Mạn Đàm về
Chữ và Ngĩa
mon Coeur ...
(Chế Lan Viên)
in the Fog
my Heart ...
(Chế Lan Viên)
~~ Scenery ~~
A PLACE CALLED CHILDHOOD
When my mother talks about her childhood, the world she evokes is one that seems out of fairy tales, unconnected to anything concrete, real. Many layers of loss separate the person I know and the tales she tells, and each layer has overlaid its own sheen, so that the stories emerge through a thick patina of time, memory, regret and mourning.
For Thương-Thương, who is now in her late 70s, childhood remains forever a short, shining moment of untainted happiness that she has not stopped yearning for. In a long life beset by private tragedies and national upheavals, childhood was, first of all, the time before the losses.
Childhood was a place far ago and long away, undone and faded by time, but shaped anew in dreams, colored again in the tints of memory and longing, recovered little by little in each telling of the tales.
Childhood for Thương-Thương was a plantation compound in the province of Quảng Nam, nestled between mountains and rice paddies. It was the early 1930s, a relatively quiet time in Vietnam, and the ravages of history had not yet reached the verdant valleys of terraced orchards and emerald tea fields.
Thương-Thương’s father was a high official in the province. Her mother oversaw the education and welfare of a large and still-growing family. The two oldest children had already left. Tạo, still a teenager, found himself leading a brood of three younger sisters, a task he took on eagerly, as a challenge to his talent for mischief. Anh-Phương, next in age, was a favorite with everyone, for her sweetness and for the stories she spun, endless tales of heavenly beings and supernatural happenings. Two years younger, Hoàng-Hoàng was spirited and lively, the chatterbox of the family.
Thương-Thương was the youngest, and doted on by her brother and sisters because she was good-natured, always a willing participant in the most far-fetched caper. However, she was often laid up in bed with a chronic case of malaria. When she was prey to the disease, her brother and sisters would troop to her room to read to her, put on skits and shows by her bedside to make her laugh and forget the pain and discomfort. Even when racked with chills and fevers, she always welcomed their rambunctious cheer.
When Thương-Thương was well, she was the most enthusiastic follower in the expeditions that Tạo dreamt up for his sisters’ edification. They went roaming the countryside for wildflowers to add to the family herbarium. They waded creeks and streams to catch crawfish that they grilled on wood fires that Tạo made them start with flints. They helped the villagers pick tea leaves, the smallest ones, the newest ones, glowing a bright tender green on the darker old foliage. Some of these fresh leaves they brought home to their father, who steeped them with tiny buds of fragrant roses. Their parents savored the tea sip by sip from thimble-sized cups.
Once, having read of a meteor shower occurring in the middle of the night, Tạo plotted for the four of them to sneak out of the house in the dark. He led his sisters to a hilltop where they spread out blankets and waited for the meteors. To keep his eager audience awake, he told them about the stars and the galaxies, the planets and the asteroids. But the meteors were late in arriving. He showed them Ngân Hà, the celestial Silver River, and taught them to find the constellations. But still no meteors. He next told them stories and jokes. But he ran out of jokes, and the meteors did not come, and the girls kept nodding off. In the end, Hoàng-Hoàng threatened to go home. So Tạo resorted to his last trick: he pulled a lime out of his pocket and broke the rind with his teeth. “Just a few drops in the eyes,” he said, “it will wake us up. It won’t even hurt. See, I’ll go first. Ow-ow-ow!” Still, between squeals and giggles, he managed to persuade the girls.
Thương-Thương remembered the sting of the lime juice with particular delight, but could not say whether they saw any meteors that night.
One year – which, Thương-Thương could not recall: was she six, was she seven? It was the custom then to consider children one year old at birth, although Western practice was gradually becoming the norm, so that Thương-Thương would remain all her life confused about how old she was at key events in her childhood. One year, then, her sister Anh-Phương turned twelve – or was it eleven? –, and suddenly acquired an air of ethereal beauty, so much so that it was commented upon outside the family circle. She was like a tiên, she was like a fairy, it was heard among the old village gossips, she was not of this world. The gods must be propitiated, the elders whispered, so she would be allowed to walk this earth. But her parents, town people unused to the ways of the country, ignored the whispers.
