People here knew me as the daughter of a eunuch. I grew up in Upper Đinh-Xuân in Central Vietnam with my foster father, a former grand eunuch of the Imperial Court of Huế. The villagers called him Sir Bộ because of the benefits awarded his own village in the deep south by the Mekong River, when he was formally chosen by the Ministry of Rites.
To everyone who asked about me, my father told the same story, that he adopted me as a newborn from an orphanage. His neighbors adored the little girl whose dark brown hair was curly with a soft sheen. Many women loved to touch the little girl’s nose. Then they laughed and giggled as they compared their own, short and flat, to mine. Pink and white bougainvillea dotted my village and a dirt path hemmed by hedges of bear’s breeches led to my father’s house. A flame tree stood outside the house. Year-round shade, as old as the earth. The loose foliage cast shifting light on the ground and in its broken shade the little girl would stop and pick up a flower cluster in scarlet. My father named me for the flame tree’s flowers. Phượng, a bright fire.
Always I had the urge to know where I came from. Yet I knew how different my father was from the living world, perhaps even from the netherworld, because he had been strange since birth. But I too was different from the rest of my child’s world. Childhood torments of my mixed race would come and go with time. Time. I remembered time. I remembered the secret of my birth forever denied me by my father.
I remember when I came home one afternoon, my father was sitting on the doorsteps, drying his hair in the sun. Each time I saw his long hair I thought he looked like a wizened old woman with a huge man’s body. He was reading parched, yellowed documents, and across his knees lay a long ivory bamboo tube, carved with flowers in red and yellow and lavender.
I knelt before him on the cement floor. The sunlight yellowed the paper scribbled with faded black letters. “What’re you reading?”
“Old documents from the court,” he said, rubbing his tired eyes. Then he rolled the opaque sheet up and slid it carefully back into the bamboo tube. “I keep all the important documents in this tube. Things about money and government pensions and the ownership of our house and property. You’ll find it behind the altar. When I die, you’ll know what to do.”
I could smell the light, fresh scent of honey locust lingering in his washed hair.
“If you die,” I said, “who’ll raise me?”
“I’ve thought about that. When that happens, you can move to the Temple of Guanyin and live there until you’re an adult. The abbot would arrange for the sale of the house, or you can return to it when you are older. He wouldn’t mind providing you a shelter and education on my behalf.” Deftly my father twisted his hair into a knot. He never used a hairpin to hold his chignon in place. “Do you want to live in the temple if I die?”
“I know no one there.”
“Sometimes one has to start all over again in life.” My father’s voice was calm. “I hope you understand that.”
“I’m not afraid. I know you’ll protect me from the other world.”
But what had he told me about the other world? When I said that, he cupped his large hands around mine, making them disappear. Then he said in his soul he didn’t fear dying, but he feared the hardship his death would bring me. He gazed at the phượng flower in my hair and, after some musing, removed it. I saw tiny day-old wrinkles in its petals.
“Father, can a eunuch have children?”
“No, he can’t.”
“Why can’t he?”
“Because eunuchs were males who were born with no sexual organs.”
“Is that why you couldn’t have children?”
My father grinned. “Did you do well with your presentation today?”
“Yes, but they laughed at me.”
“Did you talk about the rice served to the emperor? Or they laughed because you got it mixed up?”
“No. It came back to me. The town of An Cựu supplied the best quality rice grains. The imperial kitchen picked each grain and cooked the rice in a small clay pot made in the village of Phước Tích. The kitchen used a rice pot only once, one for every meal.”
“And they laughed at you? Why?”
“Our teacher was very impressed with my presentation. He asked who helped me. I told him in front of the class that my father was the former grand eunuch of the court.” I stopped, looked down at his gnarled hands. “At recess some of the kids yelled at me, ‘Daughter of a eunuch? That’s a miracle!’ They said other things too.”
“Let your teacher handle it,” my father said calmly. “Don’t react to them. That only goads them into more harassment.”
“They always come around, Father.” My even tone had him nodding. “I was upset, but I didn’t cry. Oh, you know something else? I thought how little I know about you.” I sat down beside my father. “I know so little about why you adopted me. Why?”
“I was old, and I’d never had a family of my own.”
