|Apr/May 2010 Fiction|
"Amelia," he said, his voice a cold track down my spine, though it was summer and the grass smelled burned and I had been looking for shade. I was overdressed for a company picnic, my hair woven into a French braid, a sundress with scooping collar. One of his hands crawled on my shoulder, and I could barely say hello. "Let me get a look at you," he said. "Are you still my orchid?"
He stared into my eyes, cracked-gourd smile across his face, and when I looked away, I felt him take in the rest of me. I counted to three, then met his stare hard, a trick I'd used on the tenth grade boys who stole looks down my shirt. The boys turned away, cheeks on fire, but the Major's gaze slid up my throat and brushed my lips before locking with my own.
"That's good cake," he said, pointing at the plate in my hands. "An old Church family recipe. I've been baking most of this last week."
I dragged my plastic fork over the crumbling edge of German chocolate, watched the crumbs scatter across the plate.
"Better if you eat it," he said. I pinched a bite to my tongue, turning my face to him. This time, his eyes cut away. "When you see your father," he said, "tell him I'm looking for him."
"I will, Mr. Church," I said.
I sat alone, cross-legged in the shade of an oak tree, and looked out over the Major's ridiculous backyard, a spectacle of checkerboard tablecloths and ranks of food, men sweating in polo shirts and chinos, their wives keeping one eye on the kids. All of them looked the same to me, little featureless dolls under blonde or red or brunette hair. No me. My parents adopted me away from my country, Vietnam, when I was two years old, and though my papers say American, my hazel skin and almond eyes tell a different story. I'd come to Church Hardware picnics for as long as I could remember, and only the Major stood out more than me.
Major Church—it was a strange name for such a thin, spectral man. The Major, as everyone called him, would appear in our Sunday newspapers, wearing wings and a halo, to bring the good news of rock-bottom prices. My daddy managed the Caruthers branch of Church Hardware, and I suppose he and the Major were something like friends, though I'd seen him imitate his boss, speaking like he'd swallowed steel wool and clasping his hands together in mock prayer. The Major, with his spidery limbs, smiling horse teeth, and sweating skin was easy to make fun of—unless he stood before you. I watched him talking with his branch managers, my father among them, and I saw their measured distance, neither too close nor too far from the Major. They all looked serious, even when it came to tipping back their heads to laugh at his jokes. I shivered again in the heat, mashing up the crumbs of the Church family cake.
"There you are," called my mother. She climbed the small rise to where I sat. Her legs were flat and poreless in new panty hose, the grass sawing at her Mary Janes. "What are you doing up here all alone?" She sat down next to me and smoothed her dress over her long legs. Both of us were overdressed. "Your father was summoned to the round table," she said, pointing. "Holding court with the king." She tore up a blade of grass and turned it in her fingers. "The king needs a fool, and lately it's your father."
After all the years with Church Hardware, she thought my father should have been managing the Fresno store, the highest paid position in the company next to the Major himself. She had wanted him to wear a tie. "It's a picnic, Sheila," he'd said. "Nobody wears ties at a picky-nick." The drive over was quiet, and I was supposed to be keeping her company.
"Are you having a terrific time?" I said.
"Don't get smart." She cut me a sideways look. "Major gets uglier every year, don't you think? By the time he's seventy, he will have turned into an actual mule." She pinched the tender skin behind my arm. Something I hate. "You're still too young to notice those things. Don't be in any rush to start noticing." She cast the blade of grass away, stood up, and brushed down the front of her dress. "I need to go save your father before he says anything stupid," she said. "He's approaching his limit for intelligent speech. Be around."
I watched her sidestep down the hill until she reached my father, laying a hand on his elbow, and then I walked in the opposite direction, toward the koi pond and the swampy overhang of weeping willows. When I was a little girl, I loved this backyard with its sprawling lawn and hidden corners, lookouts, surprises. I would run with the other children, my dress lifting like wings and showing the world my canary panties. But the others had outgrown coming or their dads had found other jobs, and I was the only fifteen-year-old, stuck between grade school games of tag and the dull business of adults.
