Herewith a gorgeous, poignant story about love, loss and translation, about the strange world in which we find ourselves today, a world of exiles, guest workers, refugees, immigrants, and fractured cultures — we all leave home, it seems, but what of identity and love? Christy Ann Conlin is an old friend, dating from when I first read her wonderful first novel, Heave, when I sat on the Governor-General’s Award jury in 2002. I hadn’t met Christy Ann yet, but I was friends with her writing. Later, I put one of her stories in Best Canadian Stories when I edited that estimable annual anthology. Her fiction has lilt, it has swing, and it has heart. Nothing else like it.
Wiedervereinigung, the German teacher said. Viola knew the Chinese student named Henry would translate just as he had since starting the class two weeks ago, always trying to help, but she already knew the word. It was impossible to be in Germany and not know. The teacher, a plump middle-aged woman, told them the fourth anniversary was approaching and she went around the circle and made them repeat, stretching their lips, raising their eyebrows, as though they were warming up for an opera.
“This means reunification,” Henry said looking at Viola from across the table. In perfect English. With an accent just like hers. His eyes found hers and she blushed. His smile soft and careful.
“I know what it means,” she replied in halting German, her eyes closing. The Berlin Wall had come down four years ago.
Die Berliner Mauer, Viola said slowly. Apparently Henry interpreted this as confusion. “The wall,” he said in his remarkable English, as though he’d grown up down the road from her. “The Berlin Wall.” He stretched his arms out, as though showing her how big it was in case she thought it was a fence for goats like the one on the small salt water farm on Campobello Island, near her parent’s house, the farm where Nolen now was, without her, of course. The teacher clucked and reminded them to speak German. Henry smiled at Viola again as Fiona from Australia giggled as though they were still teenagers.
It was a small class in a small language school in the centre of Frankfurt, Im Zentrum, as the Germans said. Viola had been in the German class for three months. She took the train in every weekday from the small town she lived in with Ralf who she’d met on a trip she’d taken to Vietnam after finishing her history degree. When she spoke German at home Ralf would stroke her hair and say: “You are like a kitchen appliance, macerating every syllable. It’s very cute, Schatzie. You sound like a Turk.”
The director had brought in the new Chinese students that Monday morning. The director was an old German hippie, always winking and telling Viola to eat muesli. During introductions Fiona said Henry had smiled instantly when Viola said she was twenty-three and from Campobello Island. Viola hadn’t noticed–she often shut her eyes when she spoke German, and thought of home. Henry was from Beijing. He had been in Frankfurt for one month. He was thirty-one years old.
Every Monday they began with a new expression or word they had learned on the weekend. This class, Viola offered Heimweh. Fiona had told her on coffee break that Henry had nodded when she said she missed Canada.
“Homesick,” he said, nodding as though he could see the sea urchins and shells she saw behind her eyelids. Viola squinted thinking his name couldn’t actually be Henry. It wasn’t Chinese. He told her later it was a name he had taken for Westerners. His real name was Sun He Peng.
On coffee break Henry was talking with the other two Chinese men as she walked by. Henry smiled and looked down at his feet and then back at her. He was tall. He’d laughed later when she said she thought Chinese men were all short. He told her he used to think Caucasians wore sunglasses so their eyes wouldn’t change colour in the sun. “I didn’t know the colour of your eyes at first,” he said. “Your eyes were always closed when you were speaking. They are green like the ocean.”
Henry had worked at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing. He’d worked at the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa for one year, part of his training. He’d perfected his English there.
“A translator?” Viola asked.
He smiled back. “A diplomat. At first I thought you didn’t understand the language. You are just shy. Forgive me.”
Viola laughed and closed her eyes and her cheeks were suddenly hot.
After class Fiona had proclaimed them a mini UN. Fiona was an accountant from Sydney and she was living here with her fiancé, Helmut, a banker she’d met at a conference. He had a telescope. They were going to Australia soon to get married.
