After a stormy flight back from Saigon, where we had been visiting sick relatives, our Cessna landed with a thud on the muddy landing strip of the Cam Ly airport. Outside, a curtain of rain moved softly across the smoky gray sky, welcoming us back to this high plateau of persistent fog and whispering pine forests. The plane ran swiftly toward the control tower while brown water spurted under its white metallic wings. When it slowed it let out a fierce roar - the sound of a wounded beast - then came to a shuddering stop.
Mamma exhaled and leaned back in her seat. With a swift, expert gesture she snapped open her alligator purse, took out a money envelope, and gave it to the pilot. Beyond the plane’s windshield I could make out the silhouettes of Uncle Lau and Uncle Hien, our servants, who stood by our Plymouth and a couple of rusty army trucks. They rushed toward the plane, black umbrellas in hand, as the propeller completed its final spin.
The Cessna’s door sprang open. A cold blast of air rushed in, bringing with it the smells of damp earth and pine forest. Somewhere behind the green hills we could hear the Cam Ly Falls roar and rage. Uncle Lau was the first to greet us. He held the umbrella over the open door and uttered something quite unintelligible.
“What is it?” Mamma asked, alarmed at his behavior. “Is everything all right?”
“Madame, dear Madame,” he mumbled as a wisp of cloud escaped his mouth, “she wore a red skirt. I swear, Madame, I saw her with my own eyes.”
Uncle Hien shook his head slightly, stepping pass Uncle Lau just in time to help Crazy Monkey, my oldest brother, who jumped carelessly out after Mamma and landed with a foot in a mud puddle. The pilot, in the meantime, had finished packing our suit cases into the car’s trunk and trotted off toward the army PX.
“Who wore a red skirt?” Mamma, having endured a turbulent flight, sounded annoyed. Uncle Lau had always been a little touched in the head. He talked to himself frequently. Yet today his behavior made everyone curious.
“Is my Papa all right?” Pirate, my middle sister, asked. She sat on the ledge of the plane’s door frame, hesitating to jump and risk ruining her favorite pink ao dai dress.
“Hush,” Mamma touched her. Then, with her piercing glance, she turned again to Uncle Lau. “Now, who wore a red dress? My husband’s new girlfriend? Who?”
Uncle Lau cringed under her stare. The umbrella he held wobbled in his hand. “No, Madame, no such girlfriend. Your… “He hesitated, his eyes filled with fear.
“Talk!” Mamma ordered. She was angry now, her voice rose to a tone higher than normal. She smoothed back a few loose strands of hair from her forehead, stared into his eyes, and waited for his answer. The flaps of her embroidered ao dai fluttered like the panicked wings of butterflies.
“Your daughter, dear Madame,” he blurted, a grown man ready to cry. Pirate and I stared at each other, not exactly sure what he meant. He had seen my sister almost every day since we moved to Dalat, so what was so scary about that? She and I began to giggle at his strange response while from inside the gray Plymouth an oblivious Crazy Monkey yelled for us to hurry.
Uncle Hien had just returned with his umbrella for my sister and me. “Please pay him no mind, Madame,” he advised. “He talks shadows and he speaks winds.”
But Mama ignored Uncle Hien. She continued to press at Uncle Lau. “My daughter, you mean Pirate?” She sounded much calmer for some reason as she pointed to my sister, whose sandaled feet dangled above the muddy water.
“No, not right, Madame,” Uncle Lau shook his head vigorously. His thin body shook as if it were a banana leaf caught in the wind. “The dead one…”
We stopped giggling. Pirate halted her legs in mid-swing, then raised them back over the plane’s ledge and into the protection of her wool-sweatered arms. I heard a muted shriek from my own mouth, felt something cold rising up my spine. I huddled closer to Pirate for protection. Uncle Lau was no longer funny. There was an eerie silence and I suddenly heard again the waterfall’s soft rumble. Mamma took a small step forward and swayed a little. Her face was pale. It mirrored the sky.
“Talk of lies!” Mamma exclaimed. “You’re lying.” But Uncle Lau kept shaking his head and said nothing.
“My dead daughter,” she mumbled to herself finally, her eyes gazing at the verdant slopes. Then suddenly seemed very concerned. “Dear God! I burned a red skirt for her last year.”
She grabbed Uncle Hien’s arm. “What day is it today, Uncle?”
“The 18th of August, Madame,” Uncle Hien told her while helping Pirate and me down from the plane. His black umbrella covered the entire sky.