“Were you lonely?”
Gently he put his arm around me.
“But why did you choose me?” I said. “Why not a pure Vietnamese baby?”
“Because . . . you looked like someone I once knew.”
“You never told me—what is a concubine?”
“A concubine is an emperor’s wife, but she’s not the queen. Our emperors used to have many wives.”
“How well did you know her?”
“I used to serve her. I was the grand eunuch for sixty-three years.”
“What is a grand eunuch?”
“A grand eunuch is the head of the imperial servants.”
“How long did you serve her, Father?”
“Nearly twenty years.”
“Was she as old as you when she died?”
“No, she died young, only in her thirties.” My father felt around in his cloth belt. “She gave me a gift once. I have it here.”
What he put in my palm was a phoenix pendant. “When you’re older, you can have it all the time if you wish.”
I held it up before my eyes. “Beautiful,” I said, my voice trailing.
“So was she, my dear. Beautiful to behold and in spirit.”
“Why did she give it to you?”
“Because I tended to her during her years as a concubine.”
“How did Ân-Phi become a concubine?”
“Her father offered her, his only daughter then at fifteen, to the next-to-last Nguyễn emperor. Not just anyone could do that. Her father, Sir Đông Các, was one of the four supreme mandarins of the Huế Court.”
I asked what the concubines dressed like, and he told me red, green, and blue. Silk, satin, and sometimes cotton. Never black or gold.
“And what about you, Father? What color was your dress?”
“Green for the senior eunuchs and blue for the junior.” He paused. His eyes had a faraway look. “Phượng,” he said finally, “Do you know why the concubines were forbidden to wear black or gold?”
“Because gold was for the emperor and black is the death color.” After he explained I told him Ân-Phi would look majestic in black. He puckered his lips and asked why.
“Because she must’ve had very beautiful skin, like me.”
“She had beautiful eyes too, like you.”
“Why’d you adore Ân-Phi, Father? Did you love her like you love me?”
“I don’t know. But if someone takes you away from me, I’d wither like a mummy.”
“I want to be with you always. How did she die?”
“She went mad after she became a civilian. She used to give her jewels to the poor on the street in her insanity. No one knows how she died.”
“Mad?” My eyes opened wide. “You didn’t wither after she died, Father, but you’d wither without me?”
He told me when Ân-Phi’s death came so suddenly and without warning, he felt something like withering, a shock that left him numb. The numbness, he said, however hard, eased with time, which as Heaven intends, healed every mortal wound.
In his silence I caressed the flowers etched on the bamboo tube and said, “The people at the orphanage didn’t tell you who gave me up?”
“They wouldn’t do that. It’s confidential.”
“What about your family? Will I ever meet them?”
He told me where he came from and how the anomaly of his sex made him a candidate for the palace eunuchs. “The court sent for me when I was ten,” he said. “Took weeks by sea, many days by river.” He told me that when he became the third-ranking palace eunuch, his father was exempted from labor tax for the rest of his life. He said his parents visited twice when he was still young. “The distance was so great back then and I wasn’t allowed to return to my birthplace once I became a palace eunuch.”
Hearing that, I rested my head against his side. “How awful to be alone, Father,” I said with a deep sigh.
He held me in his arms. I could feel him trembling.
My first introduction to Ân-Phi was at her grave. My father routinely traveled to the village cemetery in Gia-Linh to pay homage to Ân-Phi. After the Indochina war there was no one to tend Ân-Phi’s tomb―men and women had followed one another to the “new world” in Cochinchina where they found work on the French-owned rubber plantations―so my father took it upon himself to be the custodian. On those trips he carried me on his back as we traveled by ferry to Gia-Linh. Every few months he bought white pebbles in jute bags to replace any around her tomb that went yellow. Other times he filled chinks in the masonry walls or on the headstone with mortar, and during rainy seasons he scooped muddy water from waterlogged holes dug by wild dogs and rodents and then refilled them.
During his many visits, I watched my father, solemn in his green brocade robe, walking around the tomb to inspect the weather-damaged stonewall. Bedded with white gravel, the tomb sat under tall, swaying cypresses. He wore his palace garb only once or twice a year, always with an ivory tablet hanging on his chest. Once I played with it and saw that its smooth surface was inscribed with Chinese characters. He said they told his name and rank during his tenure in the Imperial Court.