There was a young couple from Turkey, Gastarbeiter, guest workers doing industrial work there weren’t enough Germans for. They never stayed after class. Sixteen-year old Farzad from Tehran who mourned the fall of the Shah and with his large aqua eyes followed the every move of Kwan-Sun, seventeen and from Korea, a nanny for a wealthy German family. Padma was from Bombay, her husband an English investment banker. It was the second time they’d been married to each other and she anticipated another divorce and possibly a third marriage. They were made for each other, she said, but only incrementally. Padma laughed what Fiona called a deep curried laugh. It was Padma who said the Chinese were refugees. “The riots, you know, the massacre,” she whispered.
And there was Lucien from Burkina Faso, married to a German historian. He and his wife Helga spoke French together, he had told the class. They’d married in Ouagadougou, and now she had a position at the university in Frankfurt. Helga’s last name was von Feldenburg. In the olden days von was a sign of nobility, Lucien stated.
Yes, their teacher had nodded, but German nobility ended with the abolition of the monarchy in 1919.
“Ja ja,” Lucien had said, leaning back in his chair, his eyes sparkling and his skin like espresso against the creamy white wall. “But abolition does not mean the old ideas disappear. Ce n’est jamais si facile que ça, mes amis.” He looked at the teacher and then at Viola and winked. “Ja,” she said, eyes closing and in her mind sitting with Noel on the back porch of his family farm house that had come down five generations to him. They ate chèvre with sun dried tomatoes on homemade brown bread. Don’t go to Saigon, Nolen said, looking out over the beach, crying so quietly. Stay here and marry me. We’ll run your parents’ inn and my family farm, do the summer market for the tourists, go sailing on Saturday afternoons.
Henry would always come to the park after class with the others who would scatter to benches in the late October sun. He sat by the fountain with Viola. She told him she was living with Ralf, that they’d met in Saigon where she’d gone after graduating from university with what Ralf called a useless degree. She’d left Campobello because it as an island, there was nothing there. But her voice had caught then and Henry had nodded his beautiful head, knowing there were some things there. Ralf was a software engineer. He’d been married once before and had a daughter the same age as Viola. She lived in New York and would call sometimes, usually hanging up if Viola answered. I don’t recognize you, the daughter said once. You are just one more. Don’t think you are the only one even now. Ralf would say his daughter was jealous. She was insecure. She refused to grow up. Ralf was doing research on using the internet for telephone calls. It was the way of the future, he said. He travelled frequently so Viola was studying German, something to keep her busy. She had no work papers, no official status.
Henry smiled. “I have a great affinity for Canadians. They’ve been very kind to me.”
Viola told him the Canadian Embassy in Saigon had closed up shop in the night and fled just before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975. The Vietnamese who’d worked for the Canadians found an abandoned building in the morning. “That wasn’t very kind,” she said, looking at the sky.
Henry nodded and sipped his coffee. “Viola, no one puts their best foot forward when the army is advancing. Things did not go as Ho Chi Minh planned. He was hopeful after the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in the first Indochina War. But the negotiations at the Geneva Conference in 1954 were not what Ho wanted. Zhou Enlai was the Chinese diplomat involved in these negotiations, assisting the Viet Minh. Zhou Enlai was brilliant. ”
Viola nodded. “Is he why you became a diplomat?”
Henry laughed and his coffee spilled on the ground. “Oh, Viola, I was selected and told I would be a diplomat, and like Zhou Enlai, my job would be to think of my people. You know, over a million Chinese died in the Korean Conflict.”
“I can’t imagine so many people,” Viola said, watching the coffee trickle through the dirt.
He closed his eyes. “Zhou’s main concern was keeping the Americans away. A permanent partition of the Vietnamese Peninsula suited China.” Henry paused and then, opened his eyes and looked at the pigeons. “The freedom of my people suited me.”
