1. Brown, Marina RN, CHPN

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By day the swirling patterns of carpet and embroidered silk layered the bed, a rich and confused chaos of fabric that engulfed the slim figure within. But by twilight, in the gauzy blueness that seeped through the curtains, I could see the outline more clearly. I watched as it rose and fell, hovered in silence, then, with a rustle, readjusted, and rose and fell again. FIGURE

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I knew she preferred this time of day-when the noises of the living became preoccupied and quiet, and even the birds turned away. I knew that in the twilight her eyes, white and wide open, would wander over the shadows finding texture and form. And I knew that she would sometimes sing to the figures that materialized before her like wisps of fragrance.


She stirred, and turned her head slowly as if a melody had begun. I knew that she was remembering; knowing this, I could envision her memories.


Meilong's hair lies slightly damp along her neck. The steamy, Southeast Asian road is splashed with shadows. It is summer and she is full of youth. With tiny steps, she hurries to a shop. She doesn't want the dust of the path on her dress. It is white and clean-and she is filled with spring and the sounds of a war gone silent. Ahead she sees the old women and slows as she watches them stoop to gather stones from the road. Like gulls, black and white, with spiteful red mouths, the old women chatter and dart back and forth-each with a stone and a curse aimed at the clean white dress, at this girl who speaks Vietnamese but is an alien among them. Yet she isn't frightened. Her life has been a miracle. Born of a black soldier and a local girl and left to toddle alone in the streets of Saigon, Meilong had been swept up by an elderly teacher one day and taken home to his wife to raise. Skin the color of dark umber, wild, black hair flying in little helixes around the high cheek bones and tilted eyes of Asia, her face telling of a night that her countrymen would not let her forget-yet it was a face an old man found perfect and beautiful.


She coughed in the deepening dusk, and from beneath the quilt, a long, emaciated arm extended toward a tiny radio and with effort switched it on. A distant, crackling station drifted moments of Vietnamese music about her bed, as if its fragments were pieces of bread cast to the hungry. She curled closer to the tiny machine. Her head was bald and tiny sores dotted her skin, but she began to hum and the bones of her fingers were moving. She was remembering again.


The refugee camp in Thailand that holds her family is bleak. A field carved in an industrial wasteland; tents and tin-and-paper shacks stretch for acres. Fleeing Vietnam through the mountains, Meilong and her elderly parents believed it would be a temporary haven. Yet now they have lived here for four years. The camp has developed its own life, evolving as people come and go. It is at this camp, in a corrugated tin building to which Meilong goes each day, that she has learned the ancient instrument of Vietnam, the thu-cam. A tall, stringed, harp-like device, its music throbs with longing. As Meilong plays and sings, even her grey, brittle teachers, who know they'll never return home again, sit beside her, nodding; they tell this half-Asian, half-black girl that the soul of Saigon is in her voice and her hands.


But others hate her for it. One night, as she sings to herself on a little rise overlooking the camp, sheltered with her harp in a thin stand of bamboo, she is raped and beaten, and her fingers are broken. And just as cruelly, her attackers leave the thu-cam beside her, untouched.


In the quiet American town, the Asian teacher knelt before his once-beautiful half-black child. He was very old, with a permanent smile and eyes that perpetually sought to understand. He placed his hand on her shoulder and offered her tea. In the near darkness, I saw her turn. Her eyes, white as moons, never left his face. She willed him to know-if he wanted to understand-yet she could not tell him.


Her one dream had been that she could live long enough to care for this devoted father in his old age, as a child should do. She felt humiliated by her illness, yet it was the shame of others that she wore on her face and carried in her body-a shame that she had chosen to endure with grace.


With a Chinese herb her father rubbed her fingers, which often ached. The fingers were twisted and tight, but every night he tried to stretch them. Her eyes never left his face. I once asked her if her father knew about the AIDS, and how she had been infected; she told me that one day she would tell him, but she believed on that day he would stop loving her.


And then Meilong's pain grew worse. She rarely slept, and moaned softly when she did. Filled with concern, the old man asked me the name of this illness that entrapped his daughter. Yet respecting Meilong's wishes, I said only that his daughter would have to tell him. But Meilong had heard his question, and touching my hand, whispered that, at last, the time had come. That evening, I watched from a far corner as she pulled herself up and into a kneeling posture before her father. I had never seen her so thin, so weak. Her body trembled beneath her gauze pajamas. Silhouetted in the dusk, he appeared like a Buddha, distant and unknowable, and she like a penitent, for whom redemption was impossible and only honor remained. Slowly, she bowed her head three times to the floor, and the old man leaned closer. Her voice came as a murmur; guttural, rhythmic, halting. She spoke until her strength and all the words were used up. When she finished, her father rose. He looked out at the trees, black, with the brittle chrome outline of the new moon. Without a word or a touch he walked silently from the room. Meilong didn't move. Then she wrapped her arms about her head and wept.


A week passed. Meilong had drawn very near death. Her breathing was rapid and she was conscious only from time to time. The old man stayed away from her. The tea had stopped and he no longer stroked her fingers. It seemed that she had been right; his love had been withdrawn, the shame too much even for this affectionate old man. Yet on the day before she died, he came to sit beside her. Then the door opened and the musicians softly filed in, bowed to the elder father, and moving to Meilong, they tied white prayer threads around her tiny wrists. Then they arranged themselves around her pallet and began to play. The old man sat alone on a chair, his eyes fixed upon the ceiling. Plucked and bowed instruments, soft drums, jingling cymbals. They chanted in the voice of a faraway land. Meilong's eyes opened. The fragile muscles of her face pulled into a smile, and she gazed from one musician to the next. These were her songs singing to her again. And this was her father's gift-his gift of love, not withdrawn, but compounded. Meilong reached weakly for her father's hand. Her eyes were hollow, but riveted upon his face in gratitude. And without looking at her, as the tears coursed down his wrinkled cheeks, the old man's hand stretched down to hers and he held her little fingers. And slowly he stroked them-gently, ever so gently, he stroked her little fingers.