Night over The Red Trees. Clarisse rises from the bed, casting a glance at the moonlight that slowly seeps into the room. Raoul, asleep in his bed with his arms outstretched towards her, groans and shifts, looking for her, but he does not wake up. He used to, when she first came here months ago; but he soon got used to her wandering through the house every night—and tonight of all nights, he knows she won’t be able to sleep.
Within her, the magic pulses—a steady beat like the waves of the sea, like the call of a drum—but she’s been listening to it for months, and she knows that this night is its last night. After all, nothing lasts forever, not even the spirits’ gifts.
Tonight is a time for endings.
In her cotton gown, she pads down the stairs—the tiles under her feet are still warm from the sweltering sun, and the air itself has that heavy, dense quality of Cochinchina before the monsoon. Everything is silent; the servants have been given their leave already, and the bookcases stand tall and dark, waiting for the movers to begin their work on the morrow. In the living room, the Louis XV chairs exude a faint odour of rot—the humidity of the region has not been kind to them—and the ropes of the huge model ship creak on the table, as if yearning for a fair wind.
The secretary desk is at the far end, behind one of the potted plants Raoul takes such pride in exhibiting to his guests—talking about the wonderful way things bloom and grow here; about the wonderful new life one can make here, away from the Métropole—about how the indigenous population only needs firm guidance to exhibit its typical traits of courage and adaptability, how quickly they have soaked in French history and culture, how they can speak the language almost as well as native Frenchmen....
At that point he’d look at her, beaming with that dimple in his cheek and his whole heart in his eyes—and her own treacherous heart would give a stutter and stop in her chest, as if an icy hand had squeezed it. The magic would swirl and stutter, too, as if there was something she ought to remember, something that would make her angry if she paused for long enough—but the feeling would go away, leaving only that pleasant numbness of being with Raoul.
Tonight... tonight, however, she’s not numb, or frozen. The tatters of the magic are pulsing through her, but they’re no longer enough to hold back everything—there’s an urgency in her she can’t fully understand, a sense of purpose that feels alien to her.
The top part of the mahogany secretary is a glass-front case, in which Raoul keeps the curios that he has gathered from his years in Tonkin and Cochinchina: yellowed ivory statues of the Daoist Immortals from Chinese temples, porcelain dishes said to be exact replicas of the ones used at the Imperial Court in Hue, and a white statue of the bodhisattva Quan Am—and it’s an odd thing, because she’s seen that statue for months and never even thought of it, but tonight she finds herself mouthing a prayer in a language she’s almost forgotten, a simple sentence asking Quan Am to relieve the suffering of mortals, and she doesn’t quite know which well the words come bubbling out of—a feeling of standing on the edge of a dark abyss that frightens her. What else has she forgotten, when she was here with Raoul?
There is a sword in one of the middle shelves—a curved, single-edged weapon that looks... brand new, almost gaudy, with a simple straight hilt, and a grey blade—except that the blade is covered with intricate etchings, patterns that swirl and dance even as she watches—coalescing into the hints of familiar shapes, then breaking apart again as soon as her eye focuses on them. It... it ought to remind her of something, but the memories elude her—there’s anger and a crushing emptiness, and she can’t hold on to the feelings for long.
The magic pulses again—draws her gaze to the bottom shelf of the case, the one nearest the desk. Behind the jade ornaments and the alignment of ornate hairpins are two scroll-sheaths, ornate copper cylinders with sculpted dragons, their snouts meeting lightly, as if for a kiss; their eyes tiny beads of black stone, their moustaches flowing twisting twigs of metal.
It’s not the sheaths that matter, she knows—with that same absolute certainty that put the words of the prayer to Quan Am in her mouth.
She reaches out. The case opens with a creak that must have been heard all the way to Ha Noi—for a moment, she stands still, her heart hammering against her ribs. If Raoul should discover she’s stealing from him, that she’s no better than the workers he derides for their dishonesty—that she’s linked to the sword, though that last thought surfaces for only a moment before it disappears back into the morass of magic within her—
But nothing happens; there is only the merciless light of the room; and her hand slips between the wooden shelves, with a grace and fluidity that seems to come from a faraway place.
She puts her hand into the pockets of her gown and pulls out rice papers covered with ornate, flowing calligraphy—though she knows they’re not the work of a master but merely the handwriting of... of someone else, who was kind to her once, someone whose name and face elude her no matter how hard she tries to remember.
To Raoul, one set of papers will look much like another. Working quickly, almost without thought, she trades the papers; slips the ones she just took into her pockets, wrapping them in enough cloth to protect them—just as the door to the study opens.
Slowly, carefully—breathe breathe do not panic—Clarisse closes the case, and turns around, to face Raoul.
Like her, he wears a gown—a silk one with five-clawed dragons crawling along its length, the latest fad in Indochinese design. His skin, the colour of washed-out red peony blooms, shines in the moonlight. His eyes shift to the open case, and then back to her—and narrow, in the beginnings of suspicion. “An odd time to look at my curios,” he says.
