An earlier draft of this story was published in Concertina: UEA Creative Writing Anthology 2004, Pen & Inc Press, 2004. It was broadcast on Radio 4 in 2004 as part of their “Ones to Watch” series showcasing new writers, read by Pik-Sen Lim.
The girl lies in the mud and so does the mẫu đơn blossom, droplets from the morning’s rain glinting on its petals. Patterns of red lace curl along its frilled edges. She has never noticed this about mẫu đơn petals before. On the other side of the mẫu đơn lies the girl’s younger sister. The right side of her sister’s face is gone, but the left side, the side closest to the girl, looks peaceful. The mẫu đơn, which an hour ago had been tucked behind her sister’s ear, is undamaged, perfect.
The girl looks up and sees a face with blue eyes. She recognizes him. It is the man with two cameras. The first camera was a little box that spewed out white squares. He had shown it to them the day before, waved a blank square in the morning light until their giggling faces had magically appeared, like sunshine shimmering through rain. The second camera had the domed, iridescent eye of a dragonfly and lit up the walnut branches like mortar fire. He had given them a can of peaches, which her sister carried around like a jewel. The can is behind her sister’s head, now, fractured by shrapnel and oozing sweet syrup.
The girl smiles at him, tries to move her hand, but he doesn’t meet her gaze. He stands feet apart, straddling her skewed legs, and cocks his head, squinting along the length of her body. He crouches, slides one hand beneath her hips and lifts. There is smoldering pain in her ribcage as her knees fall together and her face rolls across her shoulder back in the direction of the mẫu đơn and her dead sister. He leans across her, his breath on her neck, and turns her head toward him. The touch of his fingers on her face is gentle, which makes the pain worse, somehow. He bends her arm at the elbow, positions the flower so that its unfolding petals brush against her fingertips, and steps back. A series of distant explosions illuminates his hair in pale ripples, like the flickering of paper lanterns at the Mid-Autumn Festival. The girl stares into the eye of the dragonfly. The scent of peach syrup mingles with the fragrance of the mẫu đơn, unfurling across her like a blanket. She closes her eyes against the light.
Lan Jonsson curled her slight frame into the armchair and listened to the silence. The house was quiet for the first time since her fiftieth birthday party. Joe was at work and Ann had driven back down to Portland with the new baby. Her granddaughter had been named Cherry, which made Lan want to cry. Names were important to Lan. In English, Ann meant graceful, and in Vietnamese, it almost meant peace.
Joe had left a bunch of carmine-red peonies on the pillow. The first time he bought her peonies had been twenty-nine years ago when they had no money and couldn’t afford luxuries. Joe was a big man, unhurried and gentle. He loved to eat, but sold his neatly cut ham and Swiss cheese on sourdough to his co-workers at the foundry and wrapped the nickels and dimes up in the monogrammed handkerchief Lan had embroidered as a wedding present. He bought white peonies, to make up for not having a honeymoon. Joe misinterpreted the tremble that ran across Lan’s shoulders, the momentary lapse in her reserve, and bought her peonies as often as he could. Each time Lan kissed him on the cheek and put the peonies in a vase.
She thought about telling him. Joe, don’t buy me any more peonies. Once, just after Joe had graduated from law school following five years of night school and double-shifts at the foundry, she opened her mouth and the first word came out. Joe. She held his hand and Joe looked bashful even though they had been married for so many years. She folded the rest of the words down inside her belly and pressed her forehead into his chest.
Lan did her best to kill them. She positioned the vase in direct sunlight, left the flowers thirsty and tipped the sachets of crystal flower food down the garbage disposal. But the peonies were resilient. Joe kept buying her peonies for the same reason he kept touching her scar. He liked to kiss the web of faded welts entwined around her ribcage. He wanted to prove his love for her, break through the remoteness that Lan wore like a shroud. When Joe’s fingers brushed along the pathways of scar tissue Lan would turn her face onto the quilt and pull her black hair, splashed with gray now, over her eyes. She calculated she could leave today’s bunch of peonies to wilt on the pillow for another seven hours before Joe came home.
In Tri’s Vietnamese deli on Rainier, Lan bought thick peanut sauce, rice vermicelli, ngo gaiand a little tub of banana tapioca pudding with coconut cream. She was walking past the bookstore, on her way to the Farmer’s Market, when she saw him. Lan pulled up so quickly her silver mule flew off her foot. She stood on one leg and stared through the window at the display.
The photograph was life size, mounted on cardboard. The man had gray hair and pale eyes that could once have been blue. He was wearing a shirt and faded jeans. Books filled the rest of the display. They were all the same. Images of Vietnam by Richard Eberstadt. Some were standing, some had their covers and pages fanned out like wings, some were turned around so you could see the jacket photograph of the author, which was the same as the photograph on the cardboard cutout. The last time Lan had seen Richard Eberstadt, almost thirty-three years ago, his hair had been a little darker and his eyes a little bluer and she hadn’t known his name but there was no doubt in her mind. No doubt at all. A poster attached to the window announced a book signing, tomorrow’s date. Lan’s scar twitched, wrapped itself more tightly around her. The tub of tapioca pudding was cooling in the string bag next to her knee. She wriggled her painted toes back into her mule and went inside.
