Returning home stirs up complex memories and reveals answers to old, forgotten questions.
By Cam Dang
I returned to Viet Nam with my husband, James, ten years after the day he brought me to Australia.
The way to my uncle’s house was still the same red dirt road. Little stones crunched under our shoes as we walked past houses with thatched roofs and bamboo walls. A group of boys and girls stopped playing marbles and stared at James. ‘Let’s adopt these beautiful children,’ he said, beaming at them. I simply smiled.
The neighbours came to gawk at us. Look how white she is now, if only her parents were still alive, look at him, he’s even whiter, and his hair is yellow. Pushing each other at the gate, they talked loudly among themselves as if we weren’t there, the loudest being Ms Tam, an eighty year-old widow. Uncle made us iced coffee. He lived alone – he had never fallen in love. My first love was ten years my senior, and wasn’t mine to keep.
‘We want to adopt and keep on trying at the same time,’ James told uncle, who kept his eyes on me long after I finished translating. I turned towards the gawkers at the gate.
‘You haven’t told your husband?’ Uncle asked me a few days later. We were sitting by a stream, watching James splashing about and getting swamped by the kids, and sipping on sweet coconut juice. Our region was abundant with coconut and beetle nut trees.
I shook my head.
Silence, and then uncle said, ‘Do you want to know what happened to him?’
‘He died three years after you left. Got drunk and told a friend he screwed his wife. Got stabbed in the gut, the face, the head.’
I swallowed hard.
‘God sees everything,’ uncle was almost whispering.
‘But He’s always late,’ I said, the image of me lying in a pool of blood flashed across my mind.
It happened a few days before I turned eighteen. ‘Come with me, I have something for you,’ my first love said. I did, and woke up afterwards in an abandoned hut, everything below my waist crippled by pain.
He didn’t trust me when I swore his wife would never know. I wanted nothing else but this new life in me. I had never felt so much love, not even towards him.
He hired an old woman to scrape my baby out. They left me in that hut bleeding, unconscious, and barren for life.
‘Whose idea was it to adopt?’
‘Mine,’ I picked up a dried beetle nut and tossed it into the stream. It bobbed up and down in silty water towards the kids, dried up and dead inside yet unable to sink. ‘Ridiculous, right? I couldn’t protect my own baby. How will I protect someone else’s child?’
‘Do you want to know why I’ve never married?’
I said yes, unsure where he was going with this.
‘I thought: how could I feed a family if I couldn’t even feed myself? It was easier being poor alone. But now, I eat alone, drink alone, sleep alone, and I can’t turn back time. I let fear have the best years of my life.’ He paused as if weighing the words. ‘Sometimes we’re rendered helpless in the face of evil. We can’t control the miseries of life, but we can do something to honour our losses.’
I took his hand, ‘That’s why you should marry Ms Tam.’ He laughed and laughed, and we returned to watching the kids in the stream.
A boy flung the beetle nut back on land, and I wondered if it would sprout new life.