About the Author
Vaddey Ratner was five years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. In 1981 she arrived in the United States as a refugee not knowing English and ultimately went on to graduate summa cum laude from Cornell University. She lives in Potomac, Maryland.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
In the Shadow of the Banyan
War entered my childhood world not with the blasts of rockets and bombs but with my father’s footsteps as he walked through the hallway, passing my bedroom toward his. I heard the door open and shut with a soft click. I slid off my bed, careful not to wake Radana in her crib, and snuck out of my room. I pressed my ear to the door and listened.
“Are you all right?” Mama sounded concerned.
Each day before dawn, Papa would go out for a solitary stroll, and returning an hour or so later, he would bring back with him the sights and sounds of the city, from which would emerge the poems he read aloud to me. This morning, though, it seemed he came back as soon as he’d stepped out, for dawn had just arrived and the feel of night had yet to dissipate. Silence trailed his every step like the remnant of a dream long after waking. I imagined him lying next to Mama now, his eyes closed as he listened to her voice, the comfort it gave him amidst the clamor of his own thoughts.
“Nothing, darling,” Papa said.
“What is it?” she persisted.
A deep, long sigh, then finally he said, “The streets are filled with people, Aana. Homeless, hungry, desperate . . .” He paused, the bed creaked, and I imagined him turning to face her, their cheeks on the same long pillow, as I’d often seen. “The miseries—”
“No matter what awfulness is out there,” Mama cut in gently, “I know you will take care of us.”
A breathless silence. I imagined her lips pressed against his. I blushed.
“There!” she exclaimed, the insouciant ring and chime of her voice returning. Then came the sound of slatted shutters being opened, like wooden birds released, suddenly taking flight. “The sun is brilliant!” she enthused, and with these easy words chased away the morning’s gravity, threw “Nothing” back out the gates like a stray cat that had clawed its way onto Papa’s shoulder.
A shaft of light fell on the front of the house and spilled into the open hallway from the balcony. I imagined it a celestial carpet thrown from the heavens by a careless tevoda—an angel. I ran toward it, my steps unencumbered by the metal brace and shoes I normally wore to correct the limp in my right leg.
Outside, the sun rose through the luxuriant green foliage of the courtyard. It yawned and stretched, like an infant deity poking its long multiple arms through the leaves and branches. It was April, the tail end of the dry season, and it was only a matter of time before the monsoon arrived, bringing with it rains and relief from the heat and humidity. Meanwhile the whole house was hot and stuffy, like the inside of a balloon. I was slick with sweat. Still, New Year was coming, and after all the waiting and wondering, we’d finally have a celebration!
“Up, up, up!” came a cry from the cooking pavilion. It was Om Bao, her voice as voluminous as her ample figure, which resembled an overstuffed burlap rice sack.
“Pick up your lazy heads!” she clucked urgently. “Hurry, hurry, hurry!”
I ran around the balcony to the side of the house and saw her roll back and forth between the women’s lower house and the cooking pavilion, her sandals smacking the dirt with impatience. “Wash your faces, brush your teeth!” she ordered, clapping as she chased a row of sleepy servant girls to the clay vats lining the wall outside the cooking pavilion. “Oey, oey, oey, the sun has risen and so should your behinds!” She whacked one of the girls on the bottom. “You’ll miss the Tiger’s last roar and the Rabbit’s first hop!”
The Tiger and the Rabbit were lunar years, one ending and the other beginning. Khmer New Year is always celebrated in April, and this year—1975—it was to fall on the seventeenth, just a few days away. In our house, preparations would customarily begin long in advance for all the Buddhist ceremonies and garden parties thrown during the celebration. This year, because of the fighting, Papa didn’t want us to celebrate. New Year was a time of cleansing, he reminded us, a time of renewal. And as long as there was fighting in the countryside, driving refugees into our city streets, it would be wrong for us to be celebrating anything. Fortunately, Mama disagreed. If there was a time to celebrate, she argued, it was now. A New Year’s party would chase away all that was bad and usher in all that was good.
I turned and caught a glimpse of Mama standing in the corner of the balcony just outside her bedroom, lifting her hair to cool the nape of her neck. Slowly she let the strands fall in gossamer layers down the length of her back. A butterfly preening herself. A line from one of Papa’s poems. I blinked. She vanished.
I rushed to the broom closet at the back of the house, where I’d hidden my brace and shoes the day before, pretending I’d lost track of them so I wouldn’t have to suffer them in this heat. Mama must’ve suspected, for she said, Tomorrow then. First thing in the morning you must put them on. I’m sure you’ll find them by then. I pulled them out of the closet, strapped on the brace as quickly as possible, and slipped on the shoes, the right one slightly higher than the left to make my legs equal in length.
