam radiator in this 75-year-old Georgian-style house. Coated with brush-on, high-heat enamel, all of them now looked new in their gleaming silver. A pair of them flanked a brown-sashed, single-paned window that looked out over the boxwood hedge and, standing together at the window with the light off behind us, we could see into the living room of our neighbor, the family still at their feast, like watching a silent movie. Can they see us? Yumiko asked. No, I said, but take off your white jacket. She tossed it onto the sofa and, with a shake of her head to fling her hair over her shoulder, she hugged herself. Her shoulders were bony. Her bare arms gleamed against the quiet black of her camisole, silk-smooth, edging across her naked shoulders with its thin straps. The window glass was cold to the touch, icing on the outside, when she bent forward, leaning on the ledge on both hands. Light and lean, her body became warmer in my embrace, she breathing hard, her flat stomach rising and falling against the palms of my hands, her chest flat almost like a teen, soft without a bra. She let her trousers fall silently to the floor, her body curved, her forehead kissing the windowpanes.
Cold, she moaned. We were like two mantises, rhythmic in our motions, the nape of her neck smoldering with a crisp-perfume scenting warmth, the skin on her bare arms rising with gooseflesh of desire, of panes-frosted cold. The neighbor’s world beyond was like a well-lighted hallucination. In the quiet droned the old television set cased inside a walnut cabinet in the family room, where earlier, we had sat watching a movie. Someone was coming up from the basement. The door creaked open. We held still. The other person kept still, too, from beyond the partitioning wall. From the foyer there you could see the television set, its screen shifting with colored lights, speaking to no one in its mindless monotone of voices. A few more steps and you were in the family room. But the person did not move and neither did we. We breathed through our mouths, restrained with fear, and I sensed it too in the being beyond the wall, a mere ten feet away. Then a click of a lighter. Soon an acrid odor of cigarette tinged the air. My father did not smoke. I could feel everything drained out of me. We were still in our copulating stance, two mating mantises at rest. The air smelled stronger with the cigarette smoke. Could he, Yumiko’s father, be coming up for a cigarette break? I could sense his thought. Do not take those steps into the living room. He was afraid like us. Slowly I disengaged from our unison, feeling Yumiko’s stomach suck in as if I had just drawn out all the air in her. I held her by the waist, her skin now cold and damp between the thighs. We did not breathe, just listening with all of our senses. We could hear each other’s thoughts through the short wall. Unpleasant. Shamed. Then the doorknob turned with a click. The floor creaked. Footsteps leaving the foyer.
Chiyo had been clicking to advance the slides while I sat, deep in my reverie, with my eyes open but not watching. The circular tray hummed and images, one after another, brightened the wall. Then she stopped. I saw a new image on the wall.
“Who’s that, Papa?” Chiyo, already freeing her arm from under the bed quilt, pointed at the girl, standing next to me in her black skirt suit, her hands resting on a little boy’s shoulders.
“That was in the reception room of a funeral home,” I said, controlling my voice. “Grandpa’s funeral in the early spring of two thousand.”
“But who is the girl with the little boy―her son?”
“He’s not her son.”
“Papa?” Chiyo pulled at my arm.
“She looks like me. Doesn’t she look like me?”
“Yes, Chiyo,” I said softly. “She is your mother.”
Chiyo’s head jerked toward me. “Papa!”
I wrapped my arms around Chiyo and heard her sharp intake of breath. I leaned my cheek on the top of her head, breathing in the fragrance in her hair. “Listen, dear,” I said, stroking her shoulder, and pointed to the wall where the girl, twentyish, stood in her black knee-length skirt, her head leaning toward me, looking out at us with a demure expression that made her face gone soft, with those alluring velvet-black eyes watching us, and her face was tinted by the stained-glass window. “I met your mother the first time at the viewing. Yumiko was there, too, with her father.”
Chiyo did not speak. Her face, aglow in the projector’s light, wore a frozen look. Finally she spoke. “Why’d you say that, Papa? I thought I knew Mama. All these years, Papa, I thought . . . I thought . . .”