The incense he burned sent spirals of gray smoke drifting in the breeze. He placed a bundle of yellow bananas, a few mangoes and pomegranates on a dish beneath the incense holder, then stood in front of the headstone and bowed three times.
I knelt by the headstone, reading the epitaph. I made out the words “Quỳnh Hương, Ân-Phi.”
I examined the names on the headstone. At eight, I could read both French and Vietnamese, but some of the Vietnamese words on the headstone were beyond my grasp. “Is Quỳnh Hương her name?”
My father squatted and dabbed my brow and cheeks with his handkerchief. “That was her name before she became a concubine,” he said. “It means princess flower.”
“So she was named after a flower like me?”
My father smiled. “Yes. And then she became Ân-Phi. That was her concubine title.” He folded the handkerchief away. “Every concubine had a title.”
I became familiar with the birds that nested in trees in the cemetery. A few times I spotted a family of crested mynas building their nest on a very tall tulip tree and, as I lay nestled in his lap, he told her how mynas kept their dwellings out of human sight. My father said Ân-Phi would be pleased to have such wondrous life around her.
One day I saw a flock of parrots descending from the sky to perch on the poon trees around the concubine’s tomb. It was noon and the earth around Ân-Phi’s tomb—my father had bought the finest soil to build the foundation—was bright yellow in the sun. The sky was soon full of the rustling of wings as another flock of parrots came screeching to join the first. Soon the trees were full of them, red-beaked and black-beaked, crackling the air with their cries. In one deafening rush of wings, the birds swooped to the ground and started pecking at the yellow soil as if they were catching earthworms I could not see. But to my astonishment they were eating the yellow dirt, not insects, and devouring it with a manic delight. Dust dulled their plumage, and soon one bird looked just like another. The white pebbles were no longer white, but yellow, like the headstone and the surrounding walls.
My father ran into the sea of birds, shooing them away with his conical hat. In a loud whoosh, the parrots took to the air. Just as he threw his hat at them, they descended to the ground again and resumed pecking at the yellow dirt. Soon so many were preening their plumage and eating in a frenzy that the ground was a canvas of colors—blue, red and green, all dusted in a yellow haze. My father didn’t know how to deter them. I yelled to him, “Throw rocks at them, Father!” But he shook his head firmly, said, “That’d upset Ân-Phi. She’d share all that was hers with the world’s creatures.”
My father was full of shame and guilt for having failed to keep Ân-Phi’s tomb sacrosanct. At home, all night he pondered the parrots and their behavior. Why did the birds ravage her tomb? Was Ân-Phi under some curse?
My father didn’t know what to believe, but he thought of refilling the ground with clay to buy peace of mind and then on second thought decided to use yellow dirt again to see if the birds would come back. Was it soil they craved, or was it a sign he needed to heed? Within two days, we were back in Gia-Linh. My father made several trips to the cemetery with a pushcart piled high with bags of the finest quality yellow dirt. While I scampered after butterflies fluttering among the graves, he filled the depressions around the tomb with yellow dirt. He finished late in the afternoon. Dusty and tired, he sat under the cypress as he had before and waited.
At sunset, I lay tired and resting across his lap. I saw the crested mynas returning to their nest on the tulip tree, but no parrots. At dusk we went home but returned to Gia-Linh the following morning. He took a seat beside Ân-Phi’s tomb and watched the sky. No parrots, red-beaked nor black, returned.
Then often I wondered if someone like my father, a born eunuch, could fall in love with a woman like Ân-Phi three decades younger. What had she left with him as indelible, years passed? Somehow I had the answers for such questions: age never played itself into my father’s life with Ân-Phi. His love for her was asexual then. I was amazed at how time could not purge that delicate love, neither possessed nor possessing, and the only reason for its timelessness I knew was that it sprang in response to the concubine’s transcendent beauty.
He passed on to me this image. By a lotus pond stood the concubine watching the maids pluck the lotus seedpods, her hair draped over her shoulder in one long, black swath. Her body was gracefully curved, one shoulder dipped slightly. When your gaze met hers, her eyelids drooped in a gentle curve, pensive and serene, and you smiled with absolute fullness.
