On the anniversary of his death, I put a stem of jasmine in a glass vase on the windowsill. The flower’s fragrance a bridge between this world and the next.
Did I cut myself? Did I? Maybe I did, no, yes, did I? I don’t know.
I slept alone that night in a stranger’s bedroom, the room my mother decorated with somebody else in mind: my sister who had passed away in her sleep before I was born. A peaceful and common death among infants, I was told. Though nobody had said it explicitly, I knew the room staged for my dead sister had to remain as it was, the cream wallpaper with little merry-go-rounds yellowed from rain leaks, the four-poster canopy bed and the rocking bassinet by its side, the sickly rose-painted desk and bookcase she’d never grown old enough to use.
The night ticked past as I twisted and turned, the cotton blanket heavy with my sweat pushed into a large roll the size of a human body at my feet. I strained my ears for my nanny’s delirious talks, but it was no use. We were separated by a whole floor, and thick walls that deadened any sound, making each room in the house its own universe.
Around three in the morning, I startled awake. My head felt dizzy, as though I’d been inside a carousel for hours, spinning in circles. I pushed myself up and out of bed. I crept downstairs. The door to my nanny’s room was cracked open as usual for airflow. Moonlight spilled in through the window. I walked toward the glow. When I looked inside, I gasped and immediately put my hand over my mouth to mute any sound.
My nanny’s hair floated all around the room like tendrils of black seaweed as though she were underwater. Her hair had climbed up the walls, penetrated the house’s structure, so that the ceiling bulged in knots of shiny black. Like a never-ending reptile, the hair writhed around her torso, her shoulders, her neck. Though her eyes were open, two unblinking white orbs, I knew she didn’t see me.
He’s back, he’s back, he’s back, I heard her say, though I was sure I never saw her mouth open.
I retraced my steps, walking backward up the stairs, too afraid to take my eyes off of my nanny’s bedroom door. I left her there in the moon’s cold glow.
In the morning, a bowl of steaming vermicelli was waiting for me on the kitchen counter. Usually, my nanny would be chopping up some meat or other and adding a final touch to my breakfast after I was seated, but she wasn’t there.
Instead, there was a cold plate of raw beef, bleeding onto the white ceramic plate. I dipped slices of meat into the broth, eating them as soon as they were warmed. The beef tasted sweet, like a ripe pineapple, and strangely delicious. I tilted the plate and let the leftover blood that had begun to congeal drip into my bowl.
After breakfast, I dressed hurriedly and went to school.
In the evening when I returned, my nanny was again nowhere to be found, though there were signs of her in the usual places: her plastic slippers at the back door, a pot of porridge on the stove, a bucket full of oddly shaped bones and food scraps left for the feral dogs at the foot of the willow tree, her straw hat at the edge of the empty pool.
I picked it up, uncovering a gnarl of caterpillars on the ground. They tried to untangle themselves and escape. I grimaced at the sight of them, a sick of colors too bright in that landscape. It was hard to believe that someday they would metamorphose into something like beauty.
It seemed that I was always a few steps behind my nanny, entering as she exited. From my mother’s bedroom window, I could look beyond the pool, over the garden. Underneath the greenhouse’s roof of interwoven pothos and ivies, I saw her unmistakable figure, the long black hair that thinned toward sunburned ends, touching the back of her knees, the impractical white lace dress she always wore as though still in mourning for her dead lover. A new addition to her outfit I hadn’t seen before⎯a maroon scarf wound twice around her neck.
I cranked the window open, eager to call out her name, but even the wind seemed to muffle my voice. Still, I persisted, leaning so far out the window that I almost fell into the thornbush below. For a split second, she seemed to be listening, her body frozen in place, but she still did not turn to meet my desperate beckoning.
He’s back, he’s back, he’s back, I heard her say, though I was sure I never saw her mouth open.
My mother was gone for longer and longer hours, often not coming home until I was already asleep and always taking off before I woke. During those days, it felt as though I was wholly alone, moving undetected between rooms, from one dark and empty universe to another. The amorphous house, its never-ending hallway. I would run and run, it seemed for hours, until I was to the point of nausea, and I still could not reach a corner.
I was almost glad, then, when the dead man showed up in my bedroom. He merely stood in the room’s corner, though each day his figure moved an imperceptible distance closer to where I lay.
Are you my nanny’s lover? I asked the figure telepathically, assuming that spirits could read my thoughts. He said nothing, only opened what I must call a mouth, though it couldn’t be, as it looked more like a bulbous tree root. Inside this opening, I could see multiple deep slashes.
One weekend morning, after a sleepless night, not wanting to close my eyes for fear of finding the dead man inches from my face, I managed to get up before my mother left. She was still in her nightgown, sipping tea by the window, looking out at the overgrown hibiscus. The sight of another human being brought tears to my eyes. I wasn’t alone after all. I had company! I sat down across from her, where I was allowed. My mother didn’t like clingy children.
“Did Nanny prepare the sweet potato for you?” I asked.
My mother looked at me, her dark eyes gleaming with impatience. “Of course.”
“Have you⎯seen her lately?” I didn’t want to seem too needy. After all, I was almost ten. And I knew my mother didn’t like the idea of me having affection for anyone else, though she herself didn’t want it.
