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Banyan Moon bonus chapter!
Plus: a special 25% off preorder code!
We’re almost two months out from the release of my novel, Banyan Moon, and I am feeling all the things: nerves, excitement, gratitude, and so much joy. It’s wild to imagine there are readers out there who’ll hold a copy of my book in their hands in just a short time. I can’t wait for you to read it!
And Barnes & Noble is offering 25% off all preorders with the code PREORDER25, from today until 5/28/23. Preorders can be very meaningful in terms of a book’s success—and can help determine whether authors are able to write even more books.
And as a special thank you for subscribing to Wallflower Chats, I’m including a bonus chapter below that we deleted from the book. It’s one that’s very near and dear to my heart, written from the perspective of Minh, the matriarch of the Tran family. It tells the story of how she came to own the Banyan House. I hope you enjoy it!
Banyan Moon Bonus Chapter
The Lady, as I called her to my children, had snow-white hair that she dyed meticulously every single Sunday night. Her natural color, I think, was the light, brittle brown of sand grass. But when it was white, it was long and alive, and unlike most people with white hair, it didn’t age her. She only looked a little sad, leached of the color she rightfully deserved. She said the whiteness helped her feel clean, though how someone could feel clean in a house so perpetually dirty was beyond me. She was an eccentric, by every definition of the word.
When she began to ask me to dye her hair for her in the sink, switching the weekly dye day to Mondays so I could help, I shuddered a little, my fingertips shrinking from her coarse locks. It felt too intimate, like something I did only for my children. Or Xuân for me. A lover’s ritual.
“It hurts to bend my arms back like that,” she said plaintively. “Oh, darling, it would be such a help. And of course I would pay you — a stylist’s fee! It’d be worth every penny.”
So I smoothed the wet slick of grey-blue color through each strand, rubbing thick chunks of hair between my fingers. She paid me a fortune to do it, so much that I could drop three house cleaning accounts, pantomiming regret as I stood in front of the frantic housewives, wondering how they could possibly replace me, I even stood on ladders and dusted the fans, did I know how rare that level of meticulousness was?
“You are so good at this, Minh,” The Lady sighed, the water from the tub soaking onto her towel-clad shoulders. I poured warm cupfuls of water over her head, and she sighed again.
I felt we had crossed a boundary, but I didn’t want to go back. Her skull was fragile in my hands and as I looked down into her face, I saw the blue veins behind her eyelids. She came from a breed of terribly wealthy, probably inbred people, the kind who managed great estates once upon a time. As far as I knew, she never married, but she wore a square-shaped canary yellow ring on her left hand. It glinted like a cat’s eye.
The Lady’s real name was Althea, an old-fashioned Greek name her mother chose in defiance of her husband, who wanted to name their daughter after his mother, MaryAnne. “Can you imagine!” The Lady said indignantly. Althea suited her. The Lady had an air about her that wasn’t quite of this world. I could see her lighting a torch on some wave-tossed isle, diaphanous gown arching behind her in the wind like a raised eyebrow. Her hair like moonlight.
“It means I’m a healer,” she laughed. “Isn’t that funny? Me. I never healed a thing in my life.”
She was playing with a string of pearls, holding them up to her cheek to see which had the most luster. Only a woman of great beauty could compare herself to gemstones without irony. She was forty or fifty, I wasn’t sure which. Goddesses don’t age properly. We met through an advertisement in the paper — who can remember those, I wonder — and when I showed up on her doorstep, she hired me right away, delighted at the sight of me.
“Oh, but you’re precious,” she said. Her hair reached out to stroke a strand of my hair, but I didn’t mind it. “Of course you must work with me.”
Perhaps it was the “with” rather than the “for” that cinched it. Or maybe it was the Banyan House, so regal and unapproachable at first, but then, mellowing to me over time. I could see how stately it was, even in its dotage. Around me, I scented the impression of brilliant and tortured people, Sunday afternoons lazing in front of the fire, Sunday nights throwing highball glasses at the walls. It felt like a movie set to me.
I cleaned for her, but then I did other things too during the day. Once, when she was sick, I scrambled eggs and mashed them with some white rice until it became a yellow mushy mess. She loved it and asked me for seconds.
“No wonder your people look so young, darling. Imagine if the others knew — eggs and white rice. Easiest damn elixir there ever was.”
Occasionally, I read poetry to her as she dozed, though my accent was heavier back then, and I wasn’t used to reading in English. She didn’t seem to mind. My tongue felt heavy when I spoke it and sometimes I wanted to see what The Lady would think if I read her Vietnamese poetry.