I remember what my father once told me the day the last emperor had decreed the abrogation of the concubine system, which set free all concubines from the court, leaving each the right either to return to her family or to stay on to tend the previous emperor’s necropolis.
That night the grand eunuch wished Ân-Phi a good night’s sleep and left to return to his quarters. In the far corners of the garden foxfire glowed on dead wood. He stopped at a magnolia tree where Ân-Phi had hung a pot of dawn orchids on a branch. The tree was only her height the day she was inducted into the imperial palace and now it stood like a giant umbrella. She was going home. What would become of her?
From her chamber drifted the sound of piano, a melody he had never heard before. Every note clear, strung together like a garland of sorrow tossed out into the blackness of night.
Six years after Ân-Phi left the imperial palace, the last emperor of the Nguyễn dynasty abolished the age-old eunuch system. My father became a civilian following sixty-three years of serving the royal families.
With money he saved, my father built a house in the hamlet of Upper Đinh-Xuân. He was seventy-three years old when he settled in Upper Đinh-Xuân. Occasionally he visited his former fellows. One eunuch married a lady-in-waiting and their wedding became the village joke. Tham, his deputy, upon leaving the palace, married another eunuch. Bộ presided over their ceremony, blessed them and wished them many happy years together. He understood the urge to have a companion, man or woman, but chose loneliness rather than the persistent throb of longing.
Mornings, before the sun rose, he woke to the grand bell of the Temple of Guanyin, drank tea and then waded through the lotus pond in the back of his house to gather the dewdrops from each lotus leaf. He still treasured the taste of tea brewed with dewdrops.
Three months after he settled in Upper Đinh-Xuân, he came face-to-face with an aching void in him―he missed his many years with Ân-Phi.
At her parents’ estate in Gia-Linh, he announced his visit by knocking on the ironwood gate and kept knocking until his knuckles hurt. He listened and heard the doleful ah-oh of turtledoves in the morning stillness. He left and came back a few weeks later. He waited at the gate for a long time and left. Luckily he ran into a maid on her way back from the market. Bộ introduced himself and the maid made him wait outside the gate. Soon she came back out and, to his dismay, said that her master declined his visit because of Ân-Phi’s unstable mental condition.
Bộ thought of revisiting Ân-Phi many times but kept postponing his visit until he felt the time was right. After three more months he decided he had waited long enough.
Bộ did not have to wait long at Sir Đông Các’s residence. Ân-Phi’s father was in his early sixties, the only one left of the four supreme mandarins of the court—the French had ousted the rest. The house was warm. A brazier crackled under the mahogany divan. Bộ admired the ironwood pillars and crossbeams held together by mortise and tenon that gleamed, dustless.
Bộ immediately inquired about Ân-Phi. An uneasy silence fell.
“My daughter no longer lives here with our family,” Đông Các said.
“Where does she live now, Sir?”
“Let me consult with my wife. Please wait.”
Bộ drew a deep breath and leaned back in his chair. Đông Các returned. A corner of his mouth jerked as he said, “My daughter stays at the Thiên Lăng mausoleum.”
The deceased emperor’s concubines and some eunuchs had tended the sixty-year-old mausoleum of Emperor Tự Đức, nested among pine hills south of the capital, for many years. Originally there were 103 concubines, most of them long dead.
Bộ’s voice dropped. “May I ask why she stays there?”
“She was pregnant.”
“Sir? How?” Bộ’s voice suddenly rose. “Forgive me.”
The corner of Đông Các’s mouth twitched again. “It’s a mystery to us.”
Bộ arrived at Thiên Lăng at noon. He got off the ferry under the shade of a banyan tree. Distracted, he tripped over a huge serpentine root and lost his shoe—who had Ân-Phi let into her life? He trod across the Congregation Court between rows of stone elephants, horses, and life-size military and civil mandarins.
As he emerged from the Worship Hall, he shaded his eyes against the sun. A row of wooden shacks stood in the rear. By an earthen vat an old concubine squatted, washing clothes. She beat and wrung a garment on gray flagstone. He cleared his throat. The old concubine blinked her rheumy eyes and flashed a toothless smile.