Viola slapped the coffee puddle with the toe of her shoe and Henry looked at her. “We have a saying: The general sees with only one eye, the diplomat with both. War may be the domain of soldiers but resolutions are always the purview of diplomats.” Henry smiled. “Uncle Ho discovered that even hope must be negotiated. But Vietnam was his home and he would not abandon it after he had returned after so many years in exile.”
Viola slapped the trickle of coffee again. “There is an American photojournalist buried on Campobello Island. He died on a helicopter that was shot down near Danang. He was twenty-nine. He had a baby boy who never knew him and puts flowers on his grave every Sunday afternoon even when it’s snowing. He’ll never know his dad but he tries. He’ll never leave that land.” She squeezed her eyes so she wouldn’t cry.
Henry took her hand. “In China we prayed to our ancestors. The old ways are slow to pass. My father was sad when I went to Beijing. He said to complete the circle of life one must bury one’s father. I laughed at him, Viola, but I laughed less as I grew older. It is our history with the people we love that binds us together. Being close to the graves of the dead has life in it even if you cannot see this.” He took out a tissue and dabbed her eyes and cheeks, and kept holding her hand.
She moved closer to him and he put his arm around her. “Nolen puts silk flowers there in the winter, not real ones because they’d freeze.” She could feel his body shaking as he laughed, and then she laughed too and felt a lightness then, as she had the first time Nolen had given her daisies when they were fifteen.
After lunch they would walk to the subway, the U-Bahn. It was always Fiona, Viola and Farzad who would walk together but these days Farzad and Kwan-Sun had been walking away in the other direction holding hands. Henry began to wait and walk with Fiona and Viola. He and Fiona would board the train on the left and Viola would take the one on the right to the Hauptbahnhoff , the main train station, taking the S-Bahn, a commuter train to Darmstadt, back to the empty apartment to wait for Ralf. On Fridays, some of the students would lunch at a cheap Yugoslavian restaurant near the school and Henry started to come along with them.
Ralf would be home on the weekends and they’d eat and then ride his motorcycle through the countryside. He knew she was homesick and hoped it would cure her. He would take her to ancient castles in the hills and as they’d climb the turrets he’d tousle her hair and tell her she was beautiful.
Ralf never approved of her housekeeping. He’d unpack his suitcase and then vacuum. It wasn’t a criticism; it was how he relaxed. You had to stay on top of the dust, he’d comment. And then he’d tie her to the bed and take a feather duster to her, from her toes, up her legs, over her breasts, her face, feathers soft on her eyelashes. And he’d be packing again on a Sunday evening, gone, before she awoke alone.
The day she went back to Henry’s apartment they’d been swarmed by an army of pigeons in the park. The pigeons of Frankfurt were nasty creatures and knew no discretion. They didn’t wait quietly for crumbs but hopped and leapt about in a frenzy, even the maimed birds, creatures with one eye, one leg, bald birds.
She wondered about how they got their injuries but Henry had laughed. “What is significant is that they survive them.” He joked they were ancestors of war birds–while the bombed-flattened zentrum of Frankfurt might be nothing more than a replica, the pigeons carried the DNA of the survivors. They would survive an apocalypse now. There were pigeons in China, he told her. But having pets was now considered bourgeois. “They are not in the parks like this,” he said.
Henry always wanted more stories of Campobello Island, and she told him it was near Maine, near Passamaquoddy Bay—it was easier to talk about the geography. Her hands fluttered in front of her face, in front of her breasts, up over her head, as she drew him a map in the air. She told him of Nolen and the goats, and the summer market where they worked together, how Nolen had wanted to marry her. “He thinks if his father had been a farmer and not a combat photographer, he wouldn’t have died, if he had done what his parents wanted. I went away to university but I came home every holiday, every summer. The autumn after I graduated I went to Saigon. I went because I saw his father’s photos. They spoke to me. Nolen said I’d never come back. And I didn’t. The island felt as though it was growing smaller everyday.” Viola asked Henry why he was in Frankfurt. He was so easy to talk to and yet shared so little. He’d been at Tiananmen Square, he told her in a matter-of-fact voice, as he watched the pigeons. He’d been in prison and then under house arrest. The Canadians had negotiated on his behalf, for his safety. His voice became very soft and she had to bend her head close to hear. His father had died during that time.
