They knew better than to move off the buckets, though occasional sighs and slight fidgeting exposed their discomfort. Naked babies filled the room, indistinguishable with their shaved fuzzy hair, listless eyes and thin limbs spindling over scratched-up pails. Every morning they gathered in the room for toilet training, squatting for several hours until the nuns said they could get up.
Hoa had been told long ago the necessity of this activity. The nursery was notoriously overcrowded, located in one of the poorest sections of Saigon, and this was the only practical method to potty train so many children. Still, Hoa remembered her sons at this age, crawling on the floor, suckling her breast. They were never forced to hunch over a pail. Hoa didn’t even need to glance over at the new American, Steven, to trust he was horrified.
Hoa’s gaze skimmed over the tops of their heads. Which ones? she asked.
The nun pointed to a particularly emaciated child in the corner, looking to slip off her pail at any moment. Then another finger at a boy who nearly disappeared in his pot. Both children already betrayed signs of their mixed racial heritage, more so, Hoa realized with closer scrutiny, than the others.
In the driveway, Hoa and Steven exchanged several boxes of diapers and baby formula for the two infants, which the nuns pressed to their chests with bows and murmurs of thanks. They peered into the empty car hopefully, but Hoa shook her head. They had other nurseries to get to, a maximum of two per stop. She’d learned a long time ago the hard way of succumbing at the first orphanage, though the urge to gather as many babies in her arms as possible never fully went away. The grief now stained Steven’s face, his reluctance to leave these children behind when he knew the facilities at the adoption center were so much better.
After securing the babies in their carriers, they stood aside while the sisters made their tearful good-byes. This sometimes took a while. Hoa supposed it could be worse, at least these women still cared about their charges. A common, lingering result of working in an orphanage was a numbing indifference to the disease and death that crept around the children.
Hoa checked the infants’ temperatures. Two fingers on their necks and then across the foreheads. There were many disparities between children in these orphanages and the lucky ones Hoa cared for in Saigon. What she noticed first was skin. Healthy infants bore complexions soft and plump as overripe mangoes. These babies were sucked dry, rib cages and joints sharply visible, their wrinkled bodies so starved for nutrition they fed off themselves. Steven padded them with extra blankets to cushion the blow, should their delicate frames bump against their carriers.
Once seated in the car, Hoa examined the new American’s gray complexion and shallow breathing.
Are you feeling all right?
The man nodded slightly and turned to Hoa. How many more stops?
Three. It will be another hour. Hoa looked at her wristwatch. Do you want me to take you back?
Steve shook his head. His thick red hair, which looked so large this morning at the airport, now clung to his head in limp, wet curls.
Hoa ran the engine until it caught. She would not press the issue again, unless the American complained of stomach pains or began throwing up. These new volunteers were always impatient to do so much their first week, brushing off suggestions to allow time to adjust with the country’s climate and the time change. Their ignorance irritated Hoa, this denial that they could be more in the way than of help.
The narrow, jammed streets in downtown Saigon required frequent brakes, quick acceleration and focus, especially when street vendors, motorbikes or other cars strayed too close, which they always did. Hoa’s husband had taught her to drive when she was pregnant with their second child. She always remembered with comfort his one hand over her large belly and the other helping her to steer the wheel. Throughout her apprehension, he assured her that if she learned to drive correctly, she’d always be safe. Hoa understood that near collisions occurred too often to take notice, unless you were a foreigner. So she patiently ignored Steven’s sharp intakes of breath, his instinct to cover his head or shield his eyes each time.
Patriotic mandolin strummed through the crackling static of the city’s rusted loudspeakers that loomed over every street corner. Occasionally, government officials announced news of the war’s progress, encouraging, sometimes demanding, loyalty to the state.
After ten minutes, the street pavement evened out crossing districts, smoothing the drive. The lack of potholes and bumps calmed the American, eventually encouraging him to roll down the window for fresh air. Steven’s neck craned out the window as they turned into the new district, his curiosity of the country renewed.
At the end of the street, a golden pagoda stood prominently on a stone-floor plaza, where a woman in white stood. When they drove by, they could see that her long dress and pants were soiled with mud and sweat stains. She ignored them, her swollen eyes unblinking, focused on her task of hanging red envelopes to the incense burners.
Where are we now? he asked.
Hoa swerved to avoid a cyclo that was about to cut them off. This is Quan Three. We are near my family’s house.
Oh. Steven bent his head to study the map of Saigon that was included in his orientation packet. You grew up here?
No. My hometown is Nha Trang.