“Suffering,” Mamma cried softly. A million tiny raindrops covered her curly black hair like pearls. “I completely forgot her death anniversary. I was so busy with my sister’s children… Uncle Lau, when did you… see her?”
“Four days ago, Madame,” Uncle Lau told her.
“That would be the 14th, a day after her death anniversary,” Mamma whispered, no longer sounding angry or surprised.
In the car we were quiet. A still shaken Uncle Lau sat in front with Uncle Hien, their M-16s between them. In the back, Mamma sat with my brother and me on her right and my sister on her left. The rain fell more heavily, sounding like a pack of wild horses galloping on the car’s roof. We rode down a gentle slope, leaving the blurry military airport with its simple wooden barracks and muddy landing strips to drown in the rain.
“Uncle Lau,” Mamma ordered, “tell me from beginning to end what happened. And mind you not to forget a single thing.”
“Yes, Madame.” His voice squeaked as he struggled to turn around and face us. His scrawny profile and long neck reminded me of the funny rooster Pirate and I had raised. One of Papa’s chauffeurs ran over it one Summer before. Mamma thought it was a deliberate act because the bird had crowed so loudly and so early in the morning it annoyed everyone in the servant quarters and soldiers’ barracks.
Presently, Uncle Lau cleared his throat and swallowed. Then, in a warm and solemn voice, he began. “It was like this. You remember, dear Madame, that the week before last, when you and the children were preparing to go to Saigon, you told me and Hien here to guard the house and the General. Well, we did just that, alternating sleeping in that icy study there down the hall. We set the army cot by the rosewood altar, the home of Miss Nga, near the old fireplace.
“Because the children used the blackboard so often, chalk powder was everywhere - on the floor, over the table, in the fireplace, among the books, on the shelves - everything was covered with a white layer of dust. Of course, I cleaned everything the first day I slept there, wiping the place spotless as you would have liked it. Then, strangely enough, when it was Hien’s turn, he complained that there was chalk powder on the floor and even on the cot and he had to clean the place.
“Well, nobody dared use the board, certainly not my children, they wouldn’t set foot in the house without your word, Madame, so it didn’t explain where the chalk powder came from at all. Then it was again my turn that night to sleep in the study. Oh, Madame, I’m still scared to death thinking about it…”
Uncle Lau paused long enough at this point for all of us to hear the rain again. It seemed to urge him on.
“That night Dalat was full of fog. And the wind howled and whimpered among the tops of the pine trees outside. I left my family back in the quarters and went up to the house with my M-16. Before I left, my wife had some strange premonitions. She kept saying: ‘You shouldn’t go, you shouldn’t go.’” Uncle Lau mimicked his wife’s voice, which was loud and commanding. He had perfected it and we all laughed, including Mamma. “She cried, ‘The General is not home for you to protect. Protect yourself and stay here with your wife. There’s isn’t a shadow up at that big and empty house. Stay home with me!’
“But I would listen to no woman’s word, Madame. Duty is duty. I am a soldier after all. It was my turn to guard the house so I went, through the thick fog and wind, up the steps into the kitchen, down to the empty living room, up that squeaky staircase and through that creaky door and right into the study. Sure enough, there was plenty of chalk on the cot but I just dusted it off with my hands, turned off the light and lay down with my gun and pulled the army blanket over my head and went to sleep.
“Well, everything seemed to be fine and I slept deliciously. Then, something woke me up. It sounded like someone had just whispered something in my ear. Then I heard the whisper again and I started to pray to all the saints and Buddhas that it was only the wind. For a while nothing happened and I was about to fall back asleep when I… I felt something terribly cold pulling at my right ankle. It felt like a small icy hand. I couldn’t move. All I could do was crane my neck over the blanket and stared.
“That was when I saw her. She was glowing in this strange soft light, this little girl, about six or seven. I could barely make out the red skirt she was wearing. I was so scared my mouth was just open wide, and, if you forgive me for saying so, Madame, my spit was running out on both sides of my gaping mouth. She was just standing there, this little girl, right at the other end of my cot holding on to my foot, crying… Her hair was long and silky and her face ivory white.
“Right away I knew, I just knew it was your daughter. She materialized before me as a beautiful and delicate child. But I was paralyzed. My jaw was locked open, my blood froze in my veins, my hair stood straight up from my scalp. Like a log I lay there and stared at her while she cried. An eternity passed before she stopped crying and looked at me.”