I watched the fish cut swift lines in the motionless water, and my reflection peered back. Koi swam through my eyes, in and out my ears, breeched my mouth. When I pictured what my life would have been like in Vietnam, if I'd never been adopted, this is what I saw: my face ripped in the water, flat sky above, empty country on all sides.
Daddy and the Major sat with their chairs huddled together. My mother smoked a cigarette and faced away from the scrum. She hadn't smoked in three months and looked odd, unpracticed, more than guilty. I sat with my back to her, crossing my legs under my dress. I felt her fingers working to unbraid my hair, her nervous habit since I was little, but I slid from her reach, closer to Daddy.
The Major said, "I hope you fired her, Gene. She was stealing, right? You know me, I don't like to push myself on my managers, but theft is theft."
Daddy was nodding. "That's definitely true. But she was taking stuff for her son's science fair project. She promised to pay every cent back and even gave me five bucks on the spot. I figured, what the hell, you know, no harm, no foul."
The Major's long face turned to me, softened. He leaned back in his chair and smiled. Daddy picked his teeth and scanned across the picnic. "Gene, you didn't tell me Amelia had turned into a young lady. Last time I saw her, she was in pigtails."
"She's growing," he said.
"Like a weed," my mother added. "She'll be driving soon."
I flattened my hands on the cool grass, keeping them from plucking it up blade by blade. The Major's tongue moved against the back of his teeth like a fish. I didn't know his age, but I'd always thought him ancient, eternally old and rich.
"Excuse me," he said, rising to his full height, still looking down on me. I didn't squirm under the stare, the chill he'd always given me suddenly a thing of the past.
As soon as he was out of earshot, my mother turned to Daddy. "You told me you were going to fire that woman."
"What could I do, Sheila? We don't pay her enough."
"He's the one who needs to hear it."
"You don't tell your boss he's a cheapskate."
"No, you tell your boss that you're harboring thieves."
"Jesus H. Christ," he said. "Can't I even have a business conversation?"
Mom took another cigarette from her silver case.
"What about that smoke?" he said. "You promised us."
"Don't you dare lecture me." She lifted the lighter to her mouth, hands shaking. It clicked once, twice. "Damn," she said, throwing the cigarette unlit into the lawn. She pressed her hand to the bridge of her nose, shut her eyes. "Get me out of here, Gene, or I swear I'll get myself out." She grabbed my shoulder before Daddy could say anything. "Go get my purse, honey, my black one. It's in the guest room."
I crossed the lawn to the Major's enormous house. The lower windows were open, rooms displayed, some occupied by guests, but the second story glass was pale with the backs of curtains. Looking back at my parents, they seemed soft and in love, mouths and hands almost touching, but I knew the whispers raging between them.
I reached the veranda door and went inside. The air was cooler, ceiling fans spinning overhead. A long white couch faced me and a television flashed light onto the cushions. I heard squalls of the picnic receding behind me, but the house was quiet and empty, another world. Letting my hair out of its braid, I combed my fingers through tangles, the day's pent-up heat leaving my scalp. I decided the Major's house suited him, wide-open spaces for his rambling shape.
The guestroom was just down the hall, but I climbed the stairs instead, wanting to lose myself in this expanse of quiet. Open doors squared in the hallway, and I looked into each one: a plain spare bedroom, a sewing room wallpapered with butterflies, an elegant tiled bath, another bedroom as stark as the first. So much space unfilled. But the last door was closed. I tried the knob and pushed it open, knowing at once it was different.
The Major's study was dim. The walls were covered with framed newspaper clippings, certificates with embossed medallions and gold borders, and a color picture of the Major in his angel costume. No sale or appliance was being advertised—just a thin man dressed in soft, billowy blue, his skeletal hands making a steeple before his chest, heaven in his eyes.