“Aren’t you the grand eunuch? You came here some years ago.”
“Yes, Madam.” He remembered her too. She was in her nineties, having tended her emperor’s tomb for seventy-five years. He stooped and raised his voice slightly so she could hear. “I was told that Ân-Phi stays here.”
The concubine hung her head. Bộ thought she hadn’t heard him, but then she nodded.
“May I see her?”
The concubine rose with difficulty. “What is the purpose of your visit?”
“I used to serve her, Madam. I came because I’m concerned about her welfare.”
“That she’s expecting a baby?”
“Yes.” Bộ dabbed at his brow.
The concubine asked him to wait and went into the last shack on the row. When she returned, she brought a eunuch with her.
“Bộ,” the eunuch said, “it’s a surprise to see you here.” He beckoned for the older man to follow him to the last shack and ducked his head to enter. There was a bamboo cot in a corner with white mosquito netting around it. An old woman sat on a low stool by the cot, hunched over a pot of boiling water. She was the midwife. The old concubine shuffled to the cot and whispered into the mosquito net. Bộ heard a voice from inside and the concubine shuffled to the door, waving for the eunuchs to approach the cot. Then Bộ heard Ân-Phi’s voice clearly.
He came closer and she asked him to roll up the mosquito net. In the dim light her face was pale. Her hair was knotted above her nape and she lay under a woolen blanket, her belly huge. She hadn’t aged—she was as graceful as he remembered.
“Ân-Phi,” Bộ said, bowing, “it’s such a joy to see you again.”
Ân-Phi gestured for him to sit, so he lowered himself onto the stool, which was too small for him. The skin under her eyes was moist. “Tell me what you have done since I left.”
Bộ told her, eyes half downcast, and she nodded. “How are you, Ân-Phi?” He paused. “I mean in your mind. You were unwell at the end. I always worried about you after you left, wondered … if you were quite yourself.”
“I don’t remember much of those final months. But I remember you, Bộ. How could I ever forget you?”
Ân-Phi’s eyes narrowed in reflection. Her serenity made Bộ’s heart well with affection. How many years of her youth had been wasted?
He glanced at Ân-Phi’s belly and for a while neither of them spoke. She told him she would take an herbal medicine to induce labor, because her water had broken. Still numbed by her impending maternity, Bộ asked, “How did your pregnancy come about, Ân-Phi?”
She laced her fingers on her chest. Sadness filled her face.
“Do you know what happened to you, Ân-Phi?”
“Were you clear-minded, Ân-Phi?” He kept his voice even.
Again she nodded.
“Someone who won your heart, Ân-Phi?”
She shook her head. Bộ didn’t dare ask anything further.
“My father sold me to a French general. He drugged me and took me.”
Bộ suddenly leaned back, lost his balance on the small chair.
“My father kept his position with the court.”
After Ân-Phi took the herbal medicine she went into labor. From outside Bộ could hear the midwife coaxing her to push, then her moans, then screams. Bộ felt shrunk. He sat down on his heels. With each of her cries he felt a pain cut deep into his bowels. Stubborn pain. He heard the midwife, “This can sap your strength quickly and make all your bones ache.” He rose slowly to his feet, thinking of all the suffering it took to create life.
An hour later Ân-Phi delivered a girl. Then she began to bleed.
Inside the shack three candles burned brightly. A wicker basket sat on the cot beside Ân-Phi. In it was a tiny baby wrapped in blankets. The infant’s cries pierced the quiet. The midwife held a white towel, blotched crimson. Ân-Phi lay still, sweat glistening on her brow, her eyes half closed, gazing down on her baby. Her lips bled. She must have bitten down on them hard.
Bộ bent over the women, his voice shaking. “What can we do to stop the bleeding?”
The midwife folded the towel in half and slipped it under Ân-Phi’s blanket. “Give her some spinach.”
The old concubine ground spinach in a mortar, added water and made Ân-Phi drink. She sipped, one hand holding the basket in which the infant mewled, stopped, then began again.
“Did you feed the baby?” Bộ asked.
The midwife said, “She cries, but not because she’s hungry.”
“Bộ.” At her weak voice, Bộ knelt by the cot. “Ân-Phi,” he said softly.