She acted like an invalid, though she seemed perfectly healthy at times, bounding about with such energy that she exhausted me. But she seemed to suffer from a secret malaise that came upon her very suddenly. Sometimes I’d catch her draped on the settee in a rose-colored peignoir, her red-painted fingernails dangling from the couch. Once or twice, I leaned to catch her breath, but she was only sleeping, breathing so shallowly I wanted to shake her awake, just to be sure she was okay, but I went about my day, cleaning and sorting her laundry and closing my eyes to enjoy the indescribable quiet. Sometimes, she’d sit up quickly, her attention caught by a stray thought.
“Dear Minh,” she always emphasized dear, as if it would make her forget that I was paid to keep her company. “Do you ever wonder what you could have been?”
“If I wasn’t your maid?” I asked. I felt a lick of anger in my chest.
She seemed to droop at the sharpness of my tone. “Oh, no, no, nothing like that. You mustn’t think I’m one of those callous rich folks. I care about you, darling. No, I mean that I sometimes think I’ve lived a dozen lives, and still haven’t found the one I really want.”
“You’ve traveled so much,” I said, a little placated.
I needed this job. My children were on the verge of young adulthood, after all, and the trailer cramped us all in. I felt ready for air, and here, in this old rickety house, the space unfurled all around me like an empty flower. Like I was Thumbelina, cross-legged in the middle of a depthless green pond.
The Lady had been to five of the seven continents. She frowned at the notion of Antarctica, so icy and unreachable. And Australia, why, that was too remote and small for her. She ached for greatness. Once, she showed me a golden scarab she had picked up at an Egyptian flea market. She whispered that they had poured liquid gold over a live, writhing scarab, could you imagine a more grotesque way to die? I ran my thumb over the surface and thought, no, this was cast from a mold, some people were so gullible. But I liked her better for it, her empty and hungry wonder.
“But still,” she said, running her fingertips over the ends of her hair, “my destiny just out of reach. Everything and nothing seen. Do you know?”
“I know,” I said, though I didn’t really, I was just concerned about the envelope of cash she stuffed at the end of each week. My days were spent trying to keep my son Phước from running off, keeping my daughter Hương from getting pregnant like I once did. My children skirted with danger, as if they’d been conceived to trouble my life, and thinking about what I wanted was a laughable concept, one I didn’t have a second of time for. But I didn’t share that with The Lady. She was designed for melodrama, and my petty problems would have been an affront to her sense of tragedy.
“What would you want, if you could have anything?” she asked.
She turned her attention suddenly on me, her eyes piercing and profound, like she was seeing me for the first time. “Imagine I’m your fairy godmother, Minh. A genie. Make a wish.”
I felt awkward. “Well, I’d want what anyone wants: a nice house, happy kids, and a comfortable life.”
“You don’t want a great romance? Love?”
I didn’t tell her that my romances never ended well. That, she would have understood. The Lady liked to prattle about her love affairs, each more disastrous than the last. Mine would have offended her, I think, the notion of my having had a life before her. In America, I was too consumed with the children. I hadn’t so much as looked at a man.
I shrugged at her.
She pursed her lips, like I was purposefully upsetting her game, but then nodded decisively. “Okay, then. I’ll just leave you this house when I’m dead. You can rename it if you want. The Banyan House. Terribly literal, isn’t it? You could call it something much more imaginative.”
I didn’t laugh, but wanted to. Whoever heard of such absurdity. Granted, The Lady had no family to speak of, no kin that darkened her doorstep for overlong stays. Her friends were the kind who moved glancingly throughout her life, like fireflies darting in and out of porch rails. They were all sickly rich too, the kind that left them bored and their appetite whetted from drama. Their relationship with The Lady felt predatory to me, and sometimes I watched them from the kitchen, anxious that they would upset her. Perhaps they sensed that she was not quite right. But things like that didn’t trouble me. I felt I was solid and full of sense, so The Lady’s flights never touched me, never pulled me high into the air with her.
“I’ve never had an inheritance,” I said.
“Well, now you have.”
“Maybe you’ll get what you want too, Althea.”
Her smile was long and sincere, but sad. She broke eye contact first, and I went back to cleaning the windows or whatever chore I was doing before she interrupted me.
My children called her The Lady too. They’d ask for stories, crawling up on me like I was a tree. To them, she was a mythical being rather than the withdrawing flesh-and-blood woman I saw each week. She did make for a good story, I’ll give her that.
“What did The Lady send me?” Phước asked, unfaltering in the face of my admonishment.
