Lan Cao The Lotus and the Storm: A Novel

ISBN 13: 9780143127611

The Lotus and the Storm: A Novel

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9780143127611: The Lotus and the Storm: A Novel

A lyrical novel of love and betrayal in the aftermath of the fall of Saigon—from the author of Monkey Bridge

A singular work of witness, inspiration, and courage, The Lotus and the Storm marks the welcome return of Lan Cao’s pitch-perfect voice, telling the story only she can tell.

Four decades after the war, Vietnam’s flavors of clove and cinnamon have been re-created by a close-knit refugee community in a Virginia suburb. But the lives of Minh and Mai, father and daughter, are haunted by ghosts, secrets, and the loss of their country. During the disastrous last days in Saigon, in a whirl of military signals and helicopter evacuations, Mai never had a chance to say goodbye to so many people who meant so much to her. What happened to them? How will Mai cope with the trauma of war—and will the thay phap, a Vietnamese spirit exorcist, be able to heal her?

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About the Author:

Lan Cao is the author of Monkey Bridge. She lives in Southern California.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

I

A SMALL COUNTRY

1

The Tale of Kieu

MAI, 1963–1964

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.

Our mother reaches into a straw bag and pulls out a book. But she will not need to read from it; these are well-waxed passages she knows by heart. I lean against her body and ready myself to listen. She and our dad recited these verses to each other when they first met. It is hard to imagine a time when they existed without us, but still, I try to picture their time together before my sister and I were born. The sound of their laughter as they walk hand in hand. The velvet green uplands of rice fields, waiting to greet them.

She smiles, ready to share a great national epic with us. Kieu, beautiful and learned, loves Trong, the young scholar-hero, and Trong loves Kieu. They are bound together by the threat and promise of love. We know that they suffer years of separation because of Kieu’s decision to sell herself as a concubine and a servant to save her family. But what I love most is the part where he longs for her. Our mother runs her hand along the length of my back and, in one long breath, recites Kieu’s heroic renunciations and Trong’s grief. Every child in our country grows up with this story.

He drained the cup of gloom: it filled anew—

one day without her seemed three autumns long.

Silk curtains veiled her windows like dense clouds,

and toward the rose within he’d dream his way.

Her voice has a quieting effect on us. Trong and Kieu, I say out loud. Minh and Quy, I add, pairing our father’s name with our mother’s.

Both wrote a pledge of troth, and with a knife

they cut in two a lock of her long hair.

The stark bright moon was gazing from the skies

as with one voice both mouths pronounced oath

Their hearts’ recesses they explored and probed,

etching their vow of union in their bones.

Once in a while, my mother will lengthen the story with paper and pen if I demand some similar evidence of her bond to our father. Her pen makes swift, scratching sounds as it inks out the strokes of her signature. It combines her name with our father’s, his name first, attached to hers after. Our father’s signature similarly conjoins his name with hers, in reverse order. We know—it is impossible not to—that our parents are linked in many inward and outward ways.

Our mother’s eyes rest on us. My sister, Khanh, smiles back but I know her attention is elsewhere. She is fixated on the book’s pagination, on the tiny numbers tucked in the upper-right-hand corners. Numbers captivate Khanh. She dwells in a world of equations and straight-spined rules that are constant and predictable. Mine is a world of fantasy and mystery, words unloosing themselves, producing secret, tangled lives that float into my imagination. Still, I am certain at that moment that my sister and I share the same lustrous dream. Around each of our necks is an identical chain, fine gold with a circlet of jade, now a pale apple green that over time will mature into a deep dark luster.

It isn’t long before Khanh, fired up and fidgety, nudges our mother to turn the page again. My sister, four years older, is convinced that she will win the Nobel Prize in Physics when she grows up. She looks at page numbers and does mathematical calculations in her head, showing off virtuosic accomplishments with giddy delight. I begin to nod off to sleep. Our mother whispers our names. “Khanh.” “Mai.” Khanh’s breath is warm against my face. Khanh, a name I have known before speech, before memory. Hers is a presence I take on trust. Four years apart, but we are twinned. I hold my sister’s hand, comforting myself with the softness of her palm as she turns this way and that. Soon, our mother’s impeccable chignon begins to loosen, her hair falling with liquid ease into a thick cascade that rests on her shoulders. At that moment of reverential silence, when we are poised to sleep but yet awake, her touch softens. She waits for us to doze off. Inside this coveted sphere, the world is filled with happiness even as the bashful sun disappears.