I could hear words rushing out of her mouth. Her grimace pained me. I tried not to speak but let the shock slowly shrink on its own inside her. “There is a reason for it,” I finally said, hearing the scratchiness in my voice. “That’s why I wanted to show you these slides which I’d kept away for many years. For many years I’d had you believe in something that is not true. It all began on that day at Grandpa’s funeral.”
“Papa,” Chiyo said, half turning her face toward me, with her gaze trailing the image on the wall. “Is she . . . Vietnamese like you?”
“So I’m Vietnamese too? I’m not half Vietnamese, half Japanese?”
“No, you are not, Chiyo.”
“Then why do I have a Japanese name?”
“Because . . .” Words were stuck in my throat. I fixed my eyes on the wall image. “Her name is Dan-Thanh.” I spoke the name slowly, clearly.
“Dan-Thanh,” Chiyo said, drawing out the syllables.
“She was born and raised in Ohio.”
“Can she speak Vietnamese?”
“Yes, just like Grandpa and Grandma.”
I had thought she came from Vietnam, I told Chiyo, the moment she said to me in Vietnamese, Em xin chào anh―My greetings to you, elder brother, and offered her condolences in that elaborate expression the Vietnamese used at the funeral. I detected the northern Vietnamese accent that I was used to hearing my parents speak. I said thank you to her, then quickly added that I understood Vietnamese but couldn’t speak it. I said my parents, when they were still alive, spoke Vietnamese to me. And she said in English, “But you refused to learn Vietnamese. Right, Anh?” She addressed me as the male older than she. Her English was accent free. Her smile lingered and her gaze trailed from my face to the little boy who stood quietly holding her hand.
“Where’re you from?” I asked. We were in New Hampshire and, among the small gathering of guests on that day, most well-wishers came from out of town.
“Ohio. I was born and raised there.”
I thought of the distance and, slightly shocked, told her my name. She said she knew who I was, then she said her name.
“So you flew in?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “I took a train from Washington, D.C.” Seeing the puzzled look on my face, she added, “I go to American University. I’m a junior in Fine Arts.”
I felt a jolt. “We are neighbors,” I said. “I live in Kensington, Maryland.”
“Do you really?” A smile spread across her face, her teeth perfectly even, gleaming white.
“Expensive private college,” I said quickly.
“Yes, Anh,” she said. “I go there on a full scholarship to the University Honors Program, and I’m delighted to be a part of such celebrated tradition.”
Self-expressive in a clear, confident tone of voice, she put me at ease. Born and raised here, I thought, like a true American.
“And who is this?” I said, looking down at the little boy, perhaps five years old, with a pinch of irony in my gut. No, she’s too young to have a son this age.
“He’s my roommate’s nephew. I stay at her sister’s place in Boston.” She told me his parents were elsewhere that afternoon at an engagement, so she took him with her and drove, for an hour and a half, to the funeral home in New Hampshire.
“Did you borrow their car?” I asked.
“Yes.” She pointed toward the front parking lot, gray and wet in the pouring rain. “That old yellow Volkswagen Beetle has a manual transmission. His dad showed me how to use the stick shift yesterday. I gave it a try, and here I am.”
Seeing me shake my head, she held her smile, her lips full, of a lovely heart-shaped mouth with a rosy tint. Out of curiosity I asked her how she came to know my family, or my late father. She said her parents knew my father, and she came to pay respects on behalf of her family. She said this quickly, and I didn’t inquire further. We had our pictures taken together. I didn’t want to leave until Yumiko pulled me aside. “Minh,” she said, “everyone was asking, where’s the host? Please, come back inside.” So I said goodbye to Dan-Thanh and her nephew. She remained in the reception room. Yet her black-velvet eyes followed me afterward wherever I was.