“Raami, you crazy child!” a voice called out to me as I clomped past the half-open balcony door of my bedroom. It was Milk Mother, my nanny. “Come back inside this minute!”
I froze, expecting her to come out and yank me back into the room, but she didn’t. I resumed my journey, circling the balcony that wrapped itself around the house. Where is she? Where’s Mama? I ran past my parents’ room. The slatted balcony doors were wide open, and I saw Papa now sitting in his rattan chair by one of the windows, notebook and pen in hand, eyes lowered in concentration, impervious to his surroundings. A god waxing lyrical out of the silence . . . Another line from another of his poems, which I always thought described him perfectly. When Papa wrote, not even an earthquake could disturb him. At present, he certainly took no notice of me.
There was no sign of Mama. I looked up and down the stairway, over the balcony railings, through the open doorway of the citrus garden. She was nowhere to be seen. It was as I’d suspected all along—Mama was a ghost! A spirit that floated in and out of the house. A firefly that glowed and glimmered, here one second, gone the next. And now she’d vanished into thin air! Zrup! Just like that.
“Do you hear me, Raami?”
Sometimes I wished Milk Mother would just disappear. But, unlike Mama, she was always around, constantly watching over me, like one of those geckos that scaled the walls, chiming, Tikkaer, tikkaer! I felt her, heard her from every corner of the house. “I said come back!” she bellowed, rattling the morning peace.
I made a sharp right, ran down the long hallway through the middle of the house, and finally ended up back at the spot on the balcony in the front where I had started. Still no Mama. Hide-and-seek, I thought, huffing and puffing in the heat. Hide-and-seek with a spirit was no easy game.
Pchkhooo! An explosion sounded in the distance. My heart thumped a bit faster.
“Where are you, you crazy child?” again came Milk Mother’s voice.
I pretended not to hear her, resting my chin on the carved railing of the balcony. A tiny pale pink butterfly, with wings as delicate as bougainvillea petals, flew up from the gardens below and landed on the railing, near my face. I stilled myself. It heaved as if exhausted from its long flight, its wings opening and closing, like a pair of fans waving away the morning heat. Mama? In one of her guises? No, it was what it appeared to be—a baby butterfly. So delicate it seemed to have just emerged from a chrysalis. Maybe it was looking for its mother, I thought, just as I was for mine. “Don’t worry,” I whispered. “She’s here somewhere.” I moved my hand to pet it, to reassure it, but it flew away at my touch.
In the courtyard something stirred. I peered down and saw Old Boy come out to water the gardens. He walked like a shadow; his steps made no sound. He picked up the hose and filled the lotus pond until the water flowed over the rim. He sprayed the gardenias and orchids. He sprinkled the jasmines. He trimmed the torch gingers and gathered their red flame-like blossoms into a bouquet, which he tied with a piece of vine and then set aside, as he continued working. Butterflies of all colors hovered around him, as if he were a tree stalk and his straw hat a giant yellow blossom. Om Bao suddenly appeared among them, coquettish and coy, acting not at all like our middle-aged cook but a young girl in the full bloom of youth. Old Boy broke a stem of red frangipani blossoms, brushed it against her cheek, and handed it to her.
“Answer me!” Milk Mother thundered.
Om Bao scurried away. Old Boy looked up, saw me, and blushed. But finding his bearings right away, he took off his hat and, bowing at the waist, offered me a sampeah, palms together like a lotus in front of his face, a traditional Cambodian greeting. He bowed because he was the servant and I his master, even though he was ancient and I was, as Milk Mother put it, “just a spit past seven.” I returned Old Boy’s sampeah, and, unable to help myself, bowed also. He flashed me his gappy grin, perhaps sensing his secret would be safe.
Someone was coming. Old Boy turned in the direction of the footsteps.
She made her way toward him, her steps serene, unhurried. A rainbow gliding through a field of flowers . . . Again a line fluttered through my mind. Though I was no poet, I was the daughter of one and often saw the world through my father’s words.
“Good morning, my lady,” Old Boy said, gaze lowered, hat held against his chest.
She returned his greeting and, looking at the lotuses, said, “It is so hot and now they’ve closed again.” She sighed. Lotuses were her favorite blossoms, and even though they were flowers for the gods, Mama always asked for an offering to herself every morning. “I was hoping to have at least one open bloom.”
“And you shall, my lady,” Old Boy reassured. “I cut some before dawn and placed them in iced water so that the petals stay open. I shall bring up the vase to your room when His Highness finishes composing.”