He nodded, though he probably didn’t know where Nha Trang was, or how beautiful its clean, bare beaches once were, scattered with pick-up soccer games and fishermen sorting out the morning catch. But that was so long ago. Even Hoa could not recall the serene details this place once held for her. She would try, especially when her husband Lum was away on duty, but she’d given up, realizing any effort only left her feeling more homesick and alone. Her parents and Lum’s parents still lived there, but since Hoa started working, she had little chance to take the children there to visit.
When did you move to Saigon? Steven asked.
After my first son’s birth … about twenty years ago.
Do you like living in the city?
It is safer here for my boys. I like that.
How did you learn to speak English so well?
I went to French school. My teachers said I had twitchy ears, good for learning languages.
Have you worked at the adoption center long?
About three years ago. The army cannot pay my husband and son very much.
Are they away at battle?
This is a war.
You must miss them so much. Do you worry about them?
Could you check on the babies? Hoa asked, looking in the finger-smudged rearview mirror. They have been pretty quiet.
Oh sure. Steven said. He tried to smile before leaving his seat, but his flushed complexion revealed his embarrassment, a realization that his questions had become too personal.
She concentrated on street signs, many of them hard to read. Hoa had worked with enough Americans to understand their need to converse all the time. At first she found their chatty dispositions intrusive, but eventually understood their curiosity indicated a genuine concern. She tried to remember this with Steven, because of all the Americans entering her country, his intentions, like many of the center volunteers, were unselfish.
For years, she reluctantly observed the American army insinuate themselves in her country, realizing the government needed foreign aid, but disliking the swagger and arrogance brought with it. Many of her husband’s visits home were spent complaining of the American officers’ lack of respect; ordering his men around, undermining Lum’s authority and treating him like a low-ranking soldier. And then after the American president’s announcement on television, they changed their minds. Once everywhere on the streets of Saigon, they shrunk to only a handful on the streets, mostly guards of the U.S. Embassy, so that Hoa actually began to miss them. With their weapons, they’d also taken away their bravado and unwavering confidence that South Vietnam would not fall to the Communists.
The South Vietnamese soldiers stretched themselves thin. Lum and Tan left for months at a time, visits home suspended for most regiments. Hoa depended on hastily scrawled letters for assurance and though relieved with each one, she knew they were written critical days before receiving them. On the radio, the South Vietnamese government tried to spin defeats as strategic moves for ultimate victory, but Hoa detected the worry in their voices. Her younger sons observed her compulsively to understand how they should feel about their father and brother’s absence. Hoa held them close to her when they slept, whispering fiercely in their ears of how lucky they were not to be one of the orphans she worked with. They had a family. She tried to follow this advice as much as she could.
The next orphanage breezed past her side window, forcing Hoa to jerk her head back and brake suddenly. After looking around to make sure Steven and the babies were fine, Hoa put the car into reverse. Angry drivers leaned on their horns, screaming obscenities from their windows. Hoa calmly ignored them, as she slowly backed up and turned on the correct street.
A game of tag dispersed quickly once the children recognized the van pulling up the driveway. Several staff members emerged from the building, calling out warnings to the older children running towards the car. Although a weekly occurrence, the arrival of new orphans was something everyone paid attention to. For the children, the possibility of new playmates. For the staff, the logistics of where to put them in the already crowded facilities.
The adoption center was located in a converted villa near a business area of Quan One. The house’s two levels contained rooms large enough to accommodate up to ten children each, with the sunroom and veranda upstairs serving as a giant nursery.
The children had the courtyard and two playrooms inside to run around. There had been suggestions to clean out and refill the rotted swimming pool in the backyard, especially in the summer months, but some feared of the younger children falling in unsupervised. Instead, the cooks used the deck to set up an outdoor kitchen for stir-frying and a small garden to grow cilantro and mint leaves.
Steven waved for Bridget, the staff physician, to come over and look at the month-old baby girl they picked up from the last orphanage. Along with general malnutrition and anemia, her breathing indicated respiratory problems. Bridget carried the infant to the house, with Steven following behind.
While the rest of the staff cooed over the new arrivals, Hoa turned to the older children crowding around her. They grinned at her with green lips and teeth. Every month or so, the American embassy sent over boxes of ice cream treats for the children, injecting a usually sleepy afternoon intended for naps into a sugar rush of hyperactivity.
Did you spoil your appetites? Hoa asked, rubbing one of the boys’ protruding bellies until he giggled and twisted away from her. You still have to finish your suppers tonight. I don’t want to hear any complaints of being too full.
I’m still hungry, a little boy named Duc announced.
Good, Hoa said.
Where are your boys? asked Mui, a young girl originally from Da Lat.
They’re at home with their grandparents.
Can you bring them here tomorrow to play with us?