Occasionally, The Lady sent trinkets to give to my children: jewelry boxes that looked like Arabian treasures, an antique toy train likely worth a fortune, old first edition books they were too young for, a box of peaches fuzzed over like downy sunsets that she got from her banker. “Bad for my blood sugar, darling,” she said. My children ate the peaches until juice ran down their arms and gathered in the crook of their elbows. I laughed when they tried to lick the juice from their bodies, tongues dipping to gather the last dredge of sweetness.
Mostly, The Lady ignored the fact that I had children. She preferred to imagine me without context, perhaps, the way I imagined her. Maybe we were jealous of the hours spent apart, possessive in that unnatural way that happens when two broken people stumble across one another.
“I think of you as a sister,” she said once after I had washed her hair.
I brushed it with long strokes, using a golden brush she said belonged to an old European queen. I laughed wildly. Her eyes were wide and innocent in the mirror, the light opposite of my dark ones.
“What’s funny?” she asked.
“A sister?” I repeated.
“Well sure,” she said, genuinely confused. “We spend so much time together. We’re like family by now.”
I couldn’t bear to tell her otherwise and so I nodded, ever so slightly, but an agreement nonetheless. She closed her eyes, satisfied. A part of me felt I was betraying my own children.
I stayed with The Lady for three years, during which we became more enmeshed until sometimes I looked up from the fine china in front of me and wondered if I weren’t the mistress of this great house myself.
Sometimes the guilt ate at me. Phước and Hương lived small lives of squalor, picking cockroach carcasses from the corners of the trailer to throw in the yard, making a gleeful game of it (“There! That makes ten for me!”) and here I was spending my days in these endless rooms, drinking lemonade from crystal glasses. Of course, some of the time, I was also on my hands and knees scrubbing at layers of dirt that never quite dissipated, washing moth-eaten covers, but it was still a grander existence than they could imagine at that moment in their young lives. I wished they could spend a day at the Banyan House, running through the great rooms with the whoops of laughter. Might they one day find themselves so safe, so comfortable.
After a time, The Lady relaxed into my presence and invited me more into her life. She liked to cook opulent meals for the two of us: prime rib with scarlet running juices and popovers laced with fat, sea bass soaked in a lemony butter sauce, risotto with curls of oyster mushroom garnished on top. She was an excellent cook. It was all too heavy for lunch, but I never stayed for dinner, so lunch was all we had. She wore a floral apron when she cooked, and whipped it off with a flair, slinging it onto the nearest counter, the gesture as intimate as undressing. We’d eat on a glass table she set up on the porch, in front of the giant banyan tree for which the house was named. I told her the story of Chú Cuội, the man trapped in the moon, like a fish in a bowl, his feet pressed against its ridges, aching to get back to his family.
“Can you imagine how he must have felt? So far from those he loved?” I asked.
“He didn’t really want to come back, my dear,” The Lady said, a little patronizingly.
She was like that, sometimes terribly lofty, and other times, small and timid, an unknowing sparrow. It irritated me that she was likely right about Chú Cuội. It wasn’t even her myth.
She told me a story of her own, about a house formerly teeming with people, servants and relatives in their starched waistcoats, and bowing obsequious sorts who liked being around powerful people. The parties they had! She saw the dancers through the cage of her fingertips, hands raised to her eyes. Because if they couldn’t see her, she couldn’t see them. They drank champagne and laughed until they cried, their dramas and hysterics and love stories blurring as the night went on. Sometimes husbands went home with the wrong wives, and sometimes wives found themselves kissing each other, who knew. The days of free love were just starting, and even in the buttoned-up South, these beautiful people found a kind of permissibility in the sulky nights, leaning their backs against the palms. And beyond the bright lights of the house, the roaring conversation and tinkling piano music, sat the ever-watchful banyan tree, a knowing old grandfather.
Sometime after midnight, a maid or babysitter carried the girl to her bed and laid her down, inching the covers all the way to her chin. She insisted on sleeping with the windows open, no matter the weather, so sometimes she’d wake shivering above the covers.
“Dear Minh, you will know it’s no exaggeration when I tell you I was a goddamn princess,” The Lady said.
She sipped at a ruby-red cocktail, then offered it to me. I shook my head; soon, my day would be over, my pretense put to rest. I’d drive the seven miles home, seven miles that may as well have been seven kingdoms, so separate were our lives. I’d make my children that awful stovetop macaroni they liked, caked with powder that always made it onto the front of my shirt, and we’d sleep under the light of the same moon, sighing over the injustice of it all.
