The Tapestries
By Kien Nguyen
Published by Little Brown & Company
November 2002; 0-316-28441-6; 320 pages

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The Tapestries by Ken NguyenThe Wedding

During the winter months, the Perfume River was chilly, especially at dawn. The morning of Dan Nguyen's first wedding was no exception. While the sun was still hidden, its early rays reached from behind the Ngu Binh Mountain, stretching pale-yellow fingers over the sky. Thin clouds wafted by, and the wind whipped up whirlpools of mist. Damp tendrils drifted over the jungle of oak trees that climbed the steep mountainside and were lost against the horizon. Along the side of the river, a strip of land still lay in darkness. From afar, it looked like the back of a crocodile floating in the water. A few hundred feet away, a sampan moved slowly upstream. Both sides of the boat were painted with red resin from the lacquer tree and highlighted with gold trim in large rectangular patterns--the design reserved for weddings.

At the vessel's stern, a white-haired man with stooped shoulders sat on the floor. His gnarled hands clenched an oar, and he leaned heavily into its strokes. The man seemed lost in his own world. His eyes, hidden beneath the rim of a torn conical hat, focused on the water. The faded blue peasant shirt on his back was tattered, exposing his bony ribs. Next to him hung a red lantern that illuminated a short stretch of river ahead. The faint sound of the oar moving the water echoed against the silence.

Behind the old man, in the center of the sampan, was a small cabin with a roof built of red-lacquered bamboo stalks lashed together with palm fronds. Across its entrance hung a pink silk screen on which a canary-yellow dragon entwined with its feminine mate, an equally gracious phoenix. Custom dictated that the bride must be concealed from sight. She sat behind the silk barrier, careful not to make a sound while the boat rocked to the helmsman's gentle rhythm. Just as the sun appeared from behind the purple mountain, the old man guided his bridal sampan toward land. Sunlight broke through the clouds into thousands of tiny golden pennies. The old man squinted, searching the shoreline for a place to dock. He did not have to look far.

 

Just ahead, where the ground extended into the water to form a long, narrow wharf, twenty people from the groom's family stood in a single file. Most of them wore the ao dai, the ceremonial garb reserved for festivities such as this. The costumes were similar for both men and women: a tunic, made out of silk or satin, with a long skirt separated at the waist into two panels, front and back. The men wore their robes over white pants, while the women wore theirs over black--a more subservient color.

The wedding party had prepared the landing site by hanging strings of firecrackers over the branches of the tamarind trees. Upon the arrival of the sampan, the two oldest men began the ceremony by burning purified joss sticks. Then they ignited the firecrackers. The red, petal-like missiles burst into the morning air, stirring flocks of sparrows from their sleep. They flapped their gray wings among the dark branches, adding their screeches to the din. The deafening sound of the explosives was believed to banish evil spirits as the groom's family prepared to accept their new daughter-in-law.

With the help of two young servants, the old man stepped off his boat. He took off his hat and bowed to the elders. His gesture was mechanical yet courteous. He focused his eyes on the crimson debris of the fireworks on the ground. After the last few scattered booms, silence returned to the riverbank, and even the fog seemed to settle back into its original pattern, draped over the oak trees. From the greeting party, one man marched forward. He was about forty-five years old, and his deep-set eyes peered from beneath bushy eyebrows. His high cheekbones and the downward curve of his mouth made his features appear grim and darkly authoritative. He wore a headdress of black silk, folded into many layers, which framed the crown of his head like a halo. His ao dai was ocean blue, with a subtle, darker, dotted pattern of embroidery, representing the royal symbol of longevity. The fabric was handwoven from a superlative silk, made by the silkworms of the famous Phu Yen Village. Even a rich man could afford only a few such garments. He returned the old man's salutation with a slow bow, then knitted his hands together and faced his palms upward, placing them against his abdomen.

"Greetings," he said to the visitor. "My name is Tat Nguyen. I am the father of the groom. Welcome to our humble town." The old man's head bowed lower, so that no one could see his lips moving as he spoke. "Thank you, but I am afraid that I can't accept your warm welcome, Master Nguyen. My job is to deliver my granddaughter to your home. It is now done, and so I must bid my farewell. Take her with you to the groom. From this moment on, she belongs in your household, sir."

He stepped aside, leaving room for the groom's family to approach the sampan. A pair of servants came forward and joined the other two on the boat. One stood at each corner of the bridal cabin. Then, with one synchronized movement, they hoisted the cubicle to their shoulders and carried it to the shore.