Uncle Lau began to speak in a very soft voice. It was almost a whisper but audible enough in the car for all of us to hear and Mamma squeezed my hand tightly. Our car rumbled and hummed, its tires spraying water at every potholes and my heart absorbed each shock.
“‘Uncle Lau. It’s sooo cold. I am forgotten. Uncle Lau. Mamma has forgotten me. Please, light an incense to warm my home once more. Please, Uncle, it’s soooo cold.”
“With that, Madame, she let go of my ankle and turned and floated toward the fireplace above which sat the altar. She faded away. Madame, I tried to gather my calm then, hoping that she wouldn’t come back a second time and scare me to death. When I could move again I stood up and turned on the light switch. I gathered all my strength and I approached the altar and took three incense sticks from the bag and lit them. I prayed to her. I said: ‘Oh Miss Nga, I am burning incense for you so you’d be warm and please don’t scare me again. I am a devout Buddhist and have a wife and three children to care for. Please don’t take my soul away. I will bring you some offerings come morning.’ After that, Madame, seeing that my wife had made some sense, and since the General wasn’t home, I took the liberty of going home to protect my wife and children.’
“The next morning I came right back with my wife and we brought some fruits to offer your daughter. I knew you wouldn’t object. The last few nights, Hien here volunteered to take my shifts since he said Miss Nga wouldn’t bother him now that she had received some offerings. But I made sure, you can trust me on that, Madame, that Hien lit incense every night for her…”
Uncle Lau’s tale ended. To acknowledge it Mamma nodded and he turned again to face the windshield. A faint smell of ruou de,the servants’ favorite moonshine, had become increasingly strong as Uncle Lau spoke, and it now lingered in the air. Repulsed, I turned to look at Crazy Monkey. He was breathing on the car’s window, turning it into a fog-filled writing board. He drew pictures of airplanes and tanks and guns on the window’s glass. With each stroke, he revealed a rushing green, gray, and wet world outside, and these images glowed animatedly with the green and gray and brown colors of nature.
Though Nga had been my sister, I had never seen her. She died as an infant of some brain disease a year before I was born. For her light skin Mamma had named her Nga, which means ivory. She had no nickname because she died when she was very young. She had dark silky hair when she was born. Mamma insisted that she would have been very tall and pretty had she lived. Nga was a good child, not like you Soft Shell, Mamma often told me. She never cried or demanded so much attention. Each time Mama said that I would f respond by crying and stomping my feet until Mamma laughed and held me in her arms and told me that “Alright, Soft Shell, you are still my favorite.”
Every year, on Sister Nga’s death anniversary, Mamma bought paper dresses, toys, and money to burn for her so she, in the spirit world, could have all the comforts the rest of us enjoyed. We hadn’t always been prosperous, Mamma told us. We were poor then—Papa was only a lieutenant colonel and we had no money, no chauffeur, no cars. When it was time to give birth to Sister Nga, Mamma had to take the pedicab to the hospital.
When Sister Nga died, Mamma bought a piece of ivory and had Nga’s name carved on it for worshipping. She could have been saved, Mamma often said, had we enough money and connections to take her to Europe. But Papa said that there was nothing anybody could do and that no doctors would have known what to do with a such a rare brain disease.
The year after I was born Papa was promoted to brigadier general and he commanded of the 9th Division in Sadec in the Mekong Delta. Our lives started to change for the better as he received more privileges. A few years later when I was four he became a lieutenant general and the administrator for the Vo Bi National Military Academy in Dalat. We were given a French villa, some horses, and a private helicopter. But Mamma never forgot about my sister. When we were moving to Dalat, the first item she packed despite Papa’s objection was the altar. Papa thought it was irrational to hold on to the dead. He said it was best to place the altar in a quiet temple since we moved around so much. “Let her spirit rest,” he would shout, but Mamma was admoment. They argued and argued, but somehow Mamma always ended up winning.
Now, in light of everything, it was scary to think that my sister’s ghost might roam our villa, demanding attention from Mamma like the rest of us kids. I closed my eyes and tried to think of her living inside that dark wooden altar that resembled a miniature Buddhist temple. It was a small altar with a curving roof and two little columns carved into shapes of dragons and phoenixes. Between the columns stood a bronze urn filled with burnt joss sticks and gray brown ashes. But the altar’s dark interior held nothing but that ivory tablet. It stood like a miniature tombstone. Could that piece of ivory embody my sister’s ghost?
