Perhaps this was why Xuan felt strangely reassured when she began hearing voices from the bamboo grove. It meant that she was not alone. Having grown unchecked for years, the grove had become sprawling and almost impenetrable, devouring the land. When Xuan began to hear the sounds, she knew instinctively that they were coming from that darkness at the far end of the lawn. At first it was faint and wordless, whispering to her as she and Old Vu lay in bed at night with their backs to each other. She started leaving the bedroom window open, telling her husband it was because the breeze helped her sleep, when really all she wanted was to listen to the murmurs. Then one afternoon, when she was hanging out the laundry in the yard, it finally became clear; the wind rustled the bamboo and she heard her name, Xuan, Xuan, the soft chanting of a hundred voices, over and over. They were calling for her.
Another woman might have run back inside the house in fear, but not Xuan. She had no fear. She had read Plato and Aquinas and Descartes. She walked straight into the bamboo. "Who's there?" she called out, picking her way through the thick forest of stems.
"Xuan," the voices replied simply. "Xuan."
They became quiet when she was deep in the thicket and everything was in cool green shadow. Xuan waited but they did not speak again. She turned to make her way back out again, but suddenly she tripped over somethingan old glass bottle, almost invisible in the shadeand she had to clutch wildly at the stems around her to stay upright. They shook, but she regained her footing. Several small birds, spooked by the commotion, shot out of the bamboo and flapped away noisily. Xuan tilted her head back and watched them become specks against the sky. And then she saw it fluttering down toward her between the branches. Like the birds, it, too, had been shaken loose from its bamboo perch. She caught it in her fingers: a piece of silk, tattered and filthy, now worn down to a square the size of a piece of parchment, but still as red as a fresh knife wound, and fine as a tongue of flame.
Xuan had been given less than her fair share of loveliness in this lifetime, and so she held on tightly to this delicate cloth that had fallen into her possession. She carried it out of the bamboo and held it up to the light.
Nhi and Vi lay on their bellies on the edge of the roof, watching. When they saw the red shadow the silk cast across her face, their mouths formed identical hard lines, and they reached for each other's hand.
Sister Emmanuel's voice trailed off. Without warning, she pulled her hands out of the mixing bowl and pushed it away from her violently. I handed her a dishcloth but as her fingers closed around it she began to shake, and the cloth fell to the kitchen floor. I dropped down to retrieve it for her. But I did not get up immediately; it was only therekneeling at her feet, squeezing the cloth in my clammy hands that would not keep still, my face avertedthat I was brave enough to ask her: "Which one are you?"
Sister Emmanuel was still shaking. "Not yet," she said. "Tomorrow."
Xuan heard the voices even when she was away from the house. They still called out her name from time to time, but now they mostly sang her a song, always the same one. It was a simple song, made up of four notes and a handful of repeated words, but Xuan practiced it relentlessly even when the voices were quiet.
"Chim, chim, I will find you. Chim, I will find you," she sang alone in the kitchen. She could see the bamboo through the window but at the moment it was silent. Her left eye was itchy, so she rubbed it with one of the ends of the red cloth that she wore tied loosely around her throat. "Chim, I will find you, and you will be mine. Chim, chim, I will find you" She stopped and rubbed her eye with the cloth again.
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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