Before she left she came and stood over the opened casket a few feet from me, her head bowed, hands pressed together on her chest like a praying Buddhist, and during that silent moment I watched her and held in my mind a pristine face, as pristine and beautiful as the pattern of butterfly wings, pure, untouched as the dust that makes the pattern.
It was raining and I borrowed a large black umbrella from the director and walked with her and the boy to the parking lot. After the boy got in the car, she remained standing with me under the umbrella.
“I’m going back tomorrow,” she said just before I wanted to ask her.
“Me too.” I sensed hesitancy in our voices. “Are you going to ride the train back?”
“I plan to. How about you, Anh?”
“I’ll be driving back. I was thinking . . .”
“I haven’t bought the train ticket. . . .”
“Do you want to ride back with me?”
I told her I would pick her up early the next morning and, while she held the umbrella over our heads, I entered her address into my mobile phone. Then I stood back, watching her car pull out, hearing the gears grind, the car grunt then lunge. I felt hollow sick.
“Papa, what does it mean Dan-Thanh?” Chiyo said. “You said most of the Vietnamese names have meanings.”
“Red and blue, literally,” I said. “Those were the two prominent colors used in the ancient Chinese paintings. So, figuratively, it means artistic gift.”
“Did she paint?”
“She did several paintings. One of them I hung in our kitchen: the girl seated at a table with a vase of flowers.”
“That’s a beautiful painting, Papa. I always want to paint like that.”
There was something primitive and sensual about the colors Dan-Thanh used. Brushstroked colors, bold, bright in dark blocks. The girl’s yellow blouse was a bright yellow, her long skirt painted bone black against a background of lush green. Pure color.
“She was very visual with colors. You feel them. They’re intense and striking.”
“My art teacher said the colors you use in your arts tell something about your personality. Is that true, Papa?”
“Well, your preferences do reflect your traits.”
“So what do they say about her as a person?”
I nodded to acknowledge Chiyo’s inquisitive mind. “It tells something about her sensuous and passionate nature. Bold, risk taking of that sort.” I paused. Something flashed through my mind. “But passion is a part of compassion that is purer in emotion. That day we drove back to Washington, D.C. from Grandpa’s funeral, and we were a mile from the campus of American University. Dan-Thanh was driving―she was considerate enough of my exhaustion as a result of the funeral―she drove from New York to D.C. while I slept. The car came to an abrupt stop and car horns were blaring from behind. Before I could ask, I saw a duck waddling across the road then turning around. Car horns blared, but Dan-Thanh sat still, watching the road, and here came the duck crossing the road again followed by six ducklings, each like a fuzzy yellow ball. The mother duck hopped onto the curb. But it wasn’t so easy for the ducklings, for they all fell down when they tried to jump onto the curb. Dan-Thanh got out of the car―a long line of cars already behind us―walked to the ducklings, picked up each little fuzzy ball and put it down on the curb with its mother.”
“That is so sweet of her, Papa,” Chiyo said, smiling, then pointed to the picture on the wall. “That’s a beautiful photo of Mama.”
How pleasant to hear Chiyo say it. The word “Mama” rolled off her tongue in her affectionate voice. Dan-Thanh standing next to my 1971 Ford Mustang Mach 1. Painted brick red, it was a car I bought from a junkyard and had it restored by a Mustang specialist. Dan-Thanh and I drove back in it from New Hampshire. In her beige blouse and moss-green skirt, Dan-Thanh looked as fresh as the white cups of Queen Anne’s lace, and, as always, she had the wholesomeness of a cold-climate fruit, of a red apple displayed on a china plate.
“Look at Mama and the monkey,” Chiyo said.
I told Chiyo, as we gazed at Dan-Thanh feeding the black monkey a banana, that was in a park near where I used to live. We would go there sometimes on a Sunday and crossed a footbridge over a creek that lay white and dry in summertime and where tangles of creeper clung to boulders in the creek bed. Dan-Thanh always brought something from the school’s cafeteria. Sometimes slices of banana nut cakes, sometimes squares of brownies. We sat on a wooden bench and ate them out of the wax paper, while children laughed and screamed going down slides or climbing up onto swings made of automobile tires. Sometimes on Sunday a fruit peddler would come, and he had an accordion and the little black monkey. Dan-Thanh always bought fruit from the peddler and fed his monkey, and one day some kids chased the monkey out in the open, and the little monkey ran off where the creek curved out of sight.