His desk was in the middle of the room, facing the door, its top clean except for a calendar and five hardcovers propped between bookends forged with the letters "M" and "C." I settled into his chair and spun a few times before opening the drawers. Behind a sheaf of manila folders, I found a wooden box engraved with Vietnamese figures: deep gouges, but meticulously patterned. Running my fingers through the symbols, I felt the whittled roughness left by the knife, wishing I could read my own language. I opened the hasp. A photograph lay face down, and I turned it to see a face not so different from my own, a girl a few years older than me, leaning close to the soldier at her side. She seemed like a piece of the landscape, as if the boy had gotten himself photographed next to a pretty sign. His mouth was laughing wide while hers rested in a wan, silent smile. Where she was delicate, small-boned, soft, he looked cut, sharpened, his thinness a danger. It took me a moment, but I recognized the soldier. He would trade his Army fatigues for wings and a halo.
"I called her Fran," said the Major.
I jumped at his voice, and he took the photograph from my hand. He stood between the doorway and me. He cupped the picture in his palm so the image of her curved toward him. "Don't you think she was pretty? She lived in a village we liberated," he said. His eyes lifted to me. "Lived in a hut smaller than this room. With two grandparents, a mother, about ten chickens, and two dogs. Her father was probably trying to kill us, and I don't know which, the chickens or the dogs, were meant for the oven." He ended with a laugh that brought heat into the room. "Do they talk about the war in school?"
"I wasn't one of the bad ones," he said. "I wasn't there to rape the country." He replaced the picture, closed the box, put it carefully back in the drawer. The smile he gave me was the same one he wore with his angel costume.
"Let me show you something more interesting," he said.
He slid back the closet door and lifted out a green canvas bag with stenciled black numbers. He pulled open the drawstrings, and the smell of ancient sweat and mothballs hit me. He withdrew a sword. The scabbard was black and decorated with silver swirls of flowers and vines, curving elegantly and ending in a metal thimble. The handle looked made of ivory, white with a deep black grain, capped with the head of a snarling lion. It's tongue hissed between its teeth and curled around to meet the blade. "This is a sword from your country. I never made Major," he said. "Isn't that funny? I only made Corporal. My buddies used to call me Major Corporal and salute." He held the sword in his palms as if it possessed the magic to hover between us. "Bought this in Saigon from a little old man selling trinkets on the roadside, mostly junk, bicycle wheels and dented tin mugs. He almost didn't sell it to me."
He turned it in his fingers, showing me every angle. The room had become thick with the Major's cologne.
He took the handle in one hand, the scabbard in the other, and unsheathed it. The blade flashed. He waved it, eyes moving with the sword's slow dance, reading a message in its steel that I couldn't see or understand. He fell into a half-crouch, all his weight in his bent knees, stepping to the balls of his feet, smoothing the air between us.
The sound was unlike anything I'd heard. Musical, but not a song—not a scream or a prayer. I closed my eyes and could feel it churning a few feet away, like standing on a ledge with the entire world blowing up at me.
He whispered, "Hold out your hand."
I reached out with two fists.
"No, like this." He turned my wrists and unfolded my fingers, then placed the flat of the blade in my palms. The sword wasn't heavy, yet felt solid, dense, as if there was more to it than engraved metal. It wasn't cold the way steel is cold—it was cold the way a grape leaf is cold, the trunk of a tree is cold.
"Hold out one finger." On the last joint he placed the flat of the blade. "Perfectly balanced," he said.
As it swayed there I pretended to read the engravings through my skin, imagining what a sword like this might say to a girl balancing a piece of Vietnam as far from her body as possible, at the very edge of her being.
My fingers snaked around the handle. I could feel speed in the edge of the blade, a weight that would jump in any direction my hands led it. I moved my wrists, the blade followed, impossible to go ungracefully.
"Hold it straight up," he said. "Think balance. Draw into your body. Raise your hands. Let the blade fall almost to your shoulder. Be in control, be balanced. Hold it there. Let it hover. Do you feel it?"
"Yes," I whispered.