“And you, Uncle Hien,” Mamma asked, “did you see anything strange?”
“No Madame, ” Uncle Hien answered, his eyes stayed fixed on the road. His profile in the rearview mirror was dark and expressionless.
“You mean my daughter did not grab your ankle or scare you as well?” Mamma pressed on.
“No, Madame. Perhaps because I have a strong spirit, ghosts do not bother me.”
“Is that so?” Mamma said.
“But Madame,” Uncle Lau turned around again. “I saw her with my own eyes.”
“Yes, I know,” Mamma nodded. “But I am no longer asking you.”
“Uncle Hien,” Mamma continued, “so you’ve nothing to report?”
“Not about ghosts, Madame.” He steered expertly past a slow-moving army truck as he reached inside his Khaki shirt and pulled out an envelope. “The General, however, has asked me to tell you that he won’t be back from conference in Nha Trang for a few more days. He told me to give this letter to you.”
“Oh?” Mamma asked as she took the envelope without opening it. She would never read anything from Papa in front of us. “Did my husband know anything about this… apparition?”
“Just as well. But I’m curious: Why did you volunteer to take Uncle Lau’s place instead of staying in your barrack?”
“Because, Madame, the barracks are crowded and drafty and noisy. And because the bingo games. I can never sleep when Lau here comes over and yells out his bingo numbers in verses.”
“Is that so?” Mamma commented. I laughed. Crazy Monkey slapped his knee and laughed as well while Pirate kept saying, “shame, shame, shame.” Uncle Lau seemed to shrink in the front seat. It was true, Uncle Lau tended to be very poetic and loud with bingo games, especially with bingo numbers. He could sing about them as if they were characters in his well-memorizedcai luong plays.
But our laughter ended quickly and silence like an opaque mosquito net shrouded over us. Under Mamma’s hand, mine felt cold and bloodless. The rain had lessened as we neared home. We drove past the Perfume of Spring lake where drifting fog caressed its surface. It was late in the afternoon, the sky was gray and miserable, and the lake reflected it.
Beyond the windshield wipers I saw a drenched landscape filled with half-hidden villas behind tall pine trees and stone walls. We were moving up hill; a few small whitewashed shrines decorated with wreaths of colorful flowers stood beside the ascending road, built by local people to pay homage to the numerous victims who had died in car and motorcycle accidents on these slippery roads. If the dead ones were remembered, Uncle Lau had once explained to me, they would not come back and cause more accidents.
The red roof of our villa loomed into view above the pine trees; next came the wooden shutters covering the windows and balconies on the second floor; then our green garden with the Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck shaped swings. The car made a sharp turn toward the barbed-wire gate, and a young smiling soldier jumped out of his wooden post, his rifle and guitar hung loosely behind him. He pulled hard at the gate several times until it slid to the side then saluted us. White mist rose from the empty stone court yard to welcome us home.
Mamma leaned forward and tapped Uncle Lau on the shoulder with a few large bills. “Uncle Lau,” she said. “Could you go, please, to the market and get me some paper offerings, some fruits, and candles as well. I want to offer a modest death anniversary for my daughter… even if it’s late. And thank you.”
Someone had left the window open in the study and there was a musty smell of damp wood here. When Mamma shut the windows, it seemed that a part of the sky was captured inside. I looked up at the altar on the mantel. It stood as it always did, ominous, hollow, and dark. On its roof its dragons with sparkling mother-of-pearl scales had their jaw wide open, ready to snap at non-believers. I had always felt numb and cold when I looked at it.
Mamma lit a few incense sticks, and the smoke twirled and whirled upward to the already darkened ceiling. Somewhere down the hall, a wooden shutter, loose from its hinge, flapped rhythmically against the outside wall with the flirting wind. I stood behind Mamma and listened to her prayers but Crazy Monkey and Pirate gathered by the blackboard with mischievous smiles on their faces. They scooped the chalk dust from the board’s ledge and smeared it on their faces. When they motioned me to join them, waving to me with their chalky white hands, I shook my head. I had a need to be near Mamma, to be safe. But I knew what they were doing. Crazy Monkey and Pirate were waiting to ambush Uncle Lau. His footsteps echoed nearer and nearer in the hallway.
Uncle Lau stepped in. His wicker basket was full of flowers, mangoes, paper toys and paper money and dresses. Both Crazy Monkey and Pirate screamed in unison and, with their powdered faces and their clawed hands, jumped in front of him. Uncle Lau jerked backward, as if shocked by electricity, and yelped. A mango fell from the basket and hit the floor with a dull thud.