One summer afternoon, without warning, a downpour fell. The park emptied quickly. We ran toward a sugar maple and we were soaked by the time we reached the tree. “Didn’t we run faster than the squirrels?” Dan-Thanh said, laughing, and wiped water on her face. My back turned toward the wind-lashed rain, I held her. Our gaze met. Her eyes were liquid black. “You’re soaking wet, Anh,” she said. “I’m your umbrella,” I said, bent and kissed her lips. They tasted minty and wet. I felt so tender it tore at me inside and I said softly to her, “What made you fall in love with me?”
A raindrop hung on my eyebrow and when she touched it, it fell into my eyes. Moments later she said, “When you meet someone, there’s something you wish you could put a finger on and say, This is love. But is it? Is it the eyes? Or is it the smile? Or something not physical, like a sense of belonging?”
I touched a raindrop on a curl of her hair. It popped. “I guess you don’t want to ask me the same question?”
“No,” she said. “Because we’re together. Because there’s no coming and going.”
“Your twenty-ninth birthday, Papa,” Chiyo said, looking at me on the wall blowing out the little red, yellow, and blue candles around the rim of a chocolate cake. Then she turned to me, her gaze roving over my head. “You have more gray in your hair now.”
“Because that’s twelve years after, dear.”
“So how old was Mama at that time?”
“Papa, what did she give you for your twenty-ninth birthday?”
For a moment I said nothing to Chiyo, then holding her, I pressed my lips against the top of her head. “All I remember is that a year later you were born.”
“Papa, that’s magic.” Chiyo’s face beamed with a smile and her eyes sparkled.
I told Chiyo it was a Thursday evening, and we just came back to Dan-Thanh’s dormitory room after having dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant in Bethesda. She surprised me when she brought out the cake from her mini-refrigerator. When I was blowing out the candles, a thought hit me. I watched wisps of gray smoke curl away and said to Dan-Thanh, “Em, how did you know today’s my birthday?”
“From my parents,” she said quickly.
“From your parents?”
Something incredible about it must have caused my voice to rise unexpectedly. Dan-Thanh said, “It’s not important, Anh,” as she cut a wedge of the cake and put it on a plate for me. I leaned over and kissed her. “Thank you, Em.” She had taught me, among other things Vietnamese, the meanings of these kinship terms, Anh, Em, for Em was used for a younger female, especially one in a romantic relationship.
As we ate, the dark chocolate smooth on my tongue, we listened to the radio music. Twice we had sat in the dormitory lounge, for it had big, plush leather sofas, and we’d sit there until the local radio went off the air by midnight. The lounge became quiet and I asked Dan-Thanh, Do you know where our whispers and laughs might have gone to, and she said, Is this a riddle, and I pointed to the huge mahogany phonograph in a corner, They were recorded in that record player, and you know what, and she said, Tell me, and I said, In the future it’ll play back our love-story record to the young couples sitting here. That brought a smile to her face, and she held me in those black-velvet eyes until I lowered my face and kissed her soulful eyes.
After we ate our slices of the chocolate cake, the radio was playing a song. A Spanish song. Something about its melody made me feel so tender, and I asked her what it was called. Bésame Mucho. She said the station played this song several times every night. We got up and, in each other’s arms, danced in small steps, circling in the center of the dimly lit room in the lilting, soul-aching voice, Besame, besame mucho, Como si fuera esta noche la última vez, of the blind Andrea Bocelli.