"Levitate. Let the weight of the hilt do the work. Breathe. Be in control of your breath."
I filled my lungs, exhaled, felt my pulse in my hands. The blade floated above my sleeve, away from my ear. My eyes closed and I could hear the tidal roar of steel.
"When you're ready, when you feel in command, bring the sword down to the left, slashing down. Be aware of your body, your feet. Know where you are in the world. Don't let go until you're ready."
I waited for the sword to work through my hands.
The swing ignited, the blade followed, cutting out its place.
The tip of the sword floated a breath from the floor, and as soon as I saw it in my hands, it became too heavy for me to hold. The point fell first and the hilt met the ground with a crash.
My vision churned with spots. "I'm sorry," I said.
"No." His voice sang and he stepped toward me. He knelt, limbs all protruding corners, eyes burning with a blue flame. He reached toward me and his hand trembled. His fingertip traced my cheek, scratched across my lips.
"Hush," he said. A tinny laughter whistled from him. "Christ, I was only there three years. It was a lifetime ago." I held my breath as his palm lay down flat over my chest, my pounding heart, trembling. I wanted to back away but was held, somehow, by his open hand. His voice at a crescendo whisper said, "You are my orchid."
The room flooded with light, and I felt someone standing behind me. The Major's hand snapped back. He brushed his face but his mouth was twisted in a smile he couldn't scrape off, tall teeth and thin, bloodless lips.
I turned around, and there was my mother. Silence stretched.
"Come on, it wasn't that, Sheila," said the Major. "How long have you known me? Look," he said, picking up the sword and holding it to me, as if the offering would explain everything. "It's from Vietnam," he said.
"I'll see you rot," she hissed, grabbing my wrist and pulling me from the room. I stumbled to keep up, fell, but she dragged me to my feet again and we were outside, cutting through the party to my father. "What about your purse?" I kept saying, but she pulled me to the car, opened the door, loaded me. She caught my face between her hands and looked so hard into my eyes that I went silent.
"What did that man do to you," she said. "What did he do?"
My father stood next to her, bewildered.
"Take us home, Gene," she said, slamming my door. Through the car window I saw her face draw close to his ear. I expected her to cry, but when she turned to me, she steeled. Not a crack showed in her skin. I saw myself change in her eyes, become something I wasn't.
Daddy slipped in behind the wheel, my mother next to him. She rode close to him, their shoulders almost touching. He wouldn't look at me, not even flick his gaze to the rearview mirror, but she turned around and glared. Her stare covered me as if reading a confession. "You're going to tell me what happened in that room."
"Nothing," I said. I looked at my father's silent shape, at the neighborhood rushing by, all manicured trees and dormant chimneys, no fires. "He was just—You don't understand," I said. "That sword came from my country."
"This is your country, Amelia. We are your parents."
"Didn't you see Vietnam once? When you adopted me. You've never told me anything about it."
"What did it look like? How did they live there?" My mother's face slipped into blankness. She saw me, her daughter, her Amelia, but didn't recognize me. Her eyes danced with mine and we were strangers. "How come you won't tell me anything?" I said. "Are you scared I'll run back there?"
My father growled, "If you want to see Vietnam, I'll buy you a map. Books. Anything you want. I've got a good job, you know." He turned to my mother and, as if I'd vanished, said, "This is what I meant, Sheila. We weren't meant to be parents. There isn't a safe place in the whole world."
"Leave it alone, Gene," said my mother.
I wanted to stare them down, let my parents see what strength I could summon. I made a loose fist and could almost feel the rough of the handle, the weight of steel.
We lurched into our driveway. In one motion my father killed the engine and opened his door. He turned, said to both of us, "Maybe if you hadn't dressed her like a Saigon whore."
The car door slammed. My mother's chin pressed forward, jaw firm and straight, lips together in a flat smile. She touched my hair, curled a rope around her finger, held tight. "Don't listen to that talk, he's—Amelia, you've got to tell me what happened."
"I don't know," I told her.