Not tomorrow. They’re in school. Maybe next week.
The children gathered in the dining room for dinner, their high, cheerful voices stretching along the walls of the large house. Hoa walked up to the nursery, where Bridget and Steven stood hunched over a crib. The little girl was hooked up to an IV and lying in an incubator. Bridget held a stethoscope to the infant’s back, while Steven carefully washed her arms and legs with a damp cloth.
She seems better, Steven said, but Bridget’s resigned expression confirmed Hoa’s suspicions.
You’ve been up all day, Hoa said, putting a hand on Steven’s shoulder.
I’m fine. I can stay up with the baby.
Hoa and Bridget did not bother to argue with him. Steven believed he’d rescued this child and her life was his responsibility. They knew how it felt. He would not leave her.
In the director’s office downstairs, they gathered for the daily meeting, when staff changed from day to evening shifts. Employees didn’t stray far from work during their off hours. The Americans resided in the villa’s guesthouse, while Hoa and the other Vietnamese staff lived nearby with their families. But even they occasionally spent the night on one of the extra cots in the nursery if they stayed at the center late and missed the citywide curfew.
The office was cramped with overstuffed filing cabinets and paper-cluttered tables, with a wall-length window looking out to the empty pool. An old ceiling fan circulated hot, stale air in the room. Staff members sat on foldout chairs or leaned against the wall, while the director Sophie sat behind a large metal desk. Thanh, Hoa’s closest friend at the center, waved her over to share her seat.
Usually Sophie went over old business consulting their daily tasks. Most of the American volunteers as former nurses and social workers remained at the center caring for the children. The Vietnamese employees served as translators either at the center, for infant and supply pickups or dealings with government ministries. The daily meetings also allowed colleagues to catch up with one another and share anecdotes about the children.
Kissing Thanh’s forehead warmly, Hoa playfully squeezed the nape of her neck. Her friend had recently switched over to the night shift, so they rarely worked together anymore.
Thanh’s face was pale when Hoa pulled away to look at her. She grasped Hoa’s hand urgently. You haven’t heard, she said.
Hoa felt her body tense immediately. She thought only of Lum and Tan. Tell me.
The president surrendered the Central Highlands this afternoon.
Hoa looked to the floor, the black grout blurring into the clay red tiles. How many casualties?
It was a bloodless surrender. The North was advancing, so Nguyen van Thieu told our men to withdraw.
Hoa’s face grew hot. While relieved it wasn’t news of Lum and Tan’s deaths, this was by no means any better. She shouldn’t have been surprised, but the shock scraped along her skin, leaving her cold. Their government was giving up. So many battles lost and promises of reversal and now it might all be over.
Let’s get started, everyone.
Private conversations fell away when Sophie sat at the table. A former army nurse, Sophie was a tall, thin woman with curly gray hair she kept in a bun at the nape of her neck. She was known to bark at the children if they got too rambunctious, who’d laugh at her growling, deep voice, but always obeyed her.
Sophie rubbed her eyes tiredly and rested her chin in her hands. You must have all heard by now.
No one responded. Seventeen full-time employees and no one could come up with anything to say. Their faces, Hoa realized gazing around the room, many so young, barely into their twenties or thirties, appeared helpless, confused. The Americans, especially, stared at Sophie, hoping to take a cue from her on how to react.
This clearly makes our jobs much harder, Sophie said. We don’t know how much time we have, so we have to consider every case urgent.
Isn’t that what we’re doing? asked Dang, a young Vietnamese man who supervised the house maintenance.
Before, we operated on little time, Sophie said. Now we know it’s really here. Her eyes swept the room, settling briefly, but determinedly, on each staff member. Starting tomorrow, everyone will work an extra half-shift. Someone will be assigned to the ministries all day to try and get passports and exit visas. We’ll have to irritate them into submission.
Immigration has to be swamped now, Bridget said. Everyone must be trying to get out.
Thanh elbowed Hoa on her side and they looked at each other. They always knew their jobs were not permanent; the center’s function to speed along the children’s exit from the country. But they weren’t expecting this goal to be completed all at once and so soon. Now, Hoa realized, once the children were evacuated, the American staff would go too.
Hoa hooked a finger under the metal seat of her chair and calculated that it had been three weeks since she’d heard from Lum and Tan. She scornfully recalled her son’s enthusiasm to enlist after his seventeenth birthday, Lum’s encouragement for him to do so, and during their visits home, their descriptions of what they heard enemy prison camps were like. Their faith in the South Vietnamese government, so admirable in its idealism, would turn against them if the Communists claimed victory.
Her thoughts wrapped tightly around this as the meeting continued, the voices buzzing in the background.