That night we lay in her bed with the window raised halfway up and the pleasant chill of the night brought in the smell of late-autumn leaves, crisp and dry. The streetlights lit up the window ledge above the bed, and her hair, spread on the pillow, was so black it made her face, her throat, her shoulders as white as a snow goose’s breast. I touched my lips against the gentle curve of her shoulder, and my heart throbbed with tenderness.
You have the beauty of a goddess, I said in a mere breath, my face leaned into the cave-dark warmth of the hollow of her shoulder, and in that warm dark trailed a jasmin-pure hint of her skin. In bed we lay, hearing the late-night sound of fallen acorns tictacking against the hard ground, and the chill air born a woodsy, dry-leaf scent of autumn. Wide awake we hardly thought of anything but held each other tight, so tight we could feel the palpitation of our hearts, and very still we lay like two mating snakes, drowsing in each other’s breaths.
She said, Anh, do you believe that I was very skinny, just bones, when I was ten?
I said, Em, boys and girls go through that before puberty, and she said, I was skinny and so anemic that my mother took me the summer of that year to North Vietnam. We went to this place in the countryside where they had cages that held bears captive. Black bears, brown bears, sloth bears. The bile bears, Anh, and they extracted bile from the bears’ abdomen through a tube. Mother paid much for a jar of greenish liquid extract and made me take it orally, a sip only, every now and then. She said it was health detrimental if you overdose on it. Listening, I was struck on the wonder of the panacea, and then I was struck by something else―Dan-Thanh never talked about her father. So I asked her where her father was at that time. He was a busy man, she said. I asked her what he did for a living. After thinking the question over, she said, He was a forest engineer. It gave me pause, and I said, When he was still in Vietnam? She said, Yes. I thought about it. My father, I said, was also a forest engineer but he never practiced it after he graduated―he went into politics and much later became an ambassador. She said she knew, and I said, What’s your father doing in this country? She snuggled against me, her face pressed into the hollow of my shoulder. Anh, she said, can we not talk about it?
I said I understood and dropped the subject.
“So, Papa, where are they now?” Chiyo said. “Grandpa and Grandma from Mama’s side?”
“Her father died,” I said and pointed to a new picture on the wall. “Only Grandma now. See the pot of lemon balm in our kitchen? Grandma sent your mother the seeds when she just barely had you. That’s her pet herb. She loved its smell.”
In the picture, Dan-Thanh was at the kitchen window, and out back the autumnal landscape looked like a nature quilt patched with the fabric in glowing reds, oranges, and yellows. She was wearing white cotton pants and my flannel checked shirt, which looked oversize on her. She said she loved its soft touch, for she had borrowed it from me that morning after having stayed overnight at my rented house. That morning when I came into the kitchen for coffee, I found her standing at the window looking out at the white pines glistening with raindrops on their boughs.
“Anh,” she said, turning slightly toward me, “I just made the coffee.”
“Thanks, Em.” I inhaled the aroma. “Would you like a cup?”
“I’ll drink it with cream.”
I poured a dash of cream from the creamer into her cup. The kitchen window was filmed with moisture. I wiped it with my hand as she said to me, “Anh, do you want oatmeal or scones?”
“I’ll try your scones.”
Next to the creamer was a plate of scones which she had wrapped carefully from the school’s cafeteria the evening before. She stirred and sipped her coffee, watching me put strawberry preserve on my scone and, as I handed it to her, I said, “I always have trouble eating this kind of biscuits. They crumble before you can eat them.”
She took it, both hands clasping mine. “Anh,” she said, “I was thinking about éclairs and buttery fruit-topped cookies and blueberry muffins.”
“That’s what pregnant women crave.”
She sipped, then put the cup down and looked into it. I placed my hand on top of hers. “Em,” I said, swelled with elation, “are you positive?”
“Yes,” she said without looking up. “I was afraid that you might not take it well.”
“Oh no. I’m so happy to hear that.” I came around the table, stood behind her chair, and wrapped my arms around her head. I pressed my face into the mass of her hair. “What made you think I wouldn’t take it well?”