Could he ever go back, Viola asked, holding her hands up. His eyes followed her fingers as though they were wings in the sky and he reached for them, clasping her cold hands in his as he told her, no, he did not foresee that. And he put his hands on his lap, still holding hers. I can see nothing yet in the tea leaves, he’d smiled at her. He wanted to know again about Campobello and she told him of the beaches, Theodore Roosevelt’s summer place that was now part of a park. Viola’s family home was now an inn. Her father was ill, Alzheimer’s. He would have to be institutionalized. It was easier to be away, she said. Henry had nodded. It is nice you have a choice, Viola. She’d closed her eyes then but there was no judgment in his voice and he had held her hand tighter.
The refugee camp was not what she’d seen in the news, tents and jeeps and aid workers dolling out bowls of rice. Henry laughed. Housing was perhaps a better word than camp, saying her island view of the world was charming. She’d smiled. They had not discussed that she would come with him. It was a Friday but Ralf was away until Saturday evening. After lunch, they walked to the subway. Fiona got off at her stop, winking at Viola as the doors closed. And they’d carried on until his stop. The door opened and he’d held out his hand.
It was a tall generic building. Henry and the two other Chinese classmates shared the small, tidy apartment. Two bedrooms with one of them sleeping in the living room. The roommates had not been in class, away for the weekend, Henry said. Viola did not ask where.
Henry led her by the hand to a little bedroom with a mattress on the floor and a tiny table beside the bed, on it a photo of a smiling young Chinese woman holding a baby, and beside it, a black and white picture of a young boy and his father and mother, standing by a cow. Henry turned to Viola and took her face between his hands and kissed her, sucking her breath inside of him, her fingers all over his flesh, mapping her way to him. They made love on the thin mattress, his long hard body pressed down and in on hers, spreading over her as the shadow from a tree would. Henry was silent and when she cried out he covered her lips with his mouth.
He had asked her, after, as they lay there drinking tea, if she would stay and marry Ralf. Or if she would go home to her young man with the flowers. Frankfurt was not a city for her, he said. There were no beaches. “As the Germans say, Zu Hause ist es am Besten,” he said with a smile. The late afternoon sun tunneled in through the small window. No place like home, he said.
Henry told Viola they’d said his wife and daughter would be safe but only on the condition that he go into exile without them. It was the Canadian Embassy who’d arranged things with Germany. Henry hoped he could one day go to Canada. They were working on that but it would be years, and his life would be only in exile now, he knew this. There would be no visits to his father’s grave.
Henry brought her some noodles for supper and in the early morning he brought her persimmons and tea. Grey sky filled the window and she imagined she was on the shores of Campobello, the traffic outside the surf on the sandy beach. She held up her hand and spread her fingers out. “Did you know the starfish is a symbol for safe travel,” she said. She thought of Nolen and his goats, and his armful of wildflowers for his father on Sundays in July, her father now drooling in a chair.
“Viola,” Henry whispered, taking her hand in his, “Home is something we must sometimes negotiate. But it is always worth the negotiations, no matter how hard. You must not send yourself into exile when you can return and make your way. We Chinese have a saying: Your heart will lead you to a path and if you do not follow it, you will, as the years pass, find that you are still at its beginning.” It was then he glanced at the photo on the small table. He shut his eyes and was quiet for a moment before he took Viola’s hand, kissing the palm, his lips soft and warm on her cold pale skin.
— Christy Ann Conlin
Christy Ann Conlin is the author of the novels Heave and Dead Time. She is finishing her next novel, Listening for the Island. She hosts the CBC radio program, Fear Itself, a show that explores the whys, wherefores and what-have-yous of fear www.cbc.ca/fearitself/ You can learn more about the quiet country life of Christy Ann at christyannconlin.com.
Touching and beautifully written. I’ll look out for your novels.