We’re hiring two additional guards for the center and we’re reactivating the west gate.
Isn’t it still broken?
We’re getting it fixed tomorrow morning. Dang, could you get on that?
Aren’t we overreacting? The city hasn’t surrendered.
It’s still not safe. The American news radio is anticipating a panic. We need to keep the children protected.
Why can’t we just leave now?
We still need paperwork for the babies. If they don’t have both a passport and exit visa, they can’t leave. Right now only half the children even have a passport.
The children they were specifically talking about were the forty who had adoptive parents waiting for them in America and Canada. But there were more than a hundred or so that didn’t have families to go to. These kids tended to be older, closer in age to Hoa’s sons. Even if they were evacuated to America, that didn’t guarantee them a family. They’d still be orphans, but worse, in a foreign country.
The meeting ended with assignments for extra shifts. Hoa received two evening shifts, which meant overnighters, since they ended after curfew. As everyone left the office, Hoa stayed behind quietly observing Sophie sort through some paperwork on her desk.
What will happen to the other children? Hoa asked, when Sophie finally looked up.
I’m not sure yet, Sophie said tiredly, setting the folders down. This is all happening so fast. I do understand your concern. I assure you, hon, they won’t be forgotten.
So you’re taking them too? Or will you keep the center open?
I don’t know. Sophie avoided her gaze. We don’t know anything right now. If we can’t care for them, we’ll make sure they will be somewhere else.
But there wasn’t anywhere else and Sophie knew that better than anybody. Sophie’s center was one of the best orphanage facilities in Saigon. Others with comparable resources were also run by international adoption agencies, whose futures in Vietnam would be endangered if the Communists seized Saigon.
We’ve received terrible news today, Sophie said, putting an arm around Hoa. But we’re going to figure it out, I know we will. She looked at Hoa sympathetically. Oh hon. Have you heard from your husband and son?
Hoa shook her head. No. I have not been home yet.
Well, for heaven’s sakes, go home. Your shift is over and you look exhausted.
Steven, Hoa said, running a hand through her hair, remembering. I need to give you a report on his training today.
He’s getting along, right?
Hoa nodded. Several more weeks and he should be adjusted.
Sophie waved her hand. That’s fine. We might not even be here that long.
When Hoa climbed upstairs to say good-bye to Steven, she found him rocking the baby to his chest. He’d removed the IV from her arm. The baby’s eyes were half open and her body was still.
She didn’t even last an hour, Steven said. His cheeks were shiny with tears. His embrace on the child was fierce.
She was very sick, Hoa said. She put a hand on Steven’s arm, but his grip on the little girl only tightened. Any harder and he was going to bruise the child’s skin.
This isn’t why I came here, Steven said. I wanted to help.
You are, Hoa said. This does not mean you are not helping. These children are very sick. Some of them will die.
But we were giving her fluids. Bridget prescribed her medicine.
It was too late. This is no one’s fault.
Steven shook his head. We need to get them out of here. This place will kill them.
He was grieving. He was in shock. This was not the time for Hoa to tell him that the place he regarded as death was what she still considered home. Instead, she patiently crouched beside him, waiting. The first casualty was always devastating. Nearly half an hour passed before his grasp finally slackened. After carefully extricating the child from his arms, Hoa carried the baby and deposited her with the staff nurse on duty.
From the veranda, Hoa could see the older children wandering the courtyard, searching the bushes and grass for frogs and lizards to play with, their foreheads dimpled in concentration. The curfew siren swelled through the air, temporarily unsettling the nursery. Hoa quickly closed the glass doors and the babies returned to slumber. Turning around, Hoa stared at the clock above the doors resignedly. She’d have to wait to return home tomorrow.
Her sons’ rosy cheeks stuck to the damp cotton sheet, their knees curled up to their chins. Through the gauzy mosquito netting, their bodies appeared fuzzy and delicate. Though exhausted, Hoa chose to sit on the chair by the door and watch them. It was after dawn and outside, the crickets chirped like it was still nighttime.
She did not mind that her three sons seemed impervious to her genes, miniature offshoots of her husband. They had Lum’s crescent-shaped eyes that always appeared pleased and amused with the world. This sometimes made it difficult to speak to her sons seriously, especially when she had to scold them, because while their heads would bob obediently, those laughing eyes revealed rebellious natures. Most of the time she was proud of her boys’ adventurous spirits. But with the war, it had become another vulnerability. She hated leaving them at home while she was at work.
Unable to resist any longer, Hoa kicked off her shoes, parted the netting and crawled into bed. She soundly kissed each boy on the forehead, stirring them awake.
