The Lotus Eaters

By Tatjana Soli; Published In 2010
Genres: Historical, Fiction, War, Cultural, Asia
A woman sees war differently.

Before, there had been this small, shiny thing inside her that kept her immune from what was happening, and now she knew it had only been her ignorance, and she felt herself falling into a deep, dark place.

But now she did belong to the ravaged city - her frame grown gaunt, her shoulders hunched from tiredness, the bone-sharp jaw line that had lost the padded baby fat of pretty, her blue gaze dark and inward.

Clear now that she was as dependent as any addict on the drug of the war. He had underestimated the damage in her.

Helen didn't yet understand that conjuring up the future was the duty of the living, what they owed to the dead.

Helen's Saigon had always been about selling - chickens, information, or lovely young women, it didn't matter. It had once been called the Pearl of the Orient, but by people who had not been there in a very long time. Saigon had never been Paris, but now it was a garrison town, unlovely, a stinking refugee shantyville filled with the angry, the betrayed, the dispossessed, but she had made it her home, and she couldn't bear that soon she would have to leave.

It had always fascinated her - what happens when things break down, what are the basic units of life?

Long ago she had become more ambitious than feeling. She had fallen in love with images instead of living things. Except for Linh.

No matter that they had been together for years, always a feeling of formality when they first saw each other again, even if the separation had been only hours. It had something to do with the attention [he] paid to her – the fact that he never took anyone’s return for granted.

Once a picture was taken, the experience was purged of its power to haunt.

Pictures could not be accessories to the story -- evidence -- they had to contain the story within the frame; the best picture contained a whole war within one frame.

Saigon in utter darkness this last night of the war. A gestating monster. Her letter to Linh had been simple: I love you more than life, but I had to see the end.

Saigon was loved precisely because it was so unlovable - its squalor, its biblical, Job-like misfortune, its imminent, hoevering doom.

She consoled herself with the thought that the pictures were graphic enough to shake people up, stop them being complacent about what was happening, and if that meant the war would end sooner, those two deaths weren't in vain. As she hoped, with less and less confidence each day, that Michael's had not been in vain. Too much waste to bear.

She did not think it was true that women fell in love all at once, but rather, that they fell in love through repitition, just the way someone became brave.

She had always assumed that her life would end inside the war, that the war itself would be her eternal present, as it was for Darrow and for her brother. The possibility of time going on, her memories growing dim, the photographs of the battles turning from life into history terrified her.

She was his country; she was what he would miss until they were back together.

Something had broken inside her. No past or future, no sense of time, each day as endless as it was to a child. Linh had been right about her being a tourist of the war in the beginning, but with that detachment there had also been a kind of strength. As Darrow had said, there was a price to mastery. Now she was in limbo, neither an observer of the country, nor a part of it. For the first time since she was a child, she considered praying, but it seemed small and cowardly this late in the game.

Sometimes you have to fulfill a promise in order to deserve the love you're given.

The hardest thing was to give meaning to what appeared to have none.

The only tangible evidence of the enemy's existence so far was dead bodies, but strangely, the dead were somehow less, did not match the fear and terror they inspired, much like one could not imagine flight from the evidence of a dead bird on the ground.

[They] believed that the worst way to die, was far from home. That one’s soul traveled the earth, lost forever. But this place was as much her home as [California]. She had lived out some of the most important parts of her life here – and if that didn’t qualify a place as home, what did?

This is what happened when one left one's home - pieces of oneself scattered all over the world, no one place ever completely satisfied, always a nostalgia for the place left behind. Pieces of her in Vietnam, some in this place of bone. She brought the letter to her nose. The smell of Vietnam: a mix of jungle and wetness and spices and rot. A smell she hadn't realized she missed.

Too many heroes in my life. All gone.

Until then she had been blind, but when she saw those mountains, she slipped beneath the surface of the war and found the country.

We are a people used to grief. Expecting it even.

What are the boundaries of charity? When started, where does it morally end?

What was the point of living through history if you didn't record it?

Why did someone fall in love with you because you are one thing and then want you to be something else?

Why did someone fall in love with you because you were one thing, and then want you to be something else?