Images of Vietnam was shiny and the dust jacket squeaked as Lan unfolded the cover. Richard Eberstadt had dedicated his book to the memory of all the photojournalists who died in the war. Lan turned the pages slowly, resisted the temptation to hurry. An American soldier weeping in a supply shack in Da Nang, a militiaman with an M-16 slung across his shoulder wading through a flooded rice paddy, a heap of charred bodies on the Tay Ninh-Dau Tieng road, children running past a burnt out jeep, the charred body of a Viet Cong twisted in the rubble of a house.
Lan prepared meatballs and spaghetti for dinner and after they had eaten, told Joe she had a headache and went to bed. She ran her manicured fingernails across each image, frowning in concentration. When she heard Joe coming upstairs, she slipped Images of Vietnam under the pillow. When Joe was asleep, she took the book downstairs. She found herself on page 173, a nameless, broken girl in the mud.
Lan joined the back of the line and waited patiently, occasionally fingering the corner of the Polaroid photograph she had tucked between the pages of the book to keep it flat. She watched the top of Richard Eberstadt’s head as he signed copies of his book, his hair thin across his pink scalp. The people in front of her melted away and she found herself propelled to the front of the line. She wasn’t ready, but there was no more time. Richard Eberstadt smiled up at her. Lan sat down and pushed her copy of Images of Vietnamacross the table.
“I am Nguyen Thi Lan,” she said, in her slightly accented English, giving her before-America name. She added the English translation as she always did when introducing herself to a non-Vietnamese. “Orchid.” And then, “I want you to put my name in your book.”
“Sure,” said Richard Eberstadt, picking up his pen. There was a ring on his wedding finger, a narrow gold band.
“N-G-U…” said Lan.
But he knew how to spell it, which surprised her. He scribbled across the title page with a flourish and swiveled the book around so Lan could read it. For Nguyen Thi Lan, best wishes, Richard Eberstadt. Underneath that, on a separate line, he had written Orchid.
“I’m American now.” Lan turned the book around again and slid her fingers between the pages. “I want you to put my name in your book.”
Confusion shadowed his face. “I’ve signed it right here, Ma’am.”
Lan pushed her fingers up and the book fell open. Page 173. A girl lying next to the body of her dead sister, a peony resting in the mud between them. She pulled the Polaroid photograph, faded and mud-stained, out from its place between the pages, two Vietnamese sisters giggling in summer rain. She placed it next to the photograph printed in the book. Richard Eberstadt stared at the photographs, silently. His face was impassive, unreadable.
“I want you to put our names in your book,” said Lan.
He made a buckling noise in his throat. Lan flipped back to the title page and wrote her sister’s name in petite, slanting text, beneath where Richard Eberstadt had scrawledOrchid. “Her name was Dao. It means Cherry-Blossom.”
Lan still wasn’t certain if Richard Eberstadt understood who she was. When he spoke, his voice was so quiet she had to strain her ears to hear.
“I’m ashamed.” He hesitated, slanted his shoulders downwards. “I wish I could change it, but I can’t.”
“The book will come out again,” she said, “in softback?”
“Paperback. Softback, yes.”
“Then you can change it.”
Richard Eberstadt shifted in his chair, creaking. He looked as though he wished he could put his hand across Lan’s face and turn her gaze away.
“Photographs like mine helped end the war,” he said.
“Yes.” Lan’s voice was soft, steady.
“I should have helped you.”
“Put our names in your book. Orchid, Cherry-Blossom.”
Richard Eberstadt lifted his hands and showed her his palms, a gesture of apology, or appeasement. Lan remembered the way his hands had reached towards her to turn her own palms up to the sky. She tapped the back of the dust jacket, the single paragraph author biography.
“It says here you have a daughter.”
“Yes.” The tremor in his voice was almost imperceptible. “Catherine. She’s eighteen.”
“I was a year younger,” said Lan.
Richard Eberstadt’s hands gripped the edges of the book. “I never told anybody what I did,” he whispered. “Not even my wife.” His collarbone sank into his ribcage at an angle that made it look as if his body had been punctured. “I’ll talk to my publisher.”
“Good,” said Lan.
“I can’t make any promises.”
Lan stood, gathering up her bags. Richard Eberstadt opened his mouth and, for a moment, Lan thought he was going to ask for her forgiveness. Instead, he slid his elbows across the table, pressing his face into the wood, and Lan was relieved. She didn’t have the words.
Lan was peeling potatoes over a sheet of newspaper, cool potato juice trickling over her wrists, when Joe came home from work. He had a bunch of pink peonies in his hand and looked flushed and uncomfortable in his expensive lawyer’s suit. His mouth was soft and kind as he kissed her hello. Lan pared off the last sliver of potato skin, a perfect transparent petal. She put down the potato peeler, brushed her fingertips along the frilled edges of the peonies, and curled her damp hand into Joe’s.
Lan thought about saying, Joe, I’ve always hated peonies. She thought about it for at least a minute. She opened her mouth. But she could only say, “Joe.” Then a pause. “Oh, Joe.”
Lan went to the sink, turned on the faucet, and ran cold, clear water into a vase.
© Annie Kirby (2004)