Mother, you’re tickling me, the younger boy Cung laughed. He playfully grabbed her arm and nuzzled against her waist. Mmmm, you smell like fish.
Where were you, Mother? the older boy Van asked, yawning.
I was at work, child. Have you been good for Ba Minh?
She wouldn’t let us outside even once yesterday. Van poked his head under Hoa’s elbow and rested his cheek on her shoulder. We could only play in the courtyard.
Did you obey her?
He hesitated a second too long. Yes.
You must obey her, Hoa said sternly. It’s very dangerous to be out on the streets by yourselves right now.
Why? Cung asked, sitting up to scratch his stomach. Did the war come?
No, Hoa said. The war is not here. We are safe.
But I heard the Viet Cong are coming soon, Van said. Is that true?
Who told you that?
I heard someone tell Ba Minh yesterday. Now all she does is listen to the radio but she won’t let us listen with her.
No one is coming. But you must obey her. The war isn’t here, but it is close by and I don’t want anything bad to happen to my boys.
The war won’t come, will it? Cung asked. Father and Tan said they wouldn’t let that happen.
They’re going to try their best.
After the boys drifted back to sleep, Hoa slipped out of bed. She closed their bedroom door behind her and walked outside to the kitchen. Her bare feet chilled to the frigid tiled floor. The widow would be up soon and she wanted to prepare breakfast before she could say anything to her about last night.
Hoa and her family had moved to this house several years ago, located in a wealthy neighborhood they normally couldn’t afford. Her landlady, a widow with no children, owned a fabric store that burned down several years ago, leaving her with little savings. Her house, a spacious one-floor with a central courtyard for a cherry tree garden, had been in her family for generations and to keep it, she rented out two bedrooms to Hoa’s family. For additional money, Ba Minh also watched the boys during the day, but disliked it when Hoa didn’t return on schedule, especially since she openly disapproved of her tenant’s job.
On the way home, Hoa stopped at the open-air market as the vendors were setting up and bought some fresh eggs, baguettes and a small watermelon. She couldn’t ignore that the city’s atmosphere had changed. Fewer children played in the streets. The street merchants peered suspiciously from under their conical hats at anything that passed. There was no carefree gossiping. The vendors at the market mumbled their prices.
In the kitchen, Hoa gathered the necessities to prepare Ba Minh’s favorite breakfast. She arranged the baguettes on a tray and set it in the oven. She lit the red clay stove and placed a small pan over it.
Ba Minh soon emerged from the master bedroom, roused with the smells of crackling oil and toasting French bread. Nearly seventy years old, the widow had aged remarkably well, with few white hairs in her black bun, hardly any olive spots on her smooth face and faint wrinkles around her eyes. Good morning, she said, shuffling over in her red nylon slippers to stand with Hoa over the stove.
Did you rest well? Hoa asked.
I did, but I know you didn’t. She rubbed Hoa’s arm soothingly. Those Americans work you too hard.
It was my fault. I was helping one of the new volunteers and I missed curfew. Hoa neatly cracked the egg in half and dropped it on the sizzling pan.
We were worried, she said, taking the broken shell from Hoa. Especially after yesterday’s news. Terrible. Bac Do passed the American embassy on his way home from church. He said the crowds around the gates were obscene, everyone screaming and begging the Americans to rescue them.
Ba Minh took the pan from Hoa’s hand to slide the overcooked egg onto a plate. They’re panicking, she said. They’ve already turned on our government. Ba Minh’s husband was a general in the South Vietnamese army. He’d mentored Hoa’s husband when Lum first joined the army, which initiated the friendship between the two families. Ba Minh’s patriotism was as fierce as any soldier’s.
Hoa stood there as Ba Minh cracked more eggs into the pan. She realized she was in the way. Hoa stepped back, reaching for the baguettes on the tray and began tearing them open.
What are your employers going to do?
The plan is still to evacuate the orphans.
There might not be time. Ba Minh opened a baguette and eased a cooked egg between the torn folds.
They want to try.
I don’t understand how you can help this happen.
If Ba Minh was determined to fight about this, there was nothing Hoa could do but speak as respectfully and firmly as possible. She could understand the widow’s argument. Like many Vietnamese, she was wary of international adoption, especially sending orphans to American families. She believed children should be raised in their own culture, and if those circumstances were available, Hoa would agree.
These children will be in danger if they stay, Hoa said.
But taking them out of their home country isn’t dangerous? Ba Minh asked.
No one can care for them here.
And the Americans will?
How do you know? What if they’re not accepted? Those Americans hate us now. They thought we were a waste of time. Sending those innocent children to that country will be fatal.
The center has lists of American families willing to adopt. They want these children.