“What happened next?” I asked.
She smiled, a little sinister look in her eye. “Well, of course, everyone died, except the princess. That’s how time works, darling. She’d found a magic potion that kept her alive, but so tragically alone. But don’t you dare be sad for her. She traveled all over. She took many lovers, many of whom still write her longing letters. And do you know, she didn’t want a single one of them. She ended up back in that big old house anyway, where she was all by her lonesome, until a charming little Indochine knocked on her door.”
The Lady was very sick in the last months. Her illness had always slumbered, bottles lined up on the sill like soldiers, so silent and dependable, ready to give themselves to the cause. But they did not do their job, they lay in the fields and surrendered, and towards the end, her wrists were so frail, I felt I could snap them with a bit of floss. She was more death than humanity.
The windows quietly shuttered, the doors closed to visitors, even those old vipers she called friends. She stopped cooking, only taking broth and plain oatmeal mashed with bananas, though she still liked to sit by the banyan tree, wrapped up in a downy blanket. She hired a nurse to come in the evenings, after I said, no, I wouldn’t, not for any amount of money. It worried me that she was too weak to pout or cajole. The seasons slipped around her.
One day, I gave her my jade bracelet, the one that Việt had given me in Việt Nam. I’d slipped it into my pocket before I left the trailer, feeling odd about the gesture, but desperate. She had given me so much over the years, and so carelessly. It was all I had. I worried she would laugh, but she snatched it from me, with a look akin to hunger. The bracelet looked ghastly against her pale skin, a discord of color. But she liked it so much. She kept twirling it around her wrist like a hula hoop. She was so thin-skinned then that I was afraid she’d bruise herself against the hard stone.
“Come here,” she said. Her lips whispered against mine.
When I think about her, even here in the dark reaches of ever-memory, this deathly thick space where my thoughts are alive and boisterous, I wonder if she meant to love me romantically, or as a sister, or whether she just got confused and thought of me as a kind of caregiver. A mother. The Lady was absolutely mad.
We didn’t do more than kiss that time and thereafter, though once or twice, as I got up to take her laundry downstairs, or turned my head to say goodbye, she looked at me with such fierce longing that my heart clenched, wanting to give her a bit of what she desired. Maybe in another time. I felt my heart tie to hers with a skein so whisper-thin that it would have snapped in the breeze. Sometimes love works like that. Fragile, invisible. It was nothing like what I felt for my children, my departed lovers. But it was something.
Then, she was nearly gone, with a sudden, violent turn that concerned her doctors, though she never wondered at it. “Everyone has to go, dear Minh. Princesses, especially. We’re not meant for this life.” When she breathed, the air from her lips had that jittery quality, like a car that couldn’t quite start up. It was awful to watch, but I would not abandon her.
“I wish I had gone to your village, or a village like yours, just once,” she whispered. “In all my travels.”
Then my sadness was tinged with a little indignation, the thought of her sweeping white hair, her silk gowns, against the ochre mud of the Vietnamese landscape. As if she owned it all. But she did, I guess, she was a white woman with too much money. She could have bought everything in our village so handily, even the store I fought hard to build. She could have probably bought her share of people too, that’s what happens when you have so much wealth. I couldn’t fathom.
But I forgave her. She was dying, and after all, hadn’t I also benefited from her past, her pain, that misplaced generosity?
I opened her bedroom window, then lay down next to her, my body denting the covers.
“Maybe you’ll go there after,” I said, idly. “You could ride the moon like Cinderella’s round pumpkin. You’d be free.”
She sighed a little, as if I’d just made a promise, the hard unbreakable kind. Her eyes shuttered from view. Afterward I would wonder if they were actually blue or green, or a shade in between the two, a cloudy teal, the color of a spectacular storm. I didn’t remember the color of her eyes, but I knew they were lovely.
On the bed, my dark hair fanned against her white waves, and we were like opposites in a mandala, positive and negative space weaving inside and out, twin strangers connected without end. Weeks after she died, the lawyers handed over the deed to the Banyan House. I looked for a note, but the Banyan House was it, the final message from Althea. There was no one to contest my ownership, and I was surprised, but not.
At her funeral I stood tall, my children gathered around me wearing itchy new outfits I bought at J.C. Penney. Her friends whispered. But I said nothing, leaning over her grave at last to blink one final goodbye to her, this woman who made my wildest dreams come true. Later, I found my jade bracelet among her things and slipped it back on my own wrist, where it would always stay safe, warm against my own imperfect flesh.