She took a bite of her scone and brought it to my lips. I held her wrist gently. “I’ll eat later. Tell me what you were thinking.”
“I’ve been thinking,” she said, lifting her face ceilingward with a sharp intake of breath. “What’ll happen next?”
“We’ll get married,” I said, bent and kissed her on the cheek. “Before the baby is born. Say yes, Em. Please.”
She looked toward the window still dripping with rain droplets on the outside. “We can’t, Anh.”
“We can’t?” I dipped my head to her face. “Why?”
She looked back down into her cup, then dropped her voice, “Because I’m your half-sister.”
I felt like my whole being catching fire. I pulled back, stood, then slowly sank to my knees. I held her hand. “Tell me,” I said calmly.
She kept her head down and finally looked up. “Anh,” she said softly, “I told you about my father, but I never knew who he was when I grew up. Not until one day when my mother came to visit me. But not from Ohio. She flew to New Hampshire to see your father who was in the hospital during his final days. When she was with me afterward, she told me the news, said, Your father is dying. It was then she told me who he was. Photographs of them together, in Vietnam and here. Photographs of his family. Of you, Anh, here, and when you were a boy. Many of them, Anh.”
Shaken, I lifted my face but avoided looking at her. “You were saying that my father had an affair with your mother? Even back when they were both in Vietnam?”
I thought of my mother who died four years before my father’s death. I drew air sharply through my mouth, felt my chest shaking.
“I wonder if my mother knew,” I said.
“Anh,” Dan-Thanh said, turning to face me, her eyes tenderly still, “you never mentioned to me that you have an aunt, the only aunt from your mother’s side.”
As I looked at the smooth white of her skin framed by the collars of her borrowed shirt, I felt a shortness of breath. My mother once said she had a younger sister who was disavowed by her entire clan. I had therefore no knowledge of her. How did Dan-Thanh know about this? Then something exploded in my head.
“This aunt of mine,” I said, my voiced strained, “is . . . she . . .”
“She is my mother, Anh.”
“You knew all this beforehand?”
“Yes, Anh.” She held my gaze until her eyes began to well with tears. “Do you hate me?”
I shook my head as if to demolish what was to be said next.
The knowledge of her knowing this before she met me rattled me completely. Yet, seeing her innocent, mint-fresh face, her velvet-black eyes filmed with tears, I knew all the thoughts of taboo must be killed between us, if we were to love each other. And that was the only thing that would never die for us.
“I love you very much,” she said, then crimped her lips as tears rolled down her face onto the corners of her mouth.
I bowed my head and felt her hands pull it against her bosom. I could hear her heart beating against my ear, smell the scent of her borrowed shirt, fresh like the scent of my mother’s linen on a rare occasion when she rocked me to sleep with a lullaby.
“So, Papa,” Chiyo said, “Mama could be my auntie if you two were not married to each other, right?”
“That’s right, dear.”
“So Mama never had that wonderful opportunity to wear a beautiful bridal gown like all the brides do. Right, Papa?”
“Right, dear. We were never married, and you understand why, don’t you?”
Chiyo’s left eyes narrowed slightly as she mused on the question. “We’re not allowed to marry someone within the family. Right, Papa? I mean the same flesh and blood.”
“Did Grandma know? I mean Grandma in Ohio.”
“Only on Mama’s last day. Grandma was here.”
“Then what happened?”
“She wanted to be with you. I mean to take care of you, but I said no. It wasn’t easy for her to go through all that. In fact, it was a trying time for all of us. But in the end she went back to Ohio.”
“Papa, how often do you talk to Grandma?”
I said nothing, then as Chiyo turned her face toward me, I said, “Not at all.”
Her voice, suddenly raised, had me quickly look away. “If Mama didn’t die of leukemia,” I said, “I don’t know if I’d ever want to let Grandma into our life. When I thought of what she did to my family, I couldn’t help resenting her.” I thought of something else and cleared my throat. “Every Christmas she sent you a card, but I never let you read it, I never replied. One year she wrote a note in the Christmas card, said she never bothered to check her mail, for she knew there weren’t any Christmas cards for her.”
