Nhi and Vi slipped out of the church silently before the final vows. They hadn't even seen the bride's face.
It turned out that Xuan, the new wife, was just as plain as the rumors had predicted, with heavy, sunken cheeks, a thick waist, and hair coarse as straw that she always pulled back into a severe bun. But her eyes sparkled with intelligence and she carried herself differently from the other women. With them, you could see it in the curve of their spinesthe weight of generations of famine, of husbands and brothers and sons leaving home for war and never coming back. Xuan may have had the plodding features of a peasant, but she possessed a lightness that they did not. Old Vu could not love herhe was far too out of practice for thatbut he could fear her a little. Not the same fear that he had felt for his old wife, with her fits of wailing and drunkenness and violence, but a kind of formless anxiety, the feeling one gets setting out for home after the sun has already begun to set, of trying to outrace the darkness. He supposed it meant that he cared for her. They took walks together, they ate the meals that Xuan cooked together, they slept together in the bed where the twins had been born, on the mattress that still had a burn hole from when Huong had once tried to set fire to it with a cigarette. Old Vu was certain that they were doing everything a good married couple should. Still, he could not shake the sense of apprehension that he felt whenever he interacted with his new wife. When he was at home he tended to lapse into silence and just watch her moving about, him trying to give a name to the strange dread he felt. But no one watched her more warily than the twins.
They lurked in the bushes, they stared at her from the shadows. Now that she lived in the house, they didn't sleep under the kitchen table anymore; because it was the dry season they moved to the roof, peering at her through gaps in the thatching that Old Vu had neglected to mend, spying silently until they fell asleep beneath the stars.
In her own way, Xuan studied the girls just as closely as they studied her. She noticed that the burnt rice crust at the bottom of the pot vanished whenever she wasn't paying attention, and she noticed the muddy footprints that appeared before dawn some mornings. Xuan was intrigued by the girls, as a naturalist would be by some rare specimen of bird, but she could not figure out how to get closer to them. She left a box of sweets from Saigonone of her few wedding presentsout on the kitchen table, but they were never touched. The handful of times she caught them and tried to strike up conversation, they would only stare at her with empty blue eyes before fleeing. Xuan knew three and a half different languages, but she could not understand the girls. Nhi and Vi could barely read, and were unhindered by any sense of morality or responsibility. They knew other things instead: how to shinny up a palm tree with a knife clenched between the teeth, where to go to swim without worry of leeches, what to say to make even the briniest of fishermen blush. But they did not know what to make of Xuan, either. They could not comprehend what she was doing there, living in their house, leaving her books on the table where the ancestral altar had once been, lying in wait in the kitchen to ask them questions about what they did and where they went. But they did not like or dislike her yet, so they just watched her. The eyes were everywhere in the yellow house: Old Vu watched Xuan who watched the girls who watched her, and from a distance, leaning against the fence of her chicken coop, Mrs. Dang watched them all.
It had been three months since the wedding. Xuan still wasn't used to her new role as Old Vu's wife and Nhi and Vi's mother, and still didn't feel that she was fulfilling it. She didn't regret it quite yet, but she was beginning to question her decision to leave her hometown to marry a man nearly fifteen years her senior. She had done it because she was lonely, but here, in the yellow house, she felt more isolated than ever.
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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