They don’t know what they are getting. Maybe they think it’s fashionable to purchase a souvenir of the war, but after the excitement is over, they will tire of the child and what then? No one wants to raise a baby that isn’t their own, especially if it’s not even their own race.
Hoa concentrated on arranging the food on the plates. The eggs were cooling off already. I don’t agree.
We can care for our own, Ba Minh said, a stubborn frown tightening her face. There are plenty of good Vietnamese people who can adopt these children.
Hoa shook her head slowly. That isn’t true. I see people leaving babies at the orphanage doorstep every day. No one wants to take a child in now, especially when we’re losing a war.
Ba Minh looked stricken and Hoa instantly regretted her words. She should have known better. Childless and widowed, Ba Minh had concentrated all that was left of her faith in the government. It made her feel proud and necessary when officials called for citizens to pray for their country. To lose the war was to destroy the last vestige of Ba Minh’s family.
I smell bread!
They turned to see Cung and Van scamper into the courtyard. They ran up to the stove, happily salivating at the steaming food. Avoiding Hoa’s gaze, Ba Minh instructed the boys to help take the prepared plates to the dining room. Hoa stayed behind, dragging a cloth along the stove with shaky hands.
Hoa wished she could take the widow to the orphanages, show her all the malnourished children and ask her again if she still believed they wouldn’t be better off in America. It was so easy for people like Ba Minh, who never had or wished for children, to decree where they should be raised and who should do it. They didn’t know how many unwanted orphans there were in Vietnam. They had no idea.
Either they were stupid or she was. The bureaucrats at the ministries couldn’t decide who was in charge and saw nothing cruel in spinning Hoa from one office to the other. The Interior and Social Welfare ministries kept insisting that the other was in charge of approving and issuing passports and exit visas. Hoa had been through this runaround plenty before, but those were less urgent times. In the last week, the government had surrendered Hue, the cultural center of Vietnam. City officials couldn’t contain reports of the thousands of Vietnamese dying as they tried to flee the enemy by boat, car and foot. Those who could afford to try to legally leave on a plane were trying to take it. Hoa struggled to hold her own in these crowds, her arms heavy with folders stuffed with birth certificates and medical charts.
This morning should have been easier. They’d sent Steven along with her, hoping his imposing size would keep Hoa from getting bullied to the back of the crowds again. The center was also fearful of sending anyone downtown alone. Despite government pleas for citizens to remain calm, panic was spreading. Most of the open-air markets and street vendors had closed shop. People from the countryside were crowding the streets, exposing their bloody and absent limbs. Some clung to photographs of missing family members, frantically calling out their names.
With Steven beside her, Hoa tricked herself into remaining calm. Only a few weeks into his arrival, Steven was already more comfortable at his job, his once naive eyes now saddled with a grim wariness. But while Steven’s presence kept other petitioners from pushing Hoa around, it didn’t impress the bureaucrats much.
Three months, the city official informed them after Hoa presented her cases.
We can’t wait three months, Hoa said.
It takes a minimum of three months to review and process visa applications. The official wasn’t even looking at them, her eyes darting between the two piles of applications weighing down the sides of her desk.
But I understand a rush can be ordered if there are doctors’ statements on medical conditions—
The Minister has ordered a halt on all rushes for the time being. If you’d like, you can speak to the Ministry of the Interior—
We were just there, Hoa said, her eyes gesturing to Steven, who sat next to her, ably performing his duty of looking impatient. I’d really like to handle this with Social Welfare.
There was a hard rap on the door. An older man poked his head in and glowered into the room.
Excuse me, the official said, standing up from her chair and leaving the room.
Hoa slumped back in the hard metal chair. The small office was poorly ventilated, with tiny desk fans that did little, except flutter the papers occasionally. Through the office window, Hoa could see soldiers setting up sandbags and barbed wire along the Ministry building. They looked exhausted, foreheads shiny and uniforms stained with perspiration.
An army messenger had come by the house early one morning last week, bringing the news that half of Lum and Tan’s regiment was missing in action. He was careful to point out this did not mean they were dead. But if the army was so confident Lum and Tan were alive, they wouldn’t need to send this boy to say all this. Ba Minh, though, was convinced they had survived and urged Hoa to pray for the same, at least for the sake of her boys. But there wasn’t time to think about what she did or didn’t believe. The possibility that Lum and Tan were gone, that Hoa would have to raise her two sons alone as the Communists marched closer, was paralyzing. That couldn’t happen. She had too much to do. In the last few weeks at the center, guards had sealed off the compound from despondent parents pleading to drop off their children. Hoa couldn’t enter or leave the center without someone screaming at her to help their babies. Accusations of her cruel indifference hovered in her thoughts constantly.