Ân-Phi opened her eyes. “Bộ,” came her whisper, “in my life as a concubine . . .” She paused, wet her lips. “I counted on you, you served me since I was fifteen, I always turned to you for advice, you had my unspoken trust . . .”
Bộ bowed in silence. Ân-Phi drew her breath in. “Bộ.” She half opened her eyes to look at him. “Can I count on you now?”
“I am at your service, Ân-Phi.”
“If I die, will you take care of my daughter?”
The yes was in his heart before his mind could acknowledge it. Ân-Phi stopped talking when the midwife changed the towels and the old concubine dunked two blood-soaked towels in a pail of water. It reddened quickly. Ân-Phi drank another cup of spinach water. Her voice was hoarse.
“I’m grateful to you, Bộ. Can you promise me—” she paused and Bộ leaned toward her “—that you will never tell my daughter who I am, how she came into the world?”
“Ân-Phi,” Bộ said. “She will want to know you.”
“Bộ.” Ân-Phi tried to focus on him. “I had a pair of ruby phoenixes. The emperor gave them to my father as a gift. And in one of my spells of insanity I gave one ruby to a beggar on the street. I want my daughter to have the one I have left.” She stopped, her breathing shallow.
The midwife made her drink another cup of water and her hands shook as she held the cup. The midwife replaced the third towel with a fresh one. A brass pan sat on the fire. The old concubine dropped the blood-sodden towels into the boiling water and stirred them.
Ân-Phi closed her eyes to rest. She felt Bộ wait beside her cot. Steam warmed the room as the soiled towels were boiled, washed, and wrung. Sometime in the evening the old concubine began to feed the infant. Ân-Phi asked to see the baby. Her eyes runny, she blinked to see the tiny human stir with busy movements and when she could not see them anymore without straining her eyes, she touched the baby. The soft skin warmed her heart.
The midwife changed towels, then felt Ân-Phi’s feet. “Getting cold,” she said and started to rub the insteps. Ân-Phi shivered. She asked to hold her baby. Bộ took another blanket from the midwife and gently covered the baby with it and then the old concubine gave Ân-Phi a quilted one. He stood by her bed, praying silently. Cradling the baby on her chest, Ân-Phi’s teeth chattered even after they covered her with two blankets. The old concubine found a coal brazier, built a fire and put it under her cot.
The baby cried and then fell asleep on Ân-Phi’s chest. The three candles burned down, dripping wax onto the hollow dish. In the quiet the coals popped with a warm glow. Bộ sat on the small chair, keeping vigil.
As he looked on, Ân-Phi left.
In my deceased father’s room I sat down on the carved rosewood bed. Hunched between the parted panels of the yellow mosquito net, I sat amidst my father’s belongings—the bed, its embroidered mat, the porcelain pillow, the tea, the rice liquor, the areca-nuts and betel leaves and a tiny pot of lime. They were here for him when he returned in spirit.
For many years now I had replenished them every morning so that when he arrived nothing was missing, nothing was stale. He could read his favorite books. He could write, as was his passion, in his annals. He would find again his ironwood scepter, jade shrubs, his chess men in green and white jade, chopsticks made of kim-giao white wood that turned black against any sort of poison. They were arranged there under glass.
My father died peacefully in his sleep one morning after his tea ritual. On that day, having drunk a third cup of tea, I took his hand and led him to the door. Outside on the doorstep I held his hand and stood beside him. Three steps went down, and he still let me walk him after all the years.
“Father,” I said softly.
“What is it?”
“Our flame tree is covered in red.”
About the Author: Khanh Ha’s debut novel is FLESH (June 2012, Black Heron Press). His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Outside in Literary & Travel Magazine, Red Savina Review (RSR), Cigale Literary Magazine, Mobius, DUCTS, Lunch Ticket, The Mascara Literary Review, Glint Literary Journal, WIPs Journal, Squawk Back, The Missing Slate, storySouth, Crack the Spine, Zymbol, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Sugar Mule, Yellow Medicine Review, The Underground Voices, Tethered by Letters, and The Long Story. His work has also been shortlisted for awards and twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Sundress Publications Best of the Net Award.