One day, that summer, which, she could not recall, but would remember all her life, Thương-Thương was ill and did not join Anh-Phương and Hoàng-Hoàng as they played in the garden just outside her window. She was lying in bed in a fever-induced daze when she overheard a dispute between her two sisters. Hoàng-Hoàng, feisty and willful, was intent on having her way. Anh-Phương pleaded in vain, and finally said in a pained voice: “Don’t be so upset with me, Hoàng-Hoàng, in three days I will no longer be here. Then, won’t you be sad?” These words wafted, sounds without meaning, through Thương-Thương’s mind, but it was not until long afterwards that they came back to her.
The next day, all the children felt out of sorts, except for Anh-Phương. Bed rest was prescribed, but Anh-Phương insisted she was fine: “Really, Ma, I don’t feel sick, and there is something I need to do.” However, all she did, it seemed, was to roam sadly through the house and garden. When in the end her mother noticed that she too had turned rather pale, she made her lie down at once. Soon Anh-Phương became feverish. Late that night she grew delirious. Her condition did not improve the next day, whereas the other children had recovered, and the local doctors admitted they did not know what caused her illness. Her father ordered a car to take Anh-Phương as quickly as possible to the hospital in Ðà Nẵng, the nearest large city, some distance away through very bad roads. Tạo went along to help, but her mother could not go with them because she was in the late stages of a difficult pregnancy. They left at dusk. Thương-Thương, still confined to bed, crawled to the window and peered out at her sister being carried to the car. In the gloom of the quick-falling darkness, she saw her mother standing on the verandah of the house as she watched the car fade away in the distance.
That night Thương-Thương tossed and turned, unable to find a restful position. In the next room, she knew, her mother was awake, keeping a vigil by an open window. From her bed, looking out to the velvet dark garden, the little girl could see the light from her mother’s window pick out fantastical shapes in the trees and bushes outside. They swayed and shifted in the gentle breeze and melded in her mind with the surrounding sibilance of unseen insects and the sweetness of night jasmine as she finally fell asleep.
In the early hours of the morning, she suddenly awoke. The air was quite still now, but she heard a faint rustle of leaves. As she looked out, an owl fluttered down and settled on a branch at the edge of the circle of light still pouring from her mother’s window. It began hooting, softly but insistently. Before she knew to react, a chill swept down her spine. At the same time, she heard a scream.
Her mother screamed. And screamed again as she never had before or ever would again.
Thương-Thương ran to her mother’s room and found her clinging halfway out of the window. She cried and flailed at the owl but it was out of reach and neither flew away nor stopped hooting. The servants were summoned, but no attempt to dislodge the owl succeeded. In the end, they pulled their mistress away and closed the window. For the rest of the night, as she drifted in and out of sleep, Thương-Thương heard the doleful hooting outside, and her mother’s sobs inside.
It was not until midday the next day that a messenger came with the news that Anh-Phương had died during the night, shortly after she had reached the hospital. It would have been about the time that her mother saw the owl alight on the branch outside her window.
Thương-Thương had no recollection after that, except of shock and confusion. Her mother could not bear to remain in a house that still resonated with so many cheerful echoes, and held so many happy images. Household essentials were packed haphazardly and the entire family left for Huế, in time for Anh-Phương’s burial a few days later at a plot on ancestral land. They moved back into their old house in Huế and never returned to Quảng Nam province.
And so, one day, one summer, which, she could not recall, but would remember all her life, Thương-Thương left a place she called childhood. What came next would in due course become again filled with sunshine and laughter, but it would never be the same, the time before the losses.
© 2003 Lang-Hoàn Phạm
“A Place Called Childhood” was published in Offshoots VII, Writing from Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland, in September 2003.
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