"The man's not long for this world," she would say to anyone who would listen. "One day I'll find him dead in that house, and I don't know if my weak old heart will be able to take another shock like thatI was the one who found Huong, you know? Have I told you that story before? What a tragedy, eh? And a mystery, toono one has any idea what killed the poor woman, no idea at all . . ."
Naturally, it came as a surprise to everyone when Old Vu quietly announced that he was going to remarry. The woman was a religion teacher at a school in Cam Ranh, never married and now past her prime, who had answered the newspaper advertisement that Old Vu had placed a few months back.
There were no apparent benefits to the unionneither was particularly wealthy, and Vu's hair had been white for years while the schoolteacher was rumored to be exceptionally plain.
"At least his back is so stooped that he'll never have to see her face," the townspeople whispered among each other. "But what do you think she'll do when she meets the girls?"
Vi and Nhi were the last ones to find out about their father's new bride. In fact, they did not know that there was to be a wedding until the very day of the ceremony. An unspoken agreement existed between the twins and their father, and they had managed to cross paths only a handful of times in over two years. Old Vu left for work before Nhi and Vi woke up in the morning, and they were gone long before he came home in the evening. The twins were now sixteen and menacingly beautiful. They didn't go to school; they had no interest in housework or cooking. They maintained the same half-feral existence that they had as children, spending their time traipsing around the jungle or the beaches, except now they stayed far, far away from the temple on the hill. When they needed to sleep, they slept. When they needed to eat, there was leftover rice in the pot or a jar of money in the corner of the kitchen that Old Vu left for them. Sometimes they would make an appearance in town, walking with their heads held high and their arms linked, relishing the stares of the bystanders. The twins had a weakness for mangosteens and would buy several dozen at a time, meeting the curious gaze of the fruit seller with two pairs of narrow blue eyes that lacked anything resembling human warmth. Then they would swing themselves easily into a high tree and eat their fruits, throwing the dark purple peels at anyone who happened to come too close.
Mrs. Dang, who had long given up trying to socialize the girls, was the one who informed Nhi and Vi of the impending nuptials. On the morning of the wedding, she came by the yellow house dressed in her best ao dai to find the twins curled up asleep beneath the kitchen table. The soles of their feet were caked with black mud and their hair was tangled together.
"Ai-cha! Get up, the pair of you! Your new stepmother will be here very soon!" Mrs. Dang prodded Nhi, the nearest one, with the pointed toe of her special-occasion embroidered slippers. The girls crawled out from underneath the table and stood, stretching their necks and shaking out their long, slender limbs like egrets in a rice paddy. The news did not appear to elicit a reaction from Nhi or Vi, but as Mrs. Dang supervised their cleaning and dressingshe didn't trust them to get the job done by themselvesshe noticed that their eyes kept meeting over the washbasin, as if communicating something that she was not privy to.
Despite the fact that Mrs. Dang and the twins were the only audience members in attendance, the schoolteacher from Cam Ranh had the church filled with flowers and wore a white, Western-style dress, complete with a train and lace veil. "These foolish modern women," Mrs. Dang clucked to herself from a pew. The bride had also chosen to forgo the traditional tea ceremony and bowing before the ancestral altar, which Mrs. Dang thought most unwise. She doubted that they had even consulted their astrological charts before becoming engaged.
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.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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