I walk around the city, trying to find traces of her ashes. I’ve been to her final resting place and only a black smear remains on the concrete, a shadow of what she has done.
I want to know what possessed her, what made her become a martyr to a cause that my family already knows is lost, the fight for freedom.
Beggars come up to me, palms outstretched, and I ignore them. They are part of the city, and it doesn’t matter who is in power for them nothing changes. Only the rich like us have the luxury of thought, and the educated like the students that protest against President Diem.
Since her death I have viewed everything strangely, as if life itself has been tipped at an angle. I’m angry that she did not tell me, that in her final days she confided in monks and nuns instead of her own blood. I risked ostracisation by father by keeping in contact with her, bringing her snacks to eat, still supporting her even after family had disowned her.
She bemoaned of being understood, that no one understood her decision to join the bonzes, that we were all too materialistic and did not care about the spirit. Father said that she was a spoilt brat, that money put food on the table, and if she wanted to leave the family and starve to death that was fine by him.
Self consciously I finger the gold chain around my neck with the jade pendant like a green teardrop a weight around my soul. Father gave it to me after she left, and he would not have spared the expense on his first daughter otherwise if he had to still support the second. It was my reward for being obedient, and going through with the match making.
She had given up everything and this too I don’t understand. Only money protects against the vagaries of politics, father had sent eldest brother away overseas to be educated. I am going to be married into a family with import and export business, Vietnam is not the future, the future is in the West so father says.
I’m very lucky.
Hien would have been very lucky too had she stayed.
I sit down at a cafe across the road from the black shadow, to rest and contemplate. I do not want to return home just yet, father’s temper is white hot at the moment and we bear the brunt of what he does not want to admit.
Bloody Buddhists, he had raged after the news had reached him. They are a brainwashing cult. No daughter of mine would do such an action.
I watch my coffee drip from the percolator into the glass, dripping like the misery I now bear. There is no place for her picture on the family shrine, she is disowned. I carry her picture in my heart and mind. But I can only remember the last time I visited her.
Her head was shaven and it made her look vulnerable, a prisoner of war. The grey robes did not suit her, she looked washed out. But her eyes were glowing in a way I had never seen at home.
“I am finding peace,” she told me, expecting me to be happy for her.
Under the tree where we met I could hear the low chanting of monks like the washing of waves upon a shore.
“Every day we serve, except on the seventh day when we meditate,” she described to me.
Dealing with the poor and injured, the people my family abhor.
You are just going through a stage, I thought to myself in my smug superiority. I thought that she was just rebelling against everything we had been taught to get back at father.
She was always jealous of me and the attention father lavished on me.
It was guilt that made me visit her, so I told myself. If I was not the apple of my father’s eye maybe she would have stayed.
Mother knew of my visits, always when father was out on business. We never spoke of it but she gave me sticky rice cakes in the morning when I said I was going to visit friends.
We were just women, and even this defiance of my father had me wondering in fear every evening what he would do if he found out.
Now I look back and I see the signs were there.
“Diem cannot get away with oppressing us. He favours the Catholics and he has arrested so many of us.”
The “us” disturbed me. She so eagerly adopted into their fold.
It was enough to make father think of turning Catholic, almost. When Hien left he did not speak to us for a week. He had not gone to the temple to bless his business since she had left. But business had prospered regardless.
Mother and I went to the temple when father was away. Mother asked the bonze there for guidance, Hien had run away to the most radical of the temples, the bonze that our family came to stayed out of politics.
The bonze stayed out of our family politics too.
“She has found a path, and maybe her path is different to yours,” he counselled me when I burst into tears.
He did not suggest that we bring her back, although father spoke about it, he did not even want to admit to the neighbours that Hien had run away. To send someone to bring her back would be to admit that she had left in the first place.
Father did try himself to visit the temple and drag his recaltriant daughter home. But when he returned without her and did not speak, we did not dare ask what had happened.
Hien told me herself when I visited her for the first time, initially to try and ask her back when father had failed.
“The Buddhists here recognise that I have found the true path. I have shed all familial ties and now belong only to the congregation,” she told me serenely.
With sinking heart I realised that she had gone from us already. She had discarded us like a chameleon shedding skin, the ungrateful brat, I thought then.
