Authors: Vaddey Ratner
Tags: #Fiction, #General
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For my mother
In the memory of my father,
Neak Ang Mechas Sisowath Ayuravann
ar entered my childhood world not with the blasts of rockets and bombs but with my father’s footsteps as he walked through the hallway, passing my bedroom toward his. I heard the door open and shut with a soft click. I slid off my bed, careful not to wake Radana in her crib, and snuck out of my room. I pressed my ear to the door and listened.
“Are you all right?” Mama sounded concerned.
Each day before dawn, Papa would go out for a solitary stroll, and returning an hour or so later, he would bring back with him the sights and sounds of the city, from which would emerge the poems he read aloud to me. This morning, though, it seemed he came back as soon as he’d stepped out, for dawn had just arrived and the feel of night had yet to dissipate. Silence trailed his every step like the remnant of a dream long after waking. I imagined him lying next to Mama now, his eyes closed as he listened to her voice, the comfort it gave him amidst the clamor of his own thoughts.
“Nothing, darling,” Papa said.
“What is it?” she persisted.
A deep, long sigh, then finally he said, “The streets are filled with people, Aana. Homeless, hungry, desperate . . .” He paused, the bed creaked, and I imagined him turning to face her, their cheeks on the same long pillow, as I’d often seen. “The miseries—”
“No matter what awfulness is out there,” Mama cut in gently, “I know you will take care of us.”
A breathless silence. I imagined her lips pressed against his. I blushed.
“There!” she exclaimed, the insouciant ring and chime of her voice returning. Then came the sound of slatted shutters being opened, like wooden birds released, suddenly taking flight. “The sun is brilliant!” she enthused, and with these easy words chased away the morning’s gravity, threw “Nothing” back out the gates like a stray cat that had clawed its way onto Papa’s shoulder.
A shaft of light fell on the front of the house and spilled into the open hallway from the balcony. I imagined it a celestial carpet thrown from the heavens by a careless
—an angel. I ran toward it, my steps unencumbered by the metal brace and shoes I normally wore to correct the limp in my right leg.
Outside, the sun rose through the luxuriant green foliage of the courtyard. It yawned and stretched, like an infant deity poking its long multiple arms through the leaves and branches. It was April, the tail end of the dry season, and it was only a matter of time before the monsoon arrived, bringing with it rains and relief from the heat and humidity. Meanwhile the whole house was hot and stuffy, like the inside of a balloon. I was slick with sweat. Still, New Year was coming, and after all the waiting and wondering, we’d finally have a celebration!
“Up, up, up!” came a cry from the cooking pavilion. It was Om Bao, her voice as voluminous as her ample figure, which resembled an overstuffed burlap rice sack.
“Pick up your lazy heads!” she clucked urgently. “Hurry, hurry, hurry!”
I ran around the balcony to the side of the house and saw her roll back and forth between the women’s lower house and the cooking pavilion, her sandals smacking the dirt with impatience. “Wash your faces, brush your teeth!” she ordered, clapping as she chased a row of sleepy servant girls to the clay vats lining the wall outside the cooking pavilion. “
Oey, oey, oey,
the sun has risen and so should your behinds!” She whacked one of the girls on the bottom. “You’ll miss the Tiger’s last roar and the Rabbit’s first hop!”
The Tiger and the Rabbit were lunar years, one ending and the other beginning. Khmer New Year is always celebrated in April, and this year—1975—it was to fall on the seventeenth, just a few days away. In our house, preparations would customarily begin long in advance for all the Buddhist ceremonies and garden parties thrown during the celebration. This year, because of the fighting, Papa didn’t want us to celebrate. New Year was a time of cleansing, he reminded us, a time of renewal. And as long as there was fighting in the countryside, driving refugees into our city streets, it would be wrong for us to be celebrating anything. Fortunately, Mama disagreed. If there was a time to celebrate, she argued, it was now. A New Year’s party would chase away all that was bad and usher in all that was good.
I turned and caught a glimpse of Mama standing in the corner of the balcony just outside her bedroom, lifting her hair to cool the nape of her neck. Slowly she let the strands fall in gossamer layers down the length of her back.