The magic churns within Clarisse—whispering words from the French classics, from poets and novelists and politicians, the words she used to catch Raoul’s attention in the beginning—all equally useless. It’s not common ground that she needs, but a way to charm herself out of a situation that has no good way out.
She settles for the closest thing to the truth she can think of. “I’ve always wondered what the jade bracelets would look like on me.”
Her voice breaks, a little, thinking of Mother’s litany of loss—of all the precious things they were forced to sell because of the declining family fortunes—the loss of scholar influence in the wake of the arrival of the French; the desperate, doomed attempts to trade against state monopolies; the death of her father, an embittered man old before his time. Normally the magic should be there to blunt it, to give credence to her tale of growing up steeped in the worship of French culture; but it’s fraying, its potency almost gone. “We never had anything so fine when I was growing up.”
The suspicion does not leave Raoul’s face, but it abates a fraction. “You could have asked.”
“You only open that cabinet for important guests.” No need to act to keep the bitterness out of her voice.
Raoul walks closer to her, wraps his hands around her shoulders. He’s looking at the contents of the case, his eyes softer than they were a moment ago—infinitely distant, as if he were already looking at the shores of the Métropole.
“You could come with me,” he says, at last.
“Back to Brest?” Clarisse crushes the flutters of her treacherous heart. “You’ve never asked before.”
“No,” Raoul says. “I wasn’t sure.” His hand reaches into the cabinet—settles on one of the bracelets, a beautiful snow-on-moss, flecked with dabs of pale green, like a watercolour from a master.
“You have a wife.”
Raoul’s smile is bitter, as he turns the bracelet in his hands. “At home? She died three months ago, Clarisse. I learnt yesterday.” He smiles again—an expression that doesn’t reach his pale eyes. “I don’t have much to go home to, it seems.”
Stay here, she wants to say. Stay here and be with me, and have everything as it always was—let us be happy together—but the magic is within her, shrivelling the words before they can bloom on her lips; and her love for Raoul feels... old, papered over, like the golden-tinted memories of a childhood that she can’t reach anymore.
She remembers the time when they rode side by side in the red dust of the jungle; when he pointed at pepper vines and their grapes of green fruit with the simple delight of a child; their long conversations about families and the constraints of their expectations for their members—remembers the warm, happy feeling of being with him, but it’s as if it all belonged to a stranger.
Raoul slips the bracelet over her wrist—she feels its icy cold on her skin; the gradual warming as it adjusts to the temperature of her body. His agents—the ones that scour the countryside, spending the money he earns here as a planter—have been more skilled than usual; it’s jade fit for the daughter of an official of the first rank, perhaps even for the wife of an Emperor.
“Come with me,” Raoul whispers, his hands on her shoulders, on her breasts, on her hips—and again there is that same flutter within her, that vision of a future where she goes to France, lifts herself above the genteel poverty she’s always known; where she might well always be the jumped-up little Annamite to other Frenchmen—but what does it matter, if she has Raoul’s love, and lives in the luxury he brings back home?
Her eyes, inexorably, are drawn to the sword in the case, rest on the swirling patterns; and, with a sinking feeling she knows it to be a gift of the spirits, the same as her foggy memories, as her uncanny mastery of French and the French classics, all the things she never studied as a young girl. “I’ve never noticed that sword,” she says, because it’s the only thing she can think of.
Raoul’s hands pause. “That sword?” His tone says this is not the moment; but nevertheless he humours her. “That’s hardly something you’d enjoy handling. It came from a criminal. They imprisoned her for—” he pauses then, searches his memory for something that never seems to come— “for some theft or another.”
Not a theft, she thinks, but she wouldn’t be able to say why. The magic surges again, and everything feels... numb, pleasant again.
One last time. Surely one last time cannot hurt?
“Come with me,” Raoul says; and she turns and kisses him, and leads him back to the bedroom, to make love with the fury of the desperate and the lost.
Later, she rises—the light of the moon, cold and merciless, falls on Raoul, who sleeps content, with a smile on his face, smug with the assurance of his happiness. In the pale light, he suddenly seems alien to her, with skin that is too white, too reddened by the sun; with his hair the colour of maple leaves in autumn. And there is another face in her mind, dark and quick to smile; and a name in the language of her ancestors.
Vinh, who is lost to her, who will never see the wedding candles burn bright; who will never again celebrate New Year’s Eve with her kin; who will never have descendants to honour her name on the ancestral altar.
She has to work quickly.
In the secretary desk of the living room is paper, and a fountain nib and ink. She gets all three out, and stares at the blank surface, fighting the beginnings of panic. The magic within her is fraying; it’s not the French that is going—that was part of the bargain she made with the spirits, part of the price—but it’s her memories, her real ones, that are returning; and even as they return, her anger unwraps itself from layers of cotton wool, devouring any kind words she might have had for Raoul.
