Authors: Violet Kupersmith
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2014 by Violet Kupersmith
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, New York.
and the H
colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
[Short stories. Selections]
The Frangipani Hotel / Violet Kupersmith. —
eBook ISBN 978-0-679-64514-6
I. Title. PS3611.U639F73
Jacket design: Gabrielle Wilson and Greg Mollica
Jacket photograph: Thomas Backer/Aurora Photos
just for you.”
“Oh no, Grandma, I—”
“It’s very ripe!”
“And very good for you too!”
“Grandma! You know I can’t eat papaya. It makes my stomach hurt.”
It goes in the trash can then. Such a waste.”
“Wait! Why can’t you eat it? Or feed it to Grandpa?”
“Grandpa and I are sick of it—we’ve eaten nothing but
for two straight days because I bought six from that Chinese grocer out in Bellaire last week and now they’re starting to go bad.”
“Ha! Why did you buy so many?”
“I was hoping for visitors to share them with. But no one
comes to see me. Everyone is too busy—so American! Always working, working, and no time for Grandma. Not even your mother stopped by this week. And the only reason you’re here is a silly high school project.”
“All right, all right. But I’m only gonna eat a bit, okay? Just this little piece right here. And then we’ll do the interview … Oh God, it’s so slimy …”
“Wonderful! Yes, chew, chew—”
“You don’t need to tell me to chew!”
“It’s disgusting to speak with your mouth full,
. Chew, chew. Swallow! See, that wasn’t so bad, was it? And it will make your hair shiny and give you good skin. Have another piece.”
“My stomach feels weird already, Grandma. But I’ll have one more piece while you talk, deal?”
“Oh, making deals now,
? And I thought you weren’t sneaky like the other grandchildren. You’ll start gambling next. What kind of story did you want me to tell you,
“I’m after the big one.”
“Leaving Vietnam. The boat journey. That’s what I want to write about.”
“Ask your mother.”
“I did, but she was too young when it happened. She only remembers the refugee camp and arriving in Houston.”
“Ask your father then.”
“He came over on a plane in the eighties, and that’s not half as exciting. That’ll get me a B if I’m lucky. But your boat
. Communists! Thai pirates! Starvation!
an A-plus story.”
“Oh, is that what it is?”
“Mom said you don’t like talking about the war, but I should know about my past, shouldn’t I? That’s what this school project is about—learning your history, exploring your culture, discovering where you came from, that kind of thing.”
“You really want to know the country you came from?”
“And you want a story about me on a boat?”
“Fine. I will tell you a boat story. It begins on a stormy day at sea.”
“Wait, wait! Let me get my pencil … Okay, go!”
“The waves were vicious, the wind was an animal, and the sky was dung-colored.”
“Hang on a second. Where were you?”
“On the boat, of course.”
“Well yeah, but is this 1975? We
talking about 1975, right?”
“Child, when you’re my age you don’t bother remembering years.”
“But this is at the very end of the war?”
“Did that war ever really end,
“Look, Grandma, I just need to get the dates straight! How old were you then?”
“Around the same age as you; I married young. Perhaps a couple years older.”
“I think you’re getting confused. If Mom was seven when she left, you had to have been way older than sixteen.”
“Don’t be silly. I remember everything perfectly. This was the day after my wedding. My hair was long and shiny—it was all the
I ate growing up, I’m telling you,
—and my teeth weren’t bad; they said I could’ve made a better match than a fisherman. But I did not care about money. Even though we were poor, at the wedding I wore a silk dress embroidered with flowers, and gold earrings that my mother-in-law gave me. After the ceremony I gathered my belongings in a bag and moved onto Grandpa’s sampan.”
“Okay, we’re definitely not on the same page …”
, you asked for my boat story, so now listen to me tell it.”
OUR GRANDPA SPENT OUR
first night as husband and wife throwing up the two bottles of rice wine he drank at the wedding reception. In the morning his head was foggy, so he untied the boat and steered us out to sea without paying attention to the signs: the taste of the wind, the shape of the clouds, the strange way the birds were flying. He cast his nets but kept drawing them back empty, and so we drifted farther and farther from land. By the time he noticed how strong the waves were, we could no longer see the shore.
“The storm began, rain drilling down on us as we crouched together beneath a ratty tarp. Our poor sampan bounced on the water like a child’s toy. Waves sloshed over the sides, slapping
me in the face, the salt burning my nostrils. When our tarp was torn away with a scream of wind, Grandpa and I dug our fingernails into the floorboards of the boat, even though we knew it would do no good in the end.
‘When we are thrown into the water, cling to my back,’
Grandpa shouted, mostly to hide his fear.
‘I will swim us home.’
His breath was still stale with rice wine.
But this boat is our home
, I thought. I looked out over the waves that I knew would soon swallow us up. Then to my surprise, I saw a small dark shape bobbing off in the distance. I wiped my eyes and looked again—it was coming toward us.
I cried out, overjoyed, thinking we would be rescued after all. Grandpa braced himself against the side of the hull and stood up, waving his arms and yelling as loud as he could. I grabbed on to his feet to keep him from toppling overboard, and together we waited to be saved.
“But as we watched, we realized that the thing approaching us was not a boat after all. I blinked and squinted, not wanting to believe my eyes, hoping that the rain was blurring my vision. Grandpa stopped waving and went silent, his face puzzled at first, then terrified.
“It was a man, not a boat. He was walking upright over the water—I swear it on my mother’s dirt grave in Ha Tinh—staggering across the sea as if it was just unruly land. Perhaps I cannot say that it was a man, for it was clear that he was long dead, and from the looks of it had met his end by drowning; the body was bloated and the flesh that hadn’t already been eaten by fishes was a terrible greenish-black color. The chest
had been torn wide open, and I could see ribbons of kelp threaded among the white bones of its rib cage. Whatever spirit had reanimated the corpse must have been a feeble one, for the body moved clumsily, legs stiff but head dangling loose as it struggled to keep its balance on the angry waves. Grandpa sank down to his knees next to me, and we peered over the gunwale in helpless horror as the body tottered closer and closer.
“When there were only a few feet of churning black ocean left between it and our boat, the corpse stopped. It swayed before us like a drunk man—and for some reason it stood on tiptoe, the decomposing feet arched like a dancer’s—dipping and rising with us on each wave but never breaking the skin of the water.
“Grandpa and I waited for the body to move. To talk. To pounce on us. But it simply stood there. I felt it was watching us even though its eye sockets were empty—for the face is where the fish nibble first, you know. We crouched in the boat until our knees hurt, all the while under the sightless gaze of this unnatural thing. Grandpa would have vomited in fright had his stomach not already been empty from throwing up all night. Eventually I couldn’t take it anymore; if I was going to die, I wanted to get it over with.