A butterfly preening herself.
A line from one of Papa’s poems. I blinked. She vanished.
I rushed to the broom closet at the back of the house, where I’d hidden my brace and shoes the day before, pretending I’d lost track of them so I wouldn’t have to suffer them in this heat. Mama must’ve suspected, for she said,
Tomorrow then. First thing in the morning you must put them on. I’m sure you’ll find them by then.
I pulled them out of the closet, strapped on the brace as quickly as possible, and slipped on the shoes, the right one slightly higher than the left to make my legs equal in length.
“Raami, you crazy child!” a voice called out to me as I clomped past the half-open balcony door of my bedroom. It was Milk Mother, my nanny. “Come back inside this minute!”
I froze, expecting her to come out and yank me back into the room, but she didn’t. I resumed my journey, circling the balcony that wrapped itself around the house.
Where is she? Where’s Mama?
I ran past my parents’ room. The slatted balcony doors were wide open, and I saw Papa now sitting in his rattan chair by one of the windows, notebook and pen in hand, eyes lowered in concentration, impervious to his surroundings.
A god waxing lyrical out of the silence
. . . Another line from another of
his poems, which I always thought described him perfectly. When Papa wrote, not even an earthquake could disturb him. At present, he certainly took no notice of me.
There was no sign of Mama. I looked up and down the stairway, over the balcony railings, through the open doorway of the citrus garden. She was nowhere to be seen. It was as I’d suspected all along—Mama was a ghost! A spirit that floated in and out of the house. A firefly that glowed and glimmered, here one second, gone the next. And now she’d vanished into thin air!
Just like that.
“Do you hear me, Raami?”
Sometimes I wished Milk Mother would just disappear. But, unlike Mama, she was always around, constantly watching over me, like one of those geckos that scaled the walls, chiming,
I felt her, heard her from every corner of the house. “I said come back!” she bellowed, rattling the morning peace.
I made a sharp right, ran down the long hallway through the middle of the house, and finally ended up back at the spot on the balcony in the front where I had started. Still no Mama. Hide-and-seek, I thought, huffing and puffing in the heat. Hide-and-seek with a spirit was no easy game.
An explosion sounded in the distance. My heart thumped a bit faster.
“Where are you, you crazy child?” again came Milk Mother’s voice.
I pretended not to hear her, resting my chin on the carved railing of the balcony. A tiny pale pink butterfly, with wings as delicate as bougainvillea petals, flew up from the gardens below and landed on the railing, near my face. I stilled myself. It heaved as if exhausted from its long flight, its wings opening and closing, like a pair of fans waving away the morning heat.
In one of her guises? No, it was what it appeared to be—a baby butterfly. So delicate it seemed to have just emerged from a chrysalis. Maybe it was looking for its mother, I thought, just as I was for mine. “Don’t worry,” I whispered. “She’s here somewhere.” I moved my hand to pet it, to reassure it, but it flew away at my touch.
In the courtyard something stirred. I peered down and saw Old Boy
come out to water the gardens. He walked like a shadow; his steps made no sound. He picked up the hose and filled the lotus pond until the water flowed over the rim. He sprayed the gardenias and orchids. He sprinkled the jasmines. He trimmed the torch gingers and gathered their red flame-like blossoms into a bouquet, which he tied with a piece of vine and then set aside, as he continued working. Butterflies of all colors hovered around him, as if he were a tree stalk and his straw hat a giant yellow blossom. Om Bao suddenly appeared among them, coquettish and coy, acting not at all like our middle-aged cook but a young girl in the full bloom of youth. Old Boy broke a stem of red frangipani blossoms, brushed it against her cheek, and handed it to her.
“Answer me!” Milk Mother thundered.
Om Bao scurried away. Old Boy looked up, saw me, and blushed. But finding his bearings right away, he took off his hat and, bowing at the waist, offered me a
palms together like a lotus in front of his face, a traditional Cambodian greeting. He bowed because he was the servant and I his master, even though he was ancient and I was, as Milk Mother put it, “just a spit past seven.” I returned Old Boy’s
and, unable to help myself, bowed also. He flashed me his gappy grin, perhaps sensing his secret would be safe.