“Father had done so much for us,“ I argued and then the true reason became apparent.
“Father has done so much for you and eldest brother,” she retorted.
I understood then it was jealousy, not filial piety that drove her. She was a disobedient daughter not supporting me and eldest brother.
Then she said the words that most challenged my heart.
“The Confucians are wrong,” she declared. “All people are equal and deserve enlightenment. In the temple we are all treated equally. It does not matter what family I have come from.”
I left her in a rage that first time. I was my father’s daughter. I did not tell our parents of my visit. But the illusion that I could succeed where father could not was shattered.
I sip my coffee with condensed milk. Usually this gives me pleasure this French luxury.
But today the sweetness sits heavy on my tongue like my memories and my guilt.
This is what she gave up, the little things that make my life worthwhile.
I remember when she used to cry in protest at how father treated her, and I would comfort her by giving her the lollies he had given me. It was not her fault that she was not the boy my father wanted.
She was not anything that father wanted.
I look at my watch and the growing shadows. Soon I will have to return home to the silent rage that father keeps stoked around him. Not even I could please him anymore, he wants my marriage to hurry up so he won’t have to worry about any daughters anymore.
I too welcome an escape from my mother who is now clinging to me like a burr. When I said I was visiting friends this morning, I received no rice cake. Instead she made me promise I would come home.
I heard the bells and the crackle of loudspeakers. “A matryr is dead!” the cry came, and the street gossip spread like the fire that would have consumed her, it is a woman- all the more shocking- a woman who had set herself alight.
“Burn them all. Have a barbeque.” President Diem’s wife declared.
I had ignored the people running to the scene, another crazy Buddhist I thought.
But later when I went to the temple and saw the mourning and celebration there my heart sank. I expected to see Hien, her eyes ablaze with rebellious fire celebrating the death of another monk.
Instead I saw her picture at the shrine, larger than life. The photograph was smiling, defiant, at least in the photo she was happy, happier than I had ever seen her.
“How did you let this happen?” I screamed at the initiate whom tended the shrine.
“It is her true path sister,” he told me and I wanted to belt him across the face, the same way father did to Hien when she defied him.
“You are supposed to treasure life! Who told her to kill herself?” I accused the one monk who came to ask me what I wanted at the shrine.
“She chose her path. We only prepared her for it.” The monk told me serenely.
“You are responsible for her death,” I said slowly, my words turning my face ugly.
“She is blessed and a martyr.” The initiate told me and I was struck by a sense of wrongness.
I fled the temple and her shrine and ran home. By then father and mother knew and father was locked in his study. We could hear him opening a bottle of whisky and smashing the glass against the wall.
We cowered and I dare not speak my feelings aloud, growing like a snake inside my stomach threatening to break out.
I cannot finish my coffee. Even now the snake coils in my stomach making me sick.
My emotions are rippling across my face and I still them. I want to run to the shadow on the concrete and scrub out the blackness, as if I can erase what she has done.
All for freedom. Curse the politics, I thought and my thoughts turn hard against President Diem and his wife whose policies had driven Hien to such extremes. Not only the Buddhists are to blame.
Now father will erase Hien from our family history, obliterate all ties with her. Otherwise he would be seen as a Buddhist sympathiser and dangerous to the government.
Tonight I am having a dinner with my betrothed family and I should have been looking forward to it- it is my escape from the blaming silence in the house. Father will have to speak, he will have to act as if nothing has happened. He cannot hit me or mother when there are guests, and he dares not mark my skin in case my future family finds out.
But right now I feel like I will choke on it.
“Is everything all right madam?” The proprieter comes up and greets me.
“My sister died a few days ago.” I tell her this much of the truth.
“Ah. My condolences.” She withdraws and leaves me to my musing.
Across the road I see an initiate approach the site of the burning. He carries a branch of frangipani flowers. How does he know it is my sister’s favourite?
He lays it down a respectful distance from the site of immolation and bows three times to the spot. Then he leaves. I see a man in army uniform follow where the initiate has gone. I do not dare cross the street and show interest in the remains of her protest.
I leave dong on the table for the coffee and depart from the coffee shop to go home.
She died for the freedom that she and I will never have.
I cannot grieve enough for Hien.