Is she coming back? Steven asked after fifteen minutes had passed.
I don’t know, Hoa said. But now that they’d finally made it into the office, she was not going to leave. She straightened her folders on the desk, a futile attempt to make them look more official. Most of the birth certificates and medical charts she’d brought had been forged at the center, a necessary guiltless crime, since most of their orphans had arrived without names or documentation. It was all part of the game. So these children could survive, Hoa somehow had to convince the government that they legally existed, were in legitimate danger, and needed to exit the country immediately.
This was the frustrating and crucial element of Hoa’s job. She wasn’t as good at tangling with bureaucrats as Sophie and other staff members. Her only advantage was trying to establish a bond through speaking Vietnamese, which rarely worked. Often, they were more suspicious of Hoa than the Americans, not above implying that her appeal to send these children abroad was somewhat traitorous.
A few minutes later, the official strode in noticeably more confident, her back straight, eyes steady on Hoa’s. She picked up the files Hoa had left on the table.
I will personally take these cases to the superior and express their urgency. Do you have legal copies of these documents?
Yes, Hoa said, looking askance at Steven, who appeared equally stunned. Of course.
I have a meeting with him in an hour. She held the files on her hip and smiled at Hoa and Steven. I will call you this afternoon, hopefully with good news.
Hoa and Steven hurried back to the adoption center, eager to surprise everyone with their inexplicable breakthrough at the Ministries. When they pulled into the driveway, they saw the center’s three other vans parked in front, their back doors open, jammed with boxes. Staff members were running to and from the vans with supplies and bottles in their arms.
President Ford made an agreement with the South Vietnamese government, Bridget yelled to them as they walked to the house. We get to leave today!
Hoa and Steven stared at each other. What happened? Hoa said.
Ask Sophie, Bridget said, pushing a box into the van with both hands. She talked to the Ministry this morning.
The adults’ frantic activity had spread to the children, who ran around the house wildly, screaming about airplane rides and searching for lost toys and stuffed animals they wanted to bring with them. In the kitchen, the cooks feverishly prepared formula bottles, while Thanh and a few others sat at the dining room table scribbling out identification bracelets for the children. Hoa and Steven made their way to Sophie’s office. The floor was covered with files. Behind the desk, Sophie sat talking on a phone wedged between her ear and shoulder, while trying to sort a pile of papers on her lap.
We’re only a half-hour’s drive away, Sophie said. No, I’m sure guards won’t be necessary… . At the airport at four, got it… . Thank you again, so much.
Her face split into a grin when she hung up the phone. You heard. It’s a miracle, isn’t it? She stood and began pacing the room, too excited to stay still. A military aircraft is waiting for us at the airport, she said. It’s huge. We’re sharing it with another agency.
So we have room for everyone?
Everyone who has paperwork.
That’s great, Steven said. That must be why the bureaucrat promised us those passports and visas so quickly.
They’re calling it Operation Babylift, Sophie said. President Ford is promising they’ll evacuate as many orphans as they can.
Looking back and forth between Sophie and Steven’s faces, Hoa hated to end their joy so soon, but there was no time to wait. Is the staff leaving too? Hoa asked.
Sophie reached over to clasp Hoa’s arm. Hon, the city is collapsing. It would be very dangerous for any American to stay.
Hoa nodded. She could feel their eyes on her, waiting for a more emotional reaction, maybe tears or wailing. But that wasn’t her. They should have known that.
This doesn’t mean we’re going to leave friends behind, dear. Sophie moved closer to Hoa, her hand never leaving Hoa’s arm. We want you to come with us.
Hoa looked up. Sophie’s face was serious.
We’re worried about your safety too, Sophie said. You and all our Vietnamese staff. We plan to burn all the records before we leave, but that doesn’t guarantee you won’t be branded as traitors.
That’s very generous of you, Hoa said, but I don’t have any paperwork. You’re going to have enough trouble evacuating the older children.
There are ways to exit you legally. Sophie took a breath. The easiest is by having you marry a U.S. citizen. She looked pointedly at Steven, who smiled softly at Hoa.
You’ve been such a help to me, Steven said. I’d love to help you if I can.
The whole staff is marrying each other, Sophie said. It’s bizarre, but sweet, I think. I’m marrying Dang.
I can’t, Hoa said. I’m already married.
Hon, Sophie said, reaching over to hold her other hand. Of course it wouldn’t be a real marriage. It’s just a trick, so we can get everyone to the States. This way, you can also bring your sons.
Hoa gently removed herself from Sophie’s hands. But I’m already married.
