All The Dead Lovers | Cam Dang


All The Dead Lovers

Cam Dang

Hotel Diaspora Award


 

My uncle often told stories about the oceans and the boats, about men who charged gold for a cup of water and women who smeared their faces with charcoal at the sight of another boat.

They rode the waves for weeks and months, drifting in and out of dreams and nightmares, swimming somewhere between sanity and madness. Once landed, there were fathers who walked around with pocket knives ready to gut the bastard who threw their kids overboard.

Some men drank and drank to wash the taste of human meat off their tongues. Some women – the ones who couldn’t be saved by charcoal – went back into the oceans with rocks tied around their ankles, hoping to wash out the filth that was pumped into them one afternoon in front of their begging husbands and wailing children.

“And the unluckiest ones got sent home,” he’d say at the end.

I was still a little girl when Uncle fled home. He was twenty.

Home, where children played marbles under white frangipani trees, where rain dripped from the tips of coconut leaves woven together to put a roof over Uncle’s head, where the roosters woke him and a bowl of steaming pork congee topped with spring onion and coriander started his day.

Home, a word that, for the first decade in Australia, made him feel like a man who was in his wife’s loving arms and aching for his dead lover. It gnawed at his mind as he ate a rather awful pork stew my aunt carelessly cooked for New Year’s Eve. He said his mother used to cook this traditional dish with all her heart, and he had hoped to feel that warmth once again with every spoon. Aunty grumbled about having no time – those hundreds of T-shirts weren’t going to sew themselves, and sewing meant money.

“It’s not about time,” Uncle shook his head. “It’s about my wife allowing me once a year a meal that takes me back home.”

That night Aunty rang her aunt and talked until the connection cut off – Skype didn’t exist twenty years ago. She’d picked up tips on how to make a proper thit kho, and although I suspected her aunt held back, Uncle was still extremely pleased with her second take.

Like many people who survived the oceans, refugee camps, and tiny, rat infested commission flats, Uncle waited ten years before making his first trip back to Viet Nam – couldn’t risk getting locked up for treason. I could only imagine how his heart swelled riding the bus from Sai Gon to My Tho, the smiles he couldn’t hide walking along the red dirt road and bumping into old friends, who gasped and hugged, saying how fat he’d become.

And when he finally saw the rusty windows, the wooden door where his mother used to sit and pick out yellow husks from a pot of rice, the white bougainvillea crawling along the broken fence, I could only imagine the strength he took to keep his eyes dry.

Men don’t cry, so Uncle never did. Not even when he lit three incense sticks for the altar and stood staring at the faded black and white photos of his mother, father, and sister; or when he gave money to a little boy scavenging through a rubbish bin; or when he walked past the Province Hall packed with men and women who had been turned into rag dolls by Agent Orange, waiting for their minuscule monthly allowances. And when an eight months pregnant vendor slipped and spilled her entire pot of glutinous rice dessert, as she was crying and massaging her stomach and frantically spooning the sticky mixture back into the pot, Uncle quietly walked back inside, searching for his wallet.

I wonder if he’d looked forward to flying back to Melbourne, back to the lemon tree in his garden and Sunday barbeques with family and friends. Because the lover was truly dead. Some stories weren’t meant to have happy endings.

And I wonder if he’d looked out the airplane window at the sea below and thought of how angry and sad the oceans must be, for they were the ones bearing all the stories about the boats.