“I can always count on you.” She beamed at him. “Also, would you make a bouquet of the closed buds for me to take to the temple?”
“As you wish, my lady.”
Again, Old Boy bowed, keeping his gaze lowered until she’d floated past him. She ascended the stairs, her right hand pressed on the flap of her silk sampot to keep her steps small and modest. At the top, she stopped and smiled at me. “Oh good, you found your brace and shoes!”
“I’ve practiced walking slowly in them!”
She laughed. “Have you?”
“One day I want to walk like you!”
Mama’s face went still. She glided over to me and, bending down to my level, said, “I don’t care how you walk, darling.”
It wasn’t the pinch of the brace or the squeeze of the shoes, or even what I saw when I looked in the mirror that pained me the most. It was the sadness in Mama’s eyes when I mentioned my leg. For this reason, I rarely brought it up.
“No, I don’t . . . I’m grateful you can walk at all.”
She smiled, her radiance returning.
I stood still and held my breath, thinking if I so much as breathed, she’d disappear. She bent down again and kissed the top of my head, her hair spilling over me like monsoon rain. I took my chance and breathed in her fragrance—this mystery she wore like perfume. “It’s good to see that someone is enjoying this stifling air,” she said, laughing, as if my oddness was as much an enigma to her as her loveliness was to me. I blinked. She glided away, her entire being porous as sunlight.
Poetry is like that, Papa said. It can come to you in an intake of breath, vanish again in the blink of an eye, and first all you’ll have is
A line weaving through your mind
Like the tail of a child’s kite
Unfettered by reason or rhyme.
Then, he said, comes the rest—the kite, the story itself. A complete entity.
“Oey, oey, oey, there’s not a minute to waste!” Om Bao rattled on from below. “The floor must be mopped and waxed, the carpets dusted and sunned, the china arranged, the silver polished, the silk smoothed and perfumed. Oey, oey, oey, so much to do, so much to do!”
The branches of the banyan tree in the middle of the courtyard stirred and the leaves danced. Some of the branches were so long they reached all the way to the balcony, the shadows of their leaves covering my body like patches of silk. I twirled, arms stretched out, mumbling an incantation to myself, calling forth the tevodas, “Skinny One, Plump One . . .”
“And just what are you doing?”
I swung around. There was Milk Mother in the doorway with Radana on her hip. Radana squirmed down to the floor and immediately started stomping on the shadows with her chubby feet, the tiny, diamond-studded bells on her anklets jingling chaotically. It was normal for Cambodian children to be covered with expensive jewelry, and my much-adored toddling sister was bedecked in the most extravagant way, with a platinum necklace and a tiny pair of hoop earrings to match her anklets. This was not a child, I thought. She was a night bazaar!
As she toddled around, I pretended she had polio and a limp like me. I knew I shouldn’t wish it on her, but sometimes I couldn’t help it. Despite her bumbling and babyness, you could already tell Radana would grow up to look just like Mama.
“Eeei!” she squealed, catching a glimpse of Mama floating through one of the doorways and, before Milk Mother could stop her, she ran jingling through the hallway, calling out, “Mhum mhum mhum . . .”
Milk Mother turned back to me and asked again, with obvious annoyance, “Just what are you doing?”
“Summoning the tevodas,” I told her, grinning from ear to ear.
“Yes, I’d like to meet them this year.”
No one ever met the tevodas, of course. They were spirits and, as with all things spectral, they lived in our imaginations. Milk Mother’s tevodas—at least as she’d described them to me—sounded suspiciously familiar. With names like Skinny One, Plump One, and Dark One, I’d say she was describing herself, Om Bao, and Old Boy. By contrast, my tevodas looked nothing like me, but were as lovely as court dancers, wearing their finest silk and diadems with spires reaching all the way to the sky.
Milk Mother wasn’t listening to me, her ear tuned to a different kind of noise. Pchkooo! Again, the tremor of an explosion. She strained to hear, her head tilted in the direction of the din.
The explosions worsened. Pchkooo pchkooo pchkooo! A series of them now, just as I’d heard in the night.
Turning to me, Milk Mother said, “Darling, I don’t think you should put too much hope on the tevodas coming this year.”
She took a deep breath, seemed about to explain, but then said, “Did you wash yet?”
“No—but I was about to!”
She shot me a disapproving look and, nodding in the direction of the bath pavilion, said impatiently, “Go on then.”
“No arguing. Grandmother Queen will join the family for breakfast, and you, my bug, cannot be late.”
“Oh no, Grandmother Queen! Why ...
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