 · · · 

Sometimes in the evening, we gather among the ravenous vines that meander through our mother’s garden. There, in an unruly tangle of fernlike shrubbery, are clumps of plants with feelings. The mimosa is sensitive and shy, reluctant to offend, my sister says. It clasps its leaves inward against its chest when touched. I brush my legs against the leaves. All at once, as if they were fully on beat and part of a well-disciplined choir, the entire being of the plant, stems and leaves alike, reorients itself to bend modestly toward the ground. Tonight, against the green stretch of ground cover is an explosion of small, fluffy pink flowers that bloom like stars.

A declivity of earth and bluestone pebbles surrounds the mango tree, and I crouch there behind a giant earthen jar—my favorite place to hide. Next to the mango is our star fruit tree, its branches bearing green fruits the shape of a five-point star. It is how starlight tastes, my sister says. Our mother told us she herself had planted it from an original cutting when she and Father first moved into our house. Khanh has etched her initials and mine on its brindled trunk.

I am still hiding. Tendrils coil and brush against my bare legs. The air smells of frangipani blooms. Khanh leans against me and together we draw into our lungs their flowery fragrance. A violet twilight swaddles us in a benign glow. I love the evening most of all—the ritual, at least when our father is at home, of hiding in the murky night and waiting to be found, his giant black military boots trudging through the brambles and ground cover. From where we hide, he cuts an imposing figure. The jungle green on his military fatigues ripples. Our swing set squeaks. Ordinary noises startle us as we settle into a hushed silence to practice invisibility. Fire crickets rustling their wings. Fireflies flicking dots of umber. Street vendors peddling bean cakes with their syncopated voices. I make myself small behind the jar, holding my breath as if my life depends on it. But of course our father will soon be upon us, swooping us into captivity, cupping my belly with his large hand and flinging me onto his shoulders. I rub my bare legs against the stubbles of his cheeks. His arms, lithely muscled, will hold me in place, perched high above his head.

He is away from home most of the time because there is a war going on and he has to fight in it. On those occasions when he is with us, I love the sight of him, the halo of thick black hair, the symmetry of his body, the tumble of tight, compact muscles shifting quietly under his uniform. His omnipotence is palpable, though not suffocating or overpowering. He is beautiful but his beauty is modest.

In my father’s private room is a framed photo of a lotus flower. The flower, our father once explained, is a reminder of life’s eternal progress toward a simple purity. A plant that grows in mud yet manages to produce a stunning flower that floats pristinely above the water. One night I stood at the doorway, looking at the picture and at Father. He was sitting diagonally across the daybed, cross-legged, studying a book, running his index finger across the page. Closing it to caress its leather spine; reopening it as if to contemplate its mystery. My forehead burned with the realization that this was where our father came to fully occupy himself. He let go of his book and sat in seemingly unremarkable stillness. I listened to the smooth intake of his breath. Something was happening and I felt suddenly like an interloper. I wanted him to need my presence. But everything, the water running through the faucet next door, reckless sounds from the kitchen below, the neighbor’s hammering, was happening outside of him. I wanted to reclaim him, make a noise, claw through the hard distance to pull him back. But I could not imagine how. Here was our father, baffling, elusive. But at that strange moment, he was not. Not our father, nor a soldier fighting in a terrible war. Nor a paratrooper who jumped out of planes. He was instead this new person, even-tempered, with liquid eyes. An almost unbodied presence.

 · · · 

As a child, I want to talk about the satiny eggplant color on our father’s face when he returns home after months away. I want to talk about his boots, muddied and nicked. I want to talk about old wounds, puckered scars that glisten like mother-of-pearl against his sun-browned abdomen, strange griefs of delicate luster, hidden from view. I never know what exactly he does during those intermittent months. Our father cups his other life away from us inside himself. Khanh and I want what he wouldn’t give us. His stories, his explanations. Rampant and obstreperous, like firecrackers. I know they are inside his skin.