Vinh, who is gone—who might as well be dead, sent to wither away in the tiger cages of Poulo Condor. Vinh, who was her elder sister, and who had sworn to retrieve the scrolls from Raoul’s house; whom the magistrate imprisoned on a technicality, because no native Annamite—and especially not a woman—should be allowed to wear a weapon this fine, this beautiful.
The nib scratches against the paper. She aligns the words one after the other, groping for something that she can write to him—should it be words of comfort, or of anger? I am sorry, but we cannot be together. You live in one world and I another. My people have a saying about a red thread wrapped around the limbs of lovers. Ours stretches from one country to another—from a vast sea to a vast desert—too spread out and too long to be ever wound tight. It’s none of your fault.
But it is; it is his fault; it is his men who visited the family estate, who bullied Mother into parting with everything that interested them for a handful of piastres—from vases to hairpins to sculptures.
Most of what they took—of what they stole—can be replaced; just as most losses can be endured. But the scrolls are Great-grandmother’s calligraphy; the flowing, effortless handwriting of a scholar’s daughter in the days the Nguyen dynasty was still strong, treasured for generations on the ancestral altar—to think of it in a glass case, subjected to the scrutiny of Frenchmen with no regard for its true value....
I wish you happiness in the Métropole. I will miss you more than you can possibly know, but we weren’t meant to be.
She would add something about rebirth; about how they might be closer in other lives, unbound by the threads of mingled love and hatred; but Raoul is Catholic, and would only dismiss that as indigenous nonsense. So instead she simply signs the letter “Clarisse”—which she now remembers isn’t the name her grandparents gave her, but it’s the only one Raoul knows her by.
On top of it, she lays the snow-on-moss jade bracelet; because she’s not a thief; she was never a thief, and neither was Vinh. She gazes at the sword for a moment, wondering if that should be taken away as well; but it’s the gift of the spirits to her dead sister, and it is not her place to retrieve it. Let the spirits weave as they will, and take back what is theirs, if such is their desire.
She leaves the Red Trees much as she came to them; empty-handed, nothing on her back but the traditional garment of a noblewoman—and the scrolls she came for, tucked in the folds of her blouse.
As she walks, the magic slowly ebbs—frays off like the tatters of fog at sunrise. The last of her disguise falls away—no longer the pale-skinned, sharp-featured beauty that Raoul fell in love with; the one who effortlessly flirted with him in French, smiling and simpering like the beauties of Paris and Marseille.
He will look for her, of course, but he won’t find her. Everything she told him about her family was a lie, and he won’t recognise her if he sees her now: smaller and darker-skinned, wide lips and large teeth, indistinguishable from the squat women he derided as throwbacks to primitive times—and she’s not sure anymore how she should deal with that thought; if it should make her feel justified, or sad and drained.
Ahead, dawn is breaking, the pink sunlight slowly washing away the shape of the moon; she wonders if the myth is true, if Cuoi is still up there in his banyan tree, waiting for a chance to get back to Earth, still gazing longingly at everything he has lost.
Everything seems to blur away from her, even the veil over her memory; and abruptly she remembers standing on the shores of a lake at dawn, shivering—waiting for her prayer to be acknowledged. She remembers the waters heaving, and the tortoise, a darker, sleeker shape beneath the waves—remembers the tortoise’s voice, booming like the thunder of the storm, asking her what she desired.
Vinh had asked for a weapon to get back what was theirs—had asked for the sword, which had doomed her in the end.
Clarisse, too, had asked for a weapon, but for a different kind—for French words and French poets; and the ability to smile and lie and seduce, and everything that Vinh, with her unbending sense of honour, would never have thought of.
Will you pay the price, the spirit had asked; and she’d said yes, because what else could she answer?
She’ll walk back to her family’s decrepit house, where her brothers and sisters are taking care of Mother; she’ll put the scrolls back on the ancestral altar, ignoring the gazes they’ll throw her, the mingled pity and contempt; for surely they know, they must know what she had to do to get them back. She has what she bargained for; she has regained the family’s treasures, and that is all that matters.
But she’ll still remember the French and the French verses, and the words of love—and Raoul’s touch on her shoulders and her hips, and the way her heart missed a beat whenever he smiled at her. It was the magic, of course; it was as false as her appearance, as her identity; but she can’t erase the memories; the sweet rush of them, the happiness from other simpler times, a feeling she cannot afford anymore. Her future in Cochinchina will be made of whispers and frowns and speculations, and of a hasty marriage to a man who will prize an alliance with her family above the rumours about her virginity.
Will you pay the price? the spirit had asked, and she’d said yes, because she hadn’t known, because she hadn’t realised.
I will miss you more than you can possibly know, she wrote Raoul; and now—too late, much too late—she realises how biting a truth she wrote him; how she’ll always be tainted by the memory of their love—and walk haunted by bittersweet, alien memories and impossible dreams, all the way to her grave.