Sophie and Steven exchanged glances. I would never tell you to give up on your husband, Sophie said. But you haven’t heard anything for months now. You need to think about your safety and your boys.
It would just be a quick ceremony at the airport, Steven said. Father Do will perform a mass ceremony and then we sign a paper. It’ll be barely legal enough to get us to the States.
He looked so eager to please, this young boy. Imagining the couple they’d make in front of the priest, a chubby middle-aged Vietnamese woman and a skinny red-haired American boy; Hoa could almost laugh.
This is, of course, entirely your decision, hon, Sophie said. I’m sorry you don’t have much time to think about this. I just couldn’t, in my heart, abandon you here without the choice.
Everyone on the American staff thought she should go and told her so. But Hoa needed to talk to someone who still saw Vietnam as home and not easily forgotten.
I have to do this for my family, Thanh said, when Hoa took her aside in the hallway. Once I’m in America, I can petition to bring them out too. Come with us, Hoa. Her eyes were pleading. Lum would want you to protect his sons.
Thanh looked away to stare into the dining room. Hoa followed her gaze to the toddlers standing in line, waiting for Bridget to examine them. Freshly bathed with neatly combed hair, they nudged and tickled each other, unaware of what would happen in several hours. They were so fortunate. These children would have the opportunity to live freely in America. What kind of mother would Hoa be, if she had that chance for her sons and refused it?
Hoa borrowed Sophie’s car to return home and gather her sons and essential belongings. It might have been easier to walk. The streets were cluttered with barricades and barbed wire, slowing Hoa to the pace of most pedestrians. Soldiers desperately tried to keep traffic under control, but the cars ignored their frenzied whistles and arm gestures. A few times, a pedestrian would slam into the side of the car, forcing Hoa to stop, afraid she’d struck someone. But by the time Hoa rolled down the window, the person would run off.
Over the city loudspeakers, officials reiterated the strict enforcement of an early curfew. Hoa drove by shattered storefront windows, where people dashed away with stolen loot in their arms. Burning trash cans lit random street corners. Above the city noise, she could still hear gunfire and ground explosions in the distance.
When she entered the house, she called out her sons’ names, but no one answered. The bedroom was empty. She went out to the courtyard and called their names again. Then she heard it, sobbing, coming from Ba Minh’s bedroom. Hoa ran to her door and opened it. Ba Minh sat on her bed, Hoa’s two sons on each side of her. They were all crying.
What happened? Hoa asked, slowly walking into the room.
Ba Minh’s arms around the boys tightened. They’re alive, she said.
Hoa looked at her older son. Van, she said.
It’s true, Van said, holding up a letter. Daddy and Tan are alive.
Hoa took the wrinkled letter from his hands. It was her husband’s scrawl. Only four lines long. He and Tan were in a prison camp in Hanoi. Tan had been sick with malaria and was slowly recovering. He didn’t know how long they would be there, but they were alive. His only thoughts were of their family and returning to them.
Praise God, Ba Minh said. Hoa wasn’t sure if she was laughing or crying. The widow hugged the children closer and they squealed with delight. Praise God.
What’s wrong, Mother? Cung asked, tugging on her pant leg.
I’m just happy, Hoa said, wiping her face with the back of her hand.
No, I mean, why are you home so early? Was work cancelled?
No, son, Hoa said. Ba Minh looked up and they smiled at each other. I missed my family, that’s all.
Can we write a letter back? Do you think they will get it?
We can try.
Can we do it now?
No, not now. After I come home from work.
Behind the gates, the guards performed their final duties keeping the crowds from spilling into the driveway. Hoa stood at the top of the villa’s front steps. She waved with both hands as the vans and buses pulled away, smiling at the children pressing their palms against the back windows. When the cars turned off the street, the crowds around the gates slowly began to disperse.
Hoa and two other staff members who also decided to stay behind returned into the villa to finish cleaning up. They worked steadily into the evening. They packed leftover toys and supplies into boxes. They filled up trash bags and set them in piles in the atrium. They emptied the filing cabinets and burned the remaining files in the courtyard.
It was near dark when Hoa stepped out to the driveway. The area was near quiet, people already hurrying home for the early curfew. Hoa walked around, picking up leftover trash and forgotten toys.
Are you sure? Thanh had asked, before stepping onto the bus. We could send someone to bring your boys to the airport.
I have to wait for Lum and Tan, Hoa said.
They’re in prison. You don’t know when or if they’ll be released.
I won’t leave them.
Stubborn Hoa, Thanh said, hugging her. I’m so scared for you.
There will be other planes, Hoa told herself. Other opportunities.
The guards locked the gates. The siren blew and Hoa went inside.