My name is Kim Nguyen. I’m sixteen years old and my secret middle name is from a poem that means ‘good heart’ in Vietnamese. I have kept many things I see and hear to myself. This protects me, being a plain ordinary schoolgirl in uniform, a white ao dài that is impossible to keep clean. I do not show off at school, because the pressure of the student competition and the ritual picking on the weakest students by the teachers was too much for me. I learnt about competition on the first day of high school from my best friend, Lien, who told me not to get angry at the teachers’ jibes about me being the ugly sister. ‘They will be silent after they receive a gift,’ she told me. This was my first encounter with corruption – a corruption everyone expected.
In our house many people died, but all of Việt Nam bleeds ghosts from the wars. When I was growing up I would see other ghosts, like Americans, and would practise my English with them. Sometimes they would be wary, other times not. I have gradually learnt not to be afraid of strangers.
My family lived south of Hoan Kiem lake. When I closed my eyes at night I heard the steady whirr of traffic going by. Hà Nội only sleeps from midnight to four am. In the early morning old women like my grandmother would do tai chi on the shore of the green lake. At four am goods would be brought to the markets and to the noodle hawkers on the street. Then the traffic would build and tourist touts and beggars would take to the lake, while the more affluent would lunch and eat ice-cream.
In the middle of the lake is the One Temple Pagoda, fierce with a tiger guarding it, a constant reminder of King Le Loi and the legend of the turtle that carried his sword away.
To most people I am no one. To Bà, my grandmother, I was someone special who kept her secrets.
My first memory was when I was four years old. I woke up to the sound of furious voices barely contained. Curious, I slipped off the wooden platform that I slept on with my sister and crept downstairs. I heard the slap slap syllables of my grandma, Bà, when she was angry, and the hiss of my father, suppressed by violence.
‘I decide what is best for this family and this house!’ my father declared, his face red with fury.
‘If you do this, we will abandon our ancestors! We will be cursed!’ Bà protested.
‘Come now, Mother, you heard the Party edict. We can’t have the shrine in the house! They’ll cast us out as superstitious, send us to a re-education camp! Is that what you want for our girls? To have their parents breaking rocks in hard labour?’
Bà sighed and I knew Father had won. ‘We will be cursed,’ she said softly, crying, and I ran upstairs before the adults could spot me.
The next morning the family altar that had dominated the sitting room had gone. The maid was sweeping clean the mahogany table on which it had sat. I could not help but be drawn to the empty space. Our living room, once crowded and cosy, was bereft and hollow. Father was unusually gentle with Bà that day, as if in sympathy to her loss.
The next night I woke from deep sleep at the sound of a bell. The chime was far away and for a moment I doubted that it was real. Then I smelt the incense. Quietly I crept downstairs again where the scent was growing stronger. I heard the murmuring of mantras and with a leap of my heart I realised that Bà had disobeyed Father.
There was a pool of light from under the stairs and that was where I found her, with pictures of her grandparents, my ancestors and a deceased aunt that I had never met. The scent of a single carnation offset the incense, and Bà was bent over, tending to a mini altar that could be hidden with a draw of a curtain.
Bà turned around to me and smiled, putting her finger to her lips. ‘Child. Bow to your ancestors.’
Eager to please, I accepted the single pink incense stick and bowed three times to the mini altar.
‘The spirits are more important than the whims of men,’ she whispered to me.
From that day on I learnt my father was not always right, and the spirits would always be with us. That night I dreamt of my aunt, a willowy figure in a blue áo dài, smiling to me and then walking away into the grey twilight past the river to the other shore. At least I thought it was a dream. It was not until I was older that I understood the true nature of what I saw. When I saw in a dream the stroke that killed Bà I did not tell her because I did not want it to come true. Saying things and naming things sometimes makes them happen.
Once I was ignorant of all this. Once I just pinched mandarins and dragon fruit from our family ancestral altar to eat. But now I present offerings every day, knowing that someone is waiting for me on the other shore . . .
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