On Phan Dinh Phung Street, North bank of An Cuu River, Number Four alley was just 200 meters away from the bridge, starting from the river bank to the Nam An lake. There were only eight houses in Number Four alley, Chi Mai’s house was at the river end and great uncle Binh garden was at the other end, next to the lake.
Great Uncle Binh was the fourth mandarin of the Khai Dinh Empire, so his house was built in a typical ancient upper class style with big and well designed garden. Every single design feature of the garden had it own meaning. The big tree in the front gate shaded the area and was a good resting place for people passing by, this will be good for the owner’s karma. Two low trimmed hibiscus fences, running from the front gate to the concrete screen in the middle of the garden were to welcome the guests. The rectangular concrete screen had a landscape carved on it including; mountain, river, pelicans and people to show the harmony between nature and humans. Behind the concrete screen was a fish pond with water lilies. Flowers in the pond were the owner references. Some families had lotus, some had duckweeds. Some houses only had clear water and fish. The pond reflected the soul of the family was always positioned between the screen and the main house.
In the old days, most of houses had gates wide open during the day, and visitor stopped at the screen waiting for the owner to welcome them in. The gazebo covered by purple vines and surrounded by rose bushes, was to the left of the garden. To the right was a big Star Fruit tree, two plum trees, some guava trees and a lemon tree. The backyard only had a big wooden vegetable patch, 15 feet long 8 feet wide located in the far right corner. The house was fenced by bamboo trees, which cut low in the front of the house, but were full height in the back yard, so the rose garden and fruit trees could be seen from the front, but the backyard was totally private.
I love the Star Fruit tree the most, it fruits he whole year long and has a delicious taste. So many generations have been living in this house. The current generation is Anh Thu. Thu has been living in this house with his aunt since he was born. He is five years older than me but he always looks more mature than his age. Anh Thu and chi Mai were classmates and close friends. Even though they lived in the same neighborhood people hardly saw them together in public. However, at home they spent most of the time studying together. Every time I visited Anh Thu, Chi Mai was there.
Summer 1972, after finishing the year 11 examination, Chi Mai seldom came to Anh Thu’s house alone. Sometimes she would wait in her front yard to join me when I was on my way to visit Anh Thu. She became more quite when around Anh Thu. I saw the differences but Anh Thu did not pay much attention to the changes in chi Mai’s behavior. One day, when we were picking fruit from the Star Fruit tree I asked chi Mai:
- “How come the fruit of this tree is so perfect it is not as bitter or as sour as other Star Fruits trees?”
Chi Mai picked a flower laying on the ground and placed it in my hair and said:
-“Anh Thu is a butterfly, and I am this flower. We are together to make the fruit so delicious for you”.
It was not hot that day, but I felt the warmth on my face. I was so embarrassed with Chi Mai intimate explanation.
Spring 1973, chi Mai passed year 12 with the highest score. She got a scholarship to study in Canada. Anh Thu stayed in Hue and was accepted into the Medical school.
The three of us had a simple farewell party for chi Mai in the gazebo. Chi Mai hardly talked that day, instead she kept drawing dodo on the leaves. Anh Thu did not say much as usual, I did not know what to say either. It was an odd and strange farewell party. At the end of the party, when Anh Thu walked us out to the front gate, chi Mai gave him a little beautiful Chinese water color painting, of a Star Fruit flower and a butterfly landed on it, which she had spent the whole night before to finish. Anh Thu kept complimenting the painting techniques but did not see the real meaning of the painting. As soon as we had left Anh Thu‘s house., weeping tears from her eyes, Chi Mai uttered to my ears:
-“I don’t really want to be away from Anh Thu”
1975, the whole country was unified by the Viet Cong. Chi Mai stayed in Canada. I escaped Viet Nam in 1980, while Anh Thu was doing his internship in a hospital west of Hue City. I went to Australia In 1981. For nearly ten years I put Vietnam and all of my past behind in order to built up my new life in a new country. Anh Thu landed a job in the hospital where he was doing internship. Chi Mai was nowhere to be found. On the day of receiving Anh Thu’s wedding invitation I was thinking of chi Mai.
After 8 years being away. I returned home in 1989. Anh Thu still lived in great uncle Binh’s garden with his wife and his son. The pagoda was struck down by the storm of 1986; the rose bushes have turned old showing only dry stems, the evidence of lack of trimming and lack of care. The front screen was covered with dew. No more fish swam in the pond and the bamboo fences have turned yellow. It was winter time so the ground was damp and Star Fruit tree did not fruit as much as before, on the ground lemons laid where they felt. The wooden vegetable patch was still in the backyard, but there were no vegetables as if the house had been vacated long ago. It was a melancholy feeling when I first visited Anh Thu again.
December 1996, a surprise phone call from chi Mai had warmed up the blessing season. She was in New York, working for a law firm and dealing with stock market issues. She was still single and she asked me much about Anh Thu. As soon as I told her Anh Thu was still in Viet Nam living happily with his wife and his two children, chi Mai cried. She said she was happy for Anh Thu, for so many years she had been worried that Anh Thu had not survived the crises of the country.
I moved to San Diego in 1998 from Australia. Chi Mai flew down to visit me over Labor Day weekend. We spent hours and hours talking about our past, and mainly talked about Anh Thu and the garden. We also planned a trip together to Viet Nam in the near future. I visited Vietnam again in March of 2000, but chi Mai could not make it, so she promised to go with me again in December 2001 to celebrate Anh Thu’s 15th wedding anniversary.
Unfortunately, the trip had not yet been made, on September 11th of the year 2001, chi Mai was among the other 2800 workers in the twin towers of New York City, has became the formless ashes and flew away in different directions.
|she has became the formless ashes and flew away in different directions...
A flower has just landed on the ground from the Star Fruit tree. I thought of chi Mai and imagined that she was smiling from up above and said “I have made it home with you and Anh Thu”. It was winter, but I could feel a cool air just brushed my face. I put the flower on my head and stepped in to Anh Thu’s house. Anh Thu welcomed me with a warm hug and a kissed on my head as usual. This time he kissed the flower.
I have preserved the flower and will bring it with me to the ground floor on my next trip to New York. I will place this flower on the monument and tell chi Mai that I am bringing her the sweetness of her home town.
Hue, winter 2002.