Master Nguyen lifted a corner of his robe and strode to the cabin. He parted the silk screen with the back of his hand to reveal its small interior. Looking back at him was a woman in her twenties. Dressed in a red wedding gown, she crouched with visible discomfort in the center of the cabin. The moment she saw his face, she recoiled farther into her cramped sanctuary. Her eyes, slanted and wide-set, darted as though she were searching for a way to flee. From years of working outdoors, her body had absorbed so much sunlight that a glow seemed to radiate from her skin. She had a big, flat nose, large mouth, and oversized teeth, which were stained black with the juice of betel nuts. He drew his eyebrows together disapprovingly.

"Master, do you like what you see, sir?" came a female voice from somewhere behind him. He turned to see an elderly woman whose back was bent so close to the ground that she appeared to be crawling instead of walking. She was the matchmaker who was responsible for this arranged wedding. Trying to meet his stare, she looped her neck like a duck.

"How old is she?" he asked.

"Four and twenty, sir."

His frown deepened. "She is an old maid, isn't she?"

"She is very healthy," the matchmaker replied quickly. "She is as strong as a bull. And look at her breasts. They are heavy. You will be blessed with many grandchildren."

He relaxed his grimace, looked at the bride, and asked, "What is your name, daughter?"

Upon hearing this, the matchmaker turned happily to the others. "The master has approved. He called her 'daughter.' Bring in the musicians!"

A much louder noise from a turn of the street drowned out the old lady's excited cry-the pulsating sound of a drum. Within seconds, a dragon made of glossy painted wood, cardboard, and papier mâché, held up high on bamboo sticks, appeared at the opening of the wharf. From afar, it seemed to float through the village. Young men in white shirts and red pants danced under it to the beat of the drum. Lanterns, shaped like butterflies and fish, burned brightly under the early morning sun. A soprano sang the ending verse from the famous opera The King's Wedding. Her voice glided to the highest note before it, too, blended with the sounds of revelry. More firecrackers soared through the air, and no one seemed to notice when the old man slipped away to his boat and turned it back downstream. When the noisy celebration dimmed, the bride shyly answered her father-in-law's question. "My name is Ven, sir."

"Good." Master Nguyen nodded. It was a lowly name that one would give only to a dog, yet somehow it suited her, he thought. The matchmaker handed him a red veil, which he hung over the bride 's head, concealing her face. From that time on, all she could see were the ruby tips of her slippers, yet she was thankful. The sheer fabric became her protective shield. Alone in a strange town, she would rather be led through the ceremony like a blind woman, unaware of the disparaging looks, like the one she had just received from her husband's father. In the back of her mind, a pang of curiosity stirred up, as faint as smoke. What did he look like? She knew nothing about her bridegroom. What of his personality, his likes, his dislikes, even his name? And yet, these things mattered little at this juncture of her life. Like it or not, she was about to be a married woman.

The servants carried her through the streets. The farther they walked, the more vigorously the cabin rocked on their shoulders. She leaned back, closed her eyes, and let herself sway with its movement. The thought of becoming a fine woman in a rich man's home relaxed her aching muscles. The folds of her satin gown trapped her body heat, and she began perspiring. "An elegant lady never sweats." She dimly remembered an old saying she had heard as a child. She reached under the veil and wiped her forehead with the back of her hand.

At last, the bridal party stopped at what seemed to be the back entrance of a house. Someone swept aside the silk curtain of her cubicle and took her callused palm. She recognized the matchmaker's wrinkled hand as the old lady guided her down a muddy path that led to a wooden door.

At the entrance, a burning pot of red coals sat on the ground waiting for her. It was the custom for the bride to step over a blazing stove before setting foot in her new home. The fire would rid her soul of any evil spirits still clinging to it. The matchmaker explained that, according to the astrologer, Ven's unfortunate time of birth required her to enter through the back door and go straight to her honeymoon suite. The rest of the wedding celebration would continue without her.

Ven had to wait for her husband to come and lift her veil. This was another important tradition she had been told that she must follow if she ever hoped to have a long and happy life with this man. Seeing nothing but the tiles beneath her feet, Ven was led through unseen rooms and seated on her bridal bed, alone in the unfamiliar house. Ven lost count of how many hours she remained alone. From the fading of a few streaks of light on the floor, she could tell that the day had aged into night. Outside the window, the party seemed to be winding down. She could hear the laughter slowly diminish into the slurring of drunken guests. The ebullient opera had ended, and now there was a single, soporific moan of a lute. In the dark, her back throbbed, and the numbness in her buttocks spread down her legs. She was hungry and tired. The gown tightened around her bosom, making it difficult for her to breathe.