“Can you forgive her, Papa? Can you? She’s all we’ve got.”
“She is, isn’t she?”
Chiyo kept clicking the control, looking at the illuminated squares of images appearing, disappearing on the wall. Then she stopped and looked.
She was looking at the baby on the wall, looking at her mother breast-feeding the baby, sitting up on the bed, her back cushioned by a pillow, with the tiny baby cradled in her arms. Chiyo looked at it intensely, quietly. Then, still gazing at the wall, she said, “That’s the same bed Mama is sitting on. This bed. This room.”
“Yes. Nothing’s changed since she’s gone.”
“Why did she die?”
“No, Papa. I know she died of leukemia. But why? Mama was so young . . .”
As I looked at the picture on the wall, I tried to smile. “I didn’t tell you this,” I said finally, “but Mama had a hard time carrying you to full term. Near the eighth month, she started bleeding, sometimes just spotting, sometimes much blood coming out. So the doctor confined her to bed-resting in the hospital to prevent bleeding from moving around on foot. I bought her a portable TV set and put it by her bed, so she didn’t have to watch the pre-set channels on the shared TV.”
“Poor Mama,” Chiyo said, sighing.
“You look just like her,” I said. “From your beautiful skin to your beautiful eyes.”
“Did you love Mama like you love me?”
“Yes, dear. If someone takes you away from me, I’d wither like a mummy.”
“You didn’t wither after she died, Papa. But you’d wither without me?”
I told Chiyo when Dan-Thanh died, I felt a devastation that left me numb and turn my hair prematurely gray over the years. The numbness, I said, however hard, eased with time, which as Heaven intends, healed every mortal wound.
Chiyo hung her head to one side. She seemed to drift into a world of her own. “Papa, why did you choose a Japanese name for me? Is that Mama’s decision too?”
As I bent my head, collecting my thought, I felt Chiyo’s hand on mine. Her palm felt warm. I put my other hand on hers. “I didn’t want you to ever find out the blood relation between me and Mama. We named you Thùy-Anh, and that was Mama’s choice. A lovely Vietnamese name. But I changed your name after Mama died. Your original birth certificate with your Vietnamese name was amended by an adjudication and afterward sealed and not available to the public.”
“So my name is Chiyo,” she said with a slight frown.
“It’s a beautiful name.” I bent my head to her face. “It doesn’t matter, does it?”
“No, Papa. It doesn’t matter.” She looked back at the wall. “I love Mama so much as I love you. And I hope someday I meet Grandma too. I hope you’ll forgive her.”
“Yes, dear. And I hope you’ll forgive me.”
“Papa.” She looked into my eyes. “Where’s Yumiko now?”
“She married someone from Japan. She became the co-owner of his import-export business in Kyoto.”
“Would you marry her if you didn’t meet Mama?”
I met her gaze and, nodding, said yes. Then I pulled her against me and put my arms around her. “Can you still write that composition, can’t you?”
“Yes, Papa. And I’ll write from the heart.”
Khanh Ha is the author of Flesh (Black Heron Press) and The Demon Who Peddled Longing (Underground Voices). He is a seven-time Pushcart nominee, a Best Indie Lit New England nominee, finalist to Mary McCarthy Prize (Sarabande Books), Many Voices Project (New Rivers Press), Prairie Schooner Book Prize (Prairie Schooner), a twice finalist of The William Faulkner-Wisdom Creative Writing Award, the recipient of SAND HILLS PRIZE FOR BEST FICTION, and Greensboro Review’s ROBERT WATSON LITERARY PRIZE IN FICTION. The Demon Who Peddled Longing was honored by Shelf Unbound as a Notable Indie Book. Ha graduated from Ohio University with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism. His new, highly acclaimed novel Mrs. Rossi’s Dream was recently released in April of 2019 from The Permanent Press.