The Lotus and the Storm 

Excerpt

Mai 1963

Our mother drives with an elegant, carefree manner, one hand casually on the steering wheel. My sister and I picture her driving through the streets of Cholon in our Peugeot, a hulk of sleek black metal winding its way through this spark plug of a city filled with open-air markets. Cholon is where we live and where she conducts her business. She alone is in charge of our family’s finances. She keeps the records and maintains the books. It is in this unprepossessing Chinese city adjacent to Saigon that she makes our family fortune.

We have a chauffeur, but our mother often drives herself. Demonstrations organized by monks have begun to disrupt the city, but she is not afraid. She is intimately familiar with these streets, even the unmarked ones that dissolve into begrimed dead ends. The Chinese merchants trust her. Perhaps it is because she is herself part Chinese, although you would have to go back several generations to prove it.

Tonight she has just returned from an evening out with our father. The Peugeot is parked in our driveway, its black paint highlighted by swags of molded silver and chrome. Mother is resplendent in her satin ao dai as she arranges its folds on her lap, then sits with her back against the headboard of our bed. Her hair, shiny and black, is tied in a chignon at her neck and she is wearing pearl drop earrings. Daylight slowly extinguishes itself and a lavender darkness creeps through the window. The streetlights have come on. We are inside the meshed enclosure of white mosquito netting. I don’t allow any whiteness to touch my head. White is the color of death and mourning, levitating above me even as I sleep.

***

The overhead fan briskly stirs the air as our mother reads one story after another. It all began once Scheherazade was in the sultan’s chambers. “Shahriyar,” I whisper. Shahriyar, the sultan who out of spite married a virgin each day and beheaded her the next. Scheherazade volunteered to spend one night with Shahriyar, to save herself and her sister, knowing that her sister too would eventually be next in line to be the sultan’s wife and then his murder victim.

Our mother fixes her attention on us. I wait to discover how Scheherazade would save her own life by telling one thousand and one enthralling tales to the sultan, each one a story within a story, hypnotically interwoven. Scheherazade asked if she could be permitted to bid her last farewell to her beloved sister Dunyazad by recounting a story to her. The story would be fantastical, alluring. The sisters would take the whole of the night and, under the entirety of the moon’s glow, spin each detail until it was fully stretched, drawn and twisted, like a magical yarn whose filaments looped and enveloped, seduced and ensnared. At dawn, the cluster of knots that kept the story’s mystery suspended would not unravel. It would still be there, the complexity of cross-grained nodes that intersected and entangled, that Scheherazade would not undo until the next night and the night after that.

And so every night brought with it another night, every moon another moon, until a thousand and one nights were strung and webbed and desire and faith conquered death. I know each story by heart, but still I yearn for every additional half hour, every quarter hour, of our mother’s time, to hold and stretch like a ribbon around us. I put my hand over my mother’s to keep her from turning the pages, hoping to slow her down, to fix her in the infinity of our present. I hold my breath as one story, then another, loops back upon itself, like a serpent swallowing its head.

Mr. Minh 2006 

I wake from a long night’s sleep to discover that it snowed heavily overnight. Wind has blown a swell of snow onto my windowsill. The shimmering expanse of white covering the grass reflects the sun’s glare. Roofs, trees, cars—everything is covered in snow. Beyond them, against a stretch of acquisitive white, a steeple dances in the mist. A pure silvery world has been created, separate from the world of yesterday.

Once I used to wish for the infinite beauty of a snowfall. As a child in Saigon, I read about it, the wind-whipped powder, the geometric flakes, tree branches sheathed in white. So different from the tropical swelter I was born into.

The clock on my bedside table shows that it is still early morning, but in this weather, my daughter might already have left for work. I run my thumb over the tips of my fingers, shriveled in the cold. I exhale and watch the uneasy vapor drift. Reflexively, I touch the familiar patch of abdominal scar tissue. How long ago that was, that dark rainy night when I parachuted into enemy territory, crawled through black earth crowded with underbrush of thorn and thistle and rotting trees.

***

We live in an apartment in Sleepy Hollow Manor, a small complex housing an amalgam of transplants displaced and dislocated from the world over. In the evenings, I hear the clash and clangor of Hindi and Tagalog, Korean and Chinese, and of course the familiar and comforting elocution of southern Vietnamese. Much of life spills forth and is conducted outdoors here. Pleasantries and gossip as well as business exchanges and proposals are discussed in the front yard and back garden, on sidewalks and stoops. Women in saris may work as receptionists or nurses during the day but after hours they double as gold merchants or money lenders willing to finance under-the-table businesses for the ambitious—ticket scalping, catering, hairdressing, marriage brokering. At Sleepy Hollow Manor, New World ingenuity combines with Old World desires and networks to spin a furtive, anarchist version of the American Dream.

Still, no one here knows how things were for me. Years ago, my now-crooked fingers were made to perform wondrous feats. Through these fingers ropes and cords were passed through tangles and loops and emerged as knots that came with names: the double Blackwall hitch, fisherman’s bend, Turk’s head, cat’s paw. It was all part of the training. We rehearsed every contingency while blindfolded. Cyanide pills were sewn inside shirtsleeves and trouser hems. I practiced the motion with my hands tied. Body curled forward to receive the end to suffering, I bit open the seams. The pills would be within tongue’s reach if a mission failed. I could swallow death.

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