Eventually, there was silence from the house. Vu drew in a long breath, looked up at the dark sky, exhaled, then turned and went in. He came across Mrs. Dang first; she was in the kitchen making a pot of tea, and Vu blanched when he saw that she had not washed her hands. He was a very slight man, and at the sight of her fingers and forearms stained with red he almost fell over.
"Anh Vu, congratulations! I'll bring you a chicken for supper." In addition to being the local midwife, Mrs. Dang bred noisy brown chickens that were always escaping from their pen and running loose in the streets. "Now go in and see your children!" She grinned at him with betel-nutstained teeth.
"Ai-ya!" Mrs. Dang exclaimed, striking her forehead with her hand and accidentally smearing it with red. "How stupid I spoiled the surprise!"
Vu rushed into the bedroom, where he found Huong and his surprise. His wife's hair was matted and sweaty, and she had a cigarette in her mouth and two little bundles in her arms. Twins. Timidly, he approached their little trinity.
"They're girls, Vu," said Huong, exhaling a gray ribbon of smoke. "I know that's not what you wanted. And there's two of them."
Vu came over and sat on the edge of the bed, carefully avoiding the soils from the birth on the sheets. The babies were awake and blinking their eyesblue eyes in dark faces. Milky blue eyes, like those of Siamese cats. Outside, the distant rainstorm rumbled. Vu shuddered. He named the girls Vi and Nhi.
Even as they grew older they never really spoke to anyone except each other. Huong took to locking herself in the bedroom most days with a bottle of rice spirits or occasionally one of her lovers, and Vu, resigned to the fact that he had lost his wife, devoted himself to his job as a civil servant. The twins were left to themselves. They would play in the forest, around the ruins on the hill, or go down to the beach and catch and torture crabs. Sometimes they fought with each other, kicking and biting savagely, not out of anger but boredom. They would alternate which one of them would win.
They began to disappear for days at a time, returning to the yellow house hungry and dirty and with secrets. If they encountered their mother on one of her rare excursions from the bedroom, she would immediately stick them both into the bath.
"Chim conmy baby birds," she would mutter. "Chim, why can't you be good?"
Then she would go off to find soap and leave them in the tub for hours, and when she remembered them they were gone again.
"Which one are you?" said Mrs. Dang, narrowing her beady black eyes at Vi.
"Nhi," lied Vi.
"Eh," said Mrs. Dang, and took a swig from the jar. "I knew ityou're the skinnier one. How old are you now?"
"Eight." This was true.
"Ai-ya! How time flies! What is it you want, precious?" In addition to being the local midwife and chicken breeder, Mrs. Dang peddled home remedies and medicine she got at half price from a relative in the Saigon black market.
"Huong is having the same sickness as last time." They never called her "mother."
Excerpted from The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith. Copyright © 2014 by Violet Kupersmith. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
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