Mamma turned. “Stop that!” She yelled. There was foreboding in her glare. “Go wash your faces, put on some new clothes, and come back to pay tribute to your sister. All of you!”
“Yes, Mamma,” we mumbled in unison and fled.
Later, when we returned, two flickering candles were burning dreamily on their lotus-flower-shaped stands at each side of the altar. Shadows and lights played among the altar’s intricately carved wood. It was near dusk outside and the window glowed in soft pink tones. Uncle Lau was helping Mamma for the late death anniversary. A few mangoes and lotus flowers lay in a large china dish on a table covered with white cloth. We had showered and combed our hair and dressed in our best clothes, Pirate in her light blue skirt, Crazy Monkey and I in our black suits with clip-on ties. We stood in a line behind Mamma, from oldest to youngest, and faced the altar. When it was finally my turn, Mamma handed me a burning incense stick and told me what to say. “Sister Nga, please forgive us,” I chanted, eyes half closed. “And please protect us and bless us with good fortune.” Then I added, “And please, if you are a ghost, don’t come back and grab Mamma’s ankles.”
I bowed three times to my sister of the altar. I imagined her acknowledging my prayer from that ivory tablet deep inside the mysterious darkness. Mamma stood quietly in front of the fireplace, her eyes lost upon the coiling and undulating smoke. When we burned the paper offerings for Sister Nga in the fire place Mamma cried. When colorful paper ao dai dresses and dolls with conical hats and mock money caught fire they emitted a brilliant gold color, a with slight tint of green. I looked up. Mamma’s gentle face was glowing warmly, and tears, like diamonds, shimmered in her eyes.
Suddenly, there was a knock on the door and we all turned to see Uncle Hien standing like a statue with a small hammer in his hand. “Come in, Uncle,” Mamma waved to him and wiped the tears with the back of her hand. “You can begin in a moment. We’re almost finished.”
I stared hard at his wooden face as he approached, curious to see what his task would be. Uncle Hien didn’t acknowledge anyone, he just just stood to one side of the altar while Uncle Lau stood on the other and both waited patiently. When the last incense burned itself out, Mamma turned to Uncle Hien and said, “Now, you may begin.”
Uncle Hien nodded and, after he had moved aside the offering table, the candles, the incense urn, he traced his calloused hands along the sides of the altar. He began to pull out the nails that held the altar to the wall with his hammer.
“Mamma, what’s he doing?” Crazy Monkey ventured the question that I wanted to ask.
“He’s taking the altar away,” Mamma answered matter-of-factly, “to the Su-Nu temple in the mountains.”
“Why, Mamma?” Both Pirate and I blurted at the same time.
“We are moving soon to Da Nang. Your father received orders from the headquarters in Saigon. He’s to command the Ist Division… It seems there’s a lot of fighting lately near the DMZ…” Mamma sounded very tired all of a sudden. She held out Papa’s letter. “This time, we are not taking the altar with us. I think your father is right. We mustn’t burden ourselves with ghosts.”
Uncle Hien started to hammer on the sides of the altar to loosen it. The sharp pounding echoed in the room and the ivory tablet was toppled inside the dark wooden house but no one seemed to care. Uncle Lau, after a moment of hesitation, was now assisting his companion. with his help, the last nail that held the altar to the wall gave way with a small screech. In a brief moment, the two soldiers had dislodged the altar that seemed now just a wooden box and carried it downstairs and away. In its place there remained only a white space.
With the altar gone, the study seemed much brighter somehow and warmer. It felt like a different room altogether. It felt as if a shadow had lifted and I was no longer afraid. Instead, as I stared into that white space on the wall framed by little holes that once held the nails, I suddenly thought of Papa. I imagined him flying his helicopter inside a bank of fog. And below that fog where the fireplace had been a minute ago now glowed the embers of a burning city.
And Mamma, as she turned to leave the study, crumpled the letter and dropped it onto that dying city. My heart started to beat wildly as I bent closer to observe the paper. A few of Papa’s words stood out on the wrinkled letter that squirmed in the heat and turned darker and darker in the streaming black smoke. It said something …. shadows... something… war… but before I could make sense of the words, a fierce, brilliant flame rose to devour the twisting form and turned it to thin and delicate black sheet of charcoal, ready to crumble into ashes.
© Andrew Lam