Every time he vanishes into some remote province of our country, I ask my sister, “Why does he have to go? Doesn’t he want to stay here with us?”

“He has to go where he is ordered,” my sister answers.

“The war is far away and he goes to it?” I ask.

My sister stoops over and pulls me toward her. “Yes. But he will come back soon.” There she stands in front of me, rocking on her toes and heels and offering me her promises and reassurances.

“Will it come to us, right here, where we are?”

“The war? No. It won’t come here. That’s why he goes away to fight, so the war can be kept far away.”

She tells me the names of places where the war supposedly is taking place—Qui Nhon, Binh Gia, and more—but they blend together like distant shadows.

Our mother’s side of the family is Catholic so we celebrate Christmas. Every Christmas Eve, Khanh and I place our father’s military boots outside our door. With profligate coatings of thick black polish, they look beautiful, hefty, and brand-new. Santa Claus, we are assured, would leave our presents next to them.

 · · · 

On the map, Cholon is a separate city from Saigon, but in reality, the two cities are twinned and hardly anyone knows where one ends and the other begins.

Cholon’s commercial district is several blocks from our neighborhood. Our house is tucked away in a more residential area. Here it is, a French colonial–style villa, painted in yellow ocher, the same color as all the other French colonial villas, the same as the grand Opera House on Rue Catinat, as our mother still calls it, although it was changed after the French left to Tu Do Street, Tu Do for “freedom.”

Here I am with my sister. Here is the place where everything that has yet to occur will occur. I do nothing without running it by Khanh; I live my life under her protection. From the window in our bedroom I can see our terrace where our parents go for their after-dinner drinks. More often than not, my sister is permitted to join them while I am sent to bed early, merely because I am younger. In our country a child is one year old when she emerges from the mother’s womb. Although I insist for the sake of argument that I am therefore older, this fact is lost on our mother. She shrugs off my protest with a declaration of her own.

“Time to nest for the night,” our mother would say, tossing her hair. Aggrieved, I would beg our father for more time. Our mother would utter “Anh Minh” and place her hand preemptively on his, as a restraint against his tendency to indulge. They are now a united front. Our nanny, whom we call our Chinese grandmother, would scoop me up and hustle me out. On this bed, I am left to mull over their unconsidered act. The view from the window is partially covered by an adjoining building. Its brick wall cuts a vertical line and creates a narrow, elongated frame through which I can glimpse but a swath of our terrace and garden—a beguiling sliver of an image. Sometimes a full, socketed moon positions itself inside this enclosure, hanging low, as if within reach. From this vantage point I can hear voices, faint but clear enough through the rush of air. Even as they think I have dropped off to sleep, I listen.

Today, Khanh put up a giant poster of Galileo on our bedroom wall. Already my sister has a plan, an ambition, and Galileo is her inspiration. Khanh turns herself with stubborn conviction into someone who will someday win the Nobel Prize. With implacable hunger she devours books, not those about magic carpets or evil genies, but those with equations and proofs about the fundamental principles of the universe. Hers is an intricate vocabulary of numbers. Each new day brings with it a modulation of magic outside the world of Euclidean perfection.

Yes, my sister reads books about matters that lie beyond the norms of conventional understanding. She believes in infinity. Her fingers peck at reality. She draws the mathematical sign representing infinity for me. There is no time in her world. Hers are stories that evoke the balance between science and magic. When a giant star dies and a black hole is created, both time and space stop. In the black hole, the gravitational pull is so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape. Our planet was birthed during a cosmic explosion of dappled colors that hurled matter in all directions. Distant galaxies are still moving away from us at great speeds. I am astounded that such a wistful and scary epic of the universe inspires her.

“Do you understand?” she asks with a proprietorial gaze. She wants me to love what she loves. Stars, especially. She shows me a picture of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. She sees motion in the brushstrokes, swirling patterns of subatomic particles beneath the appear...

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