I was the third and last girl in a family that already had too many girls. After years of trying for a son, as a last resort, my parents took a trip to a mystical cave to pray for conception. When their prayer was finally granted, it arrived only half answered. What did they need with yet another girl? Everyone was waiting for a boy. What they ended up with instead was a tomboy, which was almost the same, yet still quite inadequate.
Father was armed with his own plan: If nature wasn’t going to give him a boy, then he was just going to make one out of what he received. Father constantly made efforts to turn me into someone I wasn’t, insisting on the clothes that I wore, choosing the toys with which I played, and selecting the lessons I learned. However, despite his training, in the end, I was still only a more boyish version of a mixed-up girl.
Mother, however, was heartbroken. It was a cruel, cosmic joke that became the top story at many social gatherings. Everyone whom she told the story to understood her disappointment, and Mother spoke about it often.
I became his favorite. Father, with his many conflicting messages, proclaimed me a princess and vainly gave me the name of a famous one who lived in our country’s legends. However, I was not to be a regular princess. There was no ballroom dancing, prince charming, or extravagant dresses with a flowing train for me. According to Father, my namesake sacrificed her happiness and freedom in order to marry a king from a foreign sovereign in order to keep peace between the two warring neighbors. Even though her heart already belonged to a general in her father’s army, the princess heeded the call to duty for her country and for her father. Then, in a cruel twist of fate, her new husband died shortly after their nuptials, leaving her unprotected in the new kingdom. Per tradition, the queen was to be buried alive with her king, along with all his other possessions. Fortunately, the general arrived in time to save her and took her home to her father. Then the general invaded the foreign sovereign, now weak without a king, and made it part of Vietnam. The princess was considered a good daughter whose example Father expected for me to follow. Was I also expected to willingly die for him? Did Father only think of me as a possession to be traded and sacrificed to acquire other properties? There were many questions that were never asked.
Did the princess and her general live happily ever after together? I didn’t know. Her story ended when she was saved, and the foreign sovereign was conquered.
I never thought to ask about happiness. That idea had never even occurred to me until much later when I began to read Western fairy tales. It was enough for me that she was not buried alive. Being able to live happily ever after was a luxury not afforded to this Vietnamese princess.
This was how the story was told to me over and over again, always as a lesson of duty and responsibility, and most importantly as a reminder to always obey my father. I often wondered why Father would name me after someone with such a tormented fate. Did he mean for it to be a lesson that would last me a lifetime?
Mother disagreed with Father’s choice for my name, so everyone ended up calling me by my nickname, Summer. I made them wait till summer, even though I was expected in spring; and that was Mother’s simple reasoning for it. Except my nickname didn’t mean the same to me as it did to everyone else. Every time someone called me Summer, my mind immediately went to stories of the “Red Summer,” when the country burned and bled an entire season red. It was during this summer that Father fought in one of the last major battles of his military career. Father spoke little about what he had done in the war, but the silence between his words spoke more about his pain and fears than any word could express.
My family’s experience of the war didn’t include me, which was why I developed a morbid curiosity for it. I wanted to be a part of my family’s history, but there were so much time and so many events that stood between them and me. I was born just at the tail of the war, so I only know of the aftermath. Loss—loss of loved ones, of pride, of limbs, of possessions, and of country—was what I associated with it. I hung on to every drop of information that splattered my way. Father’s stories came alive for me on dark nights, as I tried to imagine, with a child’s eyes, the anguish he suffered. Inside of me, war was still romantic. It was a place where heroes were made, and history was born.
The town where I lived was only famous for two things that I could remember: rice paper wraps and a special pork noodle soup. The heavy fighting never reached this far south, but still the effects of it were written on the bodies of the people and on the face of the landscape.
Built around the interstate, a paved, narrow, two-lane road without a center divider, which was constructed by the French during their occupation of Indo-China, the town was unpretentious, agonizingly simple, and pitch black at night.
All businesses and life were formed around the interstate that coiled around us like a giant python. The farther people were from it, the poorer they tended to be. Money was still a rare and unreliable commodity, only reaching the homes along the road. Most of the people who lived in the farther regions had to brave slippery, muddy roads alongside steep riverbanks for many miles just to reach the central area where they could sell what they had grown and purchase what they needed.
The courtyard at the front of our house was only separated from the interstate by a small canal. The canal was dug for use in irrigation when the house was built, but its purpose had long been abandoned. Poorly constructed houses had replaced most of the vegetation in the front, so the canal only served as a way for the floodwater to overflow into our yard during the rainy seasons. It also became mainly used as a place for people who couldn’t afford to have water delivered to their houses to wash and bathe and a place for mosquitoes to congregate. During the years when the rain was especially plenty, the water would rise and creep into our house, bringing with it leeches, water snakes, tiny schools of fish, and sewage.
Based on our location from the interstate and the type of house we lived in when compared to the others around us, there was a façade of money and wealth. However, as with all facades, the truth that lay behind it was always murky with complexities. As rich and powerful as my family once was before the war, all that money and power belonged to my grandparents; and everything was destroyed or confiscated by the new government. To the victor went the spoils. Such was the fact of life and war, despite the politics.
My parents had very little. The house we lived in was a rental. When Father was away at concentration camp, Mother, my sisters June and April, and I ate small over-salted fish with bones that stuck in my throat, choking the air out of my young lungs. Smaller was cheaper, and the saltier it was the less of it we could eat; so Mother bought the cheapest ones and was always generous with the salt and fish sauce. While our stomachs were empty, our limbs were also poorly covered. We wore clothes with just as many patches on them as the peasant children; but unaccustomed to poverty, the hole in our clothes revealed much whiter and softer skin that was more easily damaged by the elements.
When Father finally returned from concentration camp, we were relieved, despite the fact that he brought back with him a whole new level of rage. All the positions in the hospital where he worked before being taken away were already given to the communist doctors who came in from the North. He was left with nothing and had to begin again. He started his own practice in a nearby town where he worked in the morning. In the afternoon, he alternated his time between two clinics in neighboring rural parishes where there weren’t any doctors. His jobs took him away from us for most of the day, but they provided the family with some financial relief. However, most of Father’s patients were poor. Many couldn’t afford to pay him with money, which was the one thing we desperately needed. We were still very far from being wealthy, but the meals at dinner were still much better than previous ones we ate. It made it easier to go on pretending that things weren’t so bad. The lies helped the hunger subside.
Father was one of the lucky ones. His reeducation period at the concentration camp lasted only two years, a much shorter time than other men with his same military background and family connections. The anonymity of the small town did a lot to save Father from what both my grandfathers went through in other camps, since they both held public offices and were both well known.
When Mother became pregnant with me, approximately two years before the end of the war, Father moved our entire family to Sadec. Shortly after, he left the military and joined us. He began working at the hospital in town, where he established a name for himself. When Saigon fell and the helicopters took off from the rooftops with our relatives in them, my grandparents on both sides decided to stay. As the eldest son, Father also stayed; so we all stayed. On that last day, Father rode home to us from Saigon on his motorcycle, after saying goodbye to his siblings. As he rode, he littered the interstate with torn-up pieces of our family photos. Everything that tied us to the life we had before was discarded into the wind. When he arrived in town, he immediately sold the motorcycle and purchased a less expensive scooter in order to appear more humble.
Father went away after my first birthday and didn’t return until I was three. We visited him often, but his presence from the other side of the fence was not strong enough to reach me. We remained strangers until he returned from the concentration camp.
First published in Little Sister Left Behind
Copyright © 2007 by Samantha Lê
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