with hatred, shame, hatred. So she sat, rocking herself, and waited. Perhaps this was the only way. Nathalie would stay here. She had decided her own fate under the banana tree.
After that night, Lan awoke each morning with a new vitality. The house was filled with sweet smelling fruit, oranges, apples, bananas, mangosteens. Every night, there was meat on the table. She went out to the field as soon as the rooster cawed its song and stretched its long neck toward the rising sun. Nathalie still took her nightly walk. But Lan no longer stayed up and waited. She merely fell asleep each night, feeling peace and excitement as she pictured the days ahead.
Soon the day came when Nathan received his scholarship. Four years in the U.K. The three of them huddled together that night. She had cried greatly but did not feel too much of a loss.
“I’ll call every week, Ma.”
“You all say that. Cory and Amy did too. How often do you hear from them?”
“I won’t be like them. I promise.” He appealed with red eyes.
“I know.” She stroked his back till he fell asleep.
“Mama?” Nathalie muttered. Over the course of two months, her face had grown noticeably round and ruddy.
“Hm?” Lan asked, her left hand still patting Nathan’s back.
“Do you think I’ll ever get to go? Overseas I mean? I miss Amy. I’m applying for a scholarship in Singapore, Ma. I’m not as smart as them, though.”
“Be quiet. You are the smartest of all. But going isn’t always as great as you think. You will have to do everything by yourself, it will be very hard. You are not used to it—you won’t like it much.”
“I can get used to it, Ma. I want you to be proud of me, as proud as you are of Cory.”
“I am proud of you.” She sighed heavily. “Darling, how many times will your brothers and sisters actually see me in their life? Have you thought of that? I’m old. I might live for perhaps twenty more years. If they come see me once a year at their best effort, that’s twenty times. Twenty in a lifetime that I will see my children again.”
Many more weeks went by. Lan pretended not to notice her daughter’s mood swings and continued to pass the best pieces of meat to her at the dinner table. The girl winced but swallowed obediently. Nathan had already gone. It was just the two of them now.
It poured. The rain flooded the meadow, the yard, the house. Lan sniffed the air—sweet and muddy. Nathalie was nowhere to be found. She was not at any of the usual spots, at home in her favorite chair reading her brothers’ letters, or under the banana tree. She called her daughter’s name, but her voice was drowned by the roaring thunder. She went out, knees deep in water, with the rain prickling her eyelids, her mouth. Keeping her eyes shut and only glimpsing every now and then in the distance, she saw, on top of the mound of sand and construction debris in front of the village’s elementary school, a large block of wood rolling. Then at the bottom of the slope, the block of wood stood up, climbed back up, and rolled down again. For a moment, she stood still, puzzled and watching the gray figure. Then she gasped, her breath short but sharp. Against the foamy torrent, she ran toward the school.
“You dumb child! What are you doing!” she shouted. She looked at Nathalie fearfully. “What are you doing? What are you doing?”
Nathalie slumped to the ground like a rock. Her soaked shirt clung to her ribs and the round, swelling bump on her stomach. “Ma! I’m so sorry. I’ve ruined everything.” Her hands clutched at a crumpled piece of paper. She unfolded it shakily. “Look, Ma. I got accepted. The fall of 2012, it says. I’m going to the International School of Business and Management. I’m going…” She trailed off.
Lan bent down next to Nathalie, covered the girl’s body with her frail arms. Flashes of lightning lit up the sky. Though they could not hear each other, they were both crying.
Lan spread cotton sheets on the floor and filled a large tub with warm water. Up until this point, they had not discussed what to do. When Lan spoke with Cory on the phone, she looked over at Nathalie and the girl put a finger to her lips, silencing the impending news. Amy was visiting in August; she would find out for herself. As for Cory and Nathan, they probably wouldn’t know what to make of it. It was best to save them the awkward reaction.
The house was bathed in fresh sunlight, which shone through the baby’s paper-thin skin. He arrived so quietly and with so little fuss that Lan had to pinch his cheek so he could cry. After gently wiping him clean, she turned to Nathalie.
“Do you want him?” Lan rocked the baby in her arms. “Whatever your choice is, I can take care of it.”
Nathalie looked at her gratefully. “No, Ma. No—no, of course not. Thanks for helping me—” She put the wrapped-up baby into Nathalie’s arms. The baby found its food, and fed hungrily.
For months, the baby didn’t have a name. He wailed, the soft skin on his forehead wrinkled. His mouth grimaced and he refused to drink from his mother.
“It’s like he’s your baby, not mine,” Nathalie said with a tinge of sadness. It was true, as soon as Nathalie handed him to Lan, the baby wriggled quietly and grinned a toothless smile. Sometimes he’d burst into a succession of giggles. When he couldn’t stop, he’d hiccup, eyes still smiling.
“An, that’s his name,” she suggested and Nathalie agreed.
“It means peace, right, Ma?”
“Yes, I feel peace,” Lan answered, not listening.
Nathalie started going to school again. She was a bright girl and it didn’t take her long to catch up in all her classes. Grades were not a problem. It was her classmates and the professors. Her friends were glad of the “tragedy”. Nathalie was smart, pretty, but now she wasn’t perfect anymore. Though they didn’t say it, Nathalie could feel their secret celebration. And her teachers, they looked at her with such pity. You could have had such a bright future, their faces seemed to scold.
Nathalie still studied at the oil lamp every night, but no longer with any enthusiasm. She couldn’t see a purpose in it. What would she do? She had to do something to take care of An. She yawned and scribbled heartlessly on the blank page.
“Mm? He’s asleep now.” Lan put the baby down next to her and resumed knitting a sweater.
“Perhaps I should quit school. Get a job.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“But I can’t do anything now, Ma. Graduating from a village’s school. It means nothing. You know that. I could help you out on the field.”
“I have no job in the field for you. I have already accepted the scholarship for you. I took the mail yesterday. You’re going in the fall.”
“What? Ma! What about An?” Nathalie looked from Lan to the baby.
“I can take care of him. Can’t I An?” She smiled wistfully at his sleeping face.
“No child of mine can leave without one.”