My mother shook her head, as though saying, Why should I? Perhaps sensing more prodding from me, she added, “You shouldn’t bother her too much. She has chores to attend to. Look at the pool⎯it’s full of that slimy green stuff. Who would swim there?” She was right. Nobody would.
“Is she not well, lately?”
My mother furrowed her brows. I immediately regretted my question.
I felt I had to explain my trespassing of my mother’s morning routine. “Today is the anniversary of her fiancé’s death. She normally wakes me up for the ceremony. We would bring him yellow jasmine because it has a strong fragrance, and scent is multidimensional, connecting the underworld with ours, and she would tell me all about their lov⎯”
My mother let out a metallic laughter. “Fiancé? Your nanny? He was no fiancé of hers. That man slept with so many women he probably lost track. I doubt he even remembered her name. Though, she was the one who ended his philandering ways.”
I pretended not to have heard the word slept and looked down at the floor to conceal my blush. “Ended how?”
Briefly, my mother seemed to debate with herself whether I was too young for the story.
“You mustn’t be afraid of your nanny,” my mother said.
Why would I be afraid of her? I thought. It was the dead man I feared, my nanny’s eternal haunt.
“It was self-defense on her part,” she said. “You see, I needed someone’s help when I had you, someone I could trust not to be afraid to stand up to any man. Well, your nanny demonstrated as much, didn’t she? She never tried to hide the fact⎯told me about it during our first interview. That gained my trust completely. Plus, I knew she was going to be loyal⎯who else would hire a murderess? People are shortsighted, you know. They don’t understand that even her reputation was enough to safeguard us.”
It’s often not the actual accumulation of years that forces us to grow up and leave childhood behind, but an isolated moment, in which one story replaces another, effortlessly, leaving us breathless, balancing both truths in our hands. At the time, I couldn’t fully grasp my mother’s words, but I knew something fundamental had shifted. What I learned at school about right and wrong had to be separated from my own life and the people closest to me.
Yes, I’d grown up since then, left the infinite hallway of home for the university’s crowded one. As an adult, I realized both my mother and nanny were only in their twenties then, young women themselves, both struggling to stifle gossip and disapproval. How different they were from each other, and yet how alike⎯both widows, both haunted⎯my mother by her own hardened heart, and my nanny by the exhilarating power she’d felt holding her lover’s last breath in her grip. Violence and love knotted, one impossible without the other.
I too had grown used to the changing hands encircling my throat. Tighter, tighter, I asked them. Some were thrilled by the request; others acquiesced hesitantly to never return. People didn’t always want that kind of power over another⎯to hold a person’s life in your hand, loosening your grip at will and releasing small doses of oxygen to keep them gasping, wanting. Sometimes, I wrapped my hands around my own throat the way my nanny would have done in her sleep.
There was much I didn’t understand about relationships, only the moment one yielded totally, not to the person who shared one’s bed but the sublime force that was always rebalancing the scale. I was raised by a gentle murderess who had cut the throat of a man when he refused to love her and only her. How often I too had been denied the fidelity I sought, but unlike her, I was no longer afraid of the dead man. I hoped for his return.
While washing the dishes over the sink, I accidentally grabbed a knife’s blade. When I pulled my hand out of the bubbly water, the stream of syrupy red recalled a time of simpler wants. My mouth filled with the taste of Rocher chocolate and of iron.
Perhaps it wasn’t so much pleasure that I sought, or dreams of the dying, but memories of my nanny. Her magnified solitude saving me from my own. Her nightmares overshadowing any real threat, the empty house, my mother’s vacant laughter, love as absence.
Perhaps it wasn’t so much pleasure that I sought, or dreams of the dying, but memories of my nanny.
My nanny stayed long after I moved away. To take care of the garden, wild canines, my mother explained, but, really, I thought my mother couldn’t do without her. Like the drained pool, a giant green mouth where wild plants and minuscule creatures now thrived, or the merry-go-round wallpaper, or the rocking bassinet in a tightly shut, windless room, my nanny was a fixture in my childhood home.
Night after night, her lover returned, daring her to show her passion once more and finalize their matrimony, willing his loyalty in death if she couldn’t have it in life. And my mother there, too, by the window of her bedroom, listening to the screams reverberating through the house. Safe in the throes of another’s tragedy.
Alone in my studio apartment, oceans away from where I grew up, I took comfort in my field of vision, my ability to see my entire living space in one take, the edges of walls meeting at corners. The brightly lit ceiling. The dead man remained, faithfully behind every door, coming closer, however imperceptibly, each time I opened and shut my eyes.
On the anniversary of his death, I put a stem of jasmine in a glass vase on the windowsill. The flower’s fragrance a bridge between this world and the next. The promise of eternal love only a breath away.
Abbigail Nguyen Rosewood is a Vietnamese and American author. Her debut novel, IF I HAD TWO LIVES, is out from Europa Editions. Her second novel CONSTELLATIONS OF EVE is the inaugural title forthcoming in 2022 from DVAN/TTUP, a publishing imprint founded by Isabelle Thuy Pelaud, a scholar of Asian American history and literature, and Pulitzer winner Viet Thanh Nguyen to promote Vietnamese American literature.
Her works can be found at TIME Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, Salon, Cosmopolitan, Lit Hub, Electric Lit, Catapult, Pen America, BOMB, among others. She is the founder of Neon Door, an immersive art exhibit. Find her at www.abbigailrosewood.com