Just when she thought she could not wait any longer, Ven heard the squeaking noise of a door as it opened and shut. A small group of people tiptoed into the room. Their whispering sounded to her like the wind rasping against rice paper. The oil lamp on the nightstand by her side flickered into light. Moments later, she heard the intruders withdraw, carefully closing the door behind them.

But Ven could tell that she was not alone. The subtle movement of the furniture, the faint rustle of clothing, and the quiet footsteps moving back and forth kept her frozen in place. It's him, she thought. It must be my husband. Who else could it be? In seconds, her months of waiting would be over. Like a boiling pot of water, the anxiety rose up, and she could hardly control her composure. She sat tightly, watching her hands tremble. She could feel the heat from her husband's body as he approached her. She kept her eyes downcast. Touching the ruby tips of her slippers were two tiny bare feet, just half the size of hers. A small hand reached out and clumsily tugged the veil from her face.

Standing before her was a little boy wearing a groom's costume. He could not have been older than seven. She could see the wide gap of his missing front teeth as he grinned at her, and it came to her that this child was her husband.

She got up from the edge of the wedding bed and lowered the oil lamp until it emitted only a dot of light the size of a pea. Quietly, she took off her restrictive clothing. The boy sat on the bed and watched her with his large, almond-shaped eyes. He inserted his thumb into the gap in his teeth. Ven left her undergarments on and climbed into the bed, pulling the mosquito net over her. As she lay down, her husband snuggled into her outstretched arms. He buried his face in her armpit, sucking his thumb.

She took the boy's wrist and pulled the finger out of his mouth. With an effort, she made her voice low and reasonable. "Young master, you are too old for this habit." He lay still, looking at her. Then he closed his eyes and went to sleep. Ven struggled with an impulse to wipe the drool off his face.

In the dark, she began to understand what her position would be in this rich man's house. They did not marry her to make her a fine lady. They wanted her for slave labor. Yet, being a daughter-in-law, she was not entitled to the salary a servant would have been paid. To her surprise, Ven found she could not cry. Soon exhaustion claimed her.

Copyright Nguyen-Andrews, LLC
Reprinted with permission.

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Synopsis

A stunning novel set in turn-of-the-century Vietnam by the author of the beloved memoir The Unwanted.

Vietnam 1916, the Perfume River at dawn: A red-lacquered boat glides along the riverbank, guided by the rhythmic paddling of an ancient oarsman. As the sampan nears the shore, a wedding party prepares the landing site for the arrival of the intended bride. Inside the sampan's cabin, the bride waits nervously to meet the groom and his family—or she has never laid eyes on her betrothed. When she sees her husband for the first time, she is shocked to find a young boy no more than seven years old—she has been tricked into providing the family with a daughter-in-law's free labor.

More mother than wife, Ven takes care of her young husband, Dan, until the day he is forced to leave his childhood behind forever when, while hidden by the thick branches of a mango tree, he witnesses his father's brutal beheading by the village's power-hungry mayor. Dan and his family are forced to flee their ancestral home to escape the mayor's terrible rage, and it is only when Dan grows up and realizes he is in love with the one person he can never have—the mayor's own granddaughter, Tai May—that he is forced to create his own destiny.

The Tapestries is inspired by the true story of the author's grandfather, a tapestry weaver in the last imperial court of Vietnam. After Nguyen published his memoir, The Unwanted, his brother returned to Vietnam to retrieve the tapestries still in their family's possession. When the tapestry that most mesmerized Kien as a young boy was found in ruin, he was inspired to reimagine his grandfather's life into a living, breathing tapestry of his own—this vivid, page-turning novel, a debt of honor to the memory of his grandfather. Filled with luscious details of turn-of-the-century Vietnam, this is a story of spellbinding drama, intrigue, and an unforgettable love affair.

The book's endpapers are taken from a tapestry woven by the author's grandfather, who served as a professional embroiderer in the court of the last king of Vietnam in the early 1900s.

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Author

Kien NguyenKien Nguyen left Vietnam in 1985 through the United Nations "Orderly Department Program." After spending time at a refugee camp in the Philippines, Nguyen arrived in the United States. He lives in New York City.

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