The Temple Door

The French had come to Vietnam in search of a paradise of palm trees and sunshine. For centuries, foreigners have come. There were all of the usual guests -the Chinese, the Khmer, the French-as well as the more unusual ones, such as the Hindu Kingdom of Champa, who built Gaudi-esque temples in Central Vietnam. But the Vietnamese have never been polite hosts, receiving foreigners with steely suspicion. When the Chinese (who taught the proto-Vietnamese to grow rice) tried to reorganize Vietnamese society along Chinese lines, they resisted. Just as they resisted contact with the West in 166 AD, when Marcus Aurelius’ Romans arrived, and again in the 16th century when Portugal sent its missionaries. They resisted the British, who came and left after an agent of the East India Company was murdered in Hanoi. The missionaries came; the natives killed them. The missionaries came; the natives killed them.

I walked through the afternoon heat, trying to stay in the shade of palm trees. At the end of the district, I found myself at the mouth of a dirt road. Following it through a grove of trees, I came to a bright yellow building, half-hidden by bushes, a wooden fence surrounding it. A curved rooftop swooped above. Painted dragons arched below the eaves, peering down the slanted corners like watchdogs. Glass tiles formed pictures upon the dull yellow wall-a blue and white bird, a red dragon, a turtle-each one at a corner of the entrance. The bird’s feathers spread geometrically, square by square, around the doorframe.

I banged my hand upon a set of warm, red and black lacquered doors. When there was no response, I pushed them open and walked into a large room with a peaked ceiling and cement floor. Huge wooden doors, big as barn doors, stood ajar at the opposite end of the room, letting in sunlight. Incense rose in ringlets, filling the air with layers of slim, evanescent smoke. A very old, bald man stood near the doorway. When the monk saw me, he motioned for me to come closer. He was wrapped in long drapes of maroon cloth that twisted from his bare feet to a knot at his collarbone. He offered me a cigarette. He was missing most of his teeth.

“Asseyez-vous!” He said, pushing a chair at me. The table was nothing more than a wooden wheel balanced on an oil barrel. Teacups and saucers sat around a china teapot.

“Quelle age avez-vous?” The monk said.

Although I had studied French in high school, I responded in English. “Twenty-four,” I said.

The monk clucked his tongue. He did not approve of youth. “Tres jeune,” he said. “Trop jeune.”

The monk did not seem to speak a word of English, and so when he told me (in French) that he had been at the monastery for sixty years, from the late thirties, I thought I must not have understood him correctly. But the monk drew a six and a zero on my palm, confirming that he had moved into the pagoda thirty-five years before I was born.

He poured me tea, and I looked around the temple: There were tiny shrines cut into the walls, each one painted gold and crimson. Hundreds of plaques (embossed with prayers) stood next to black-and-white photographs. Incense and butter lamps burned below them.

When the monk wanted to speak to me again, he waved over a group of younger monks, Vietnamese men who were my age or slightly older. The old monk opened my hand, presses down my fingers, and stroked my palm, as if he might read my fortune. He said something in slow, ambling Vietnamese and one of the young monks translated it into perfect English. He said, “Our master welcomes you to our pagoda. He is sorry that he doesn’t speak your language. He learned French very well, many years ago. But he never learned English.”

The head monk waddled away, slow as a goose, and the younger monk led me by the arm. “He would like to show you our pagoda, yes?”

I had not been inside a church for over ten years, and I’d never seen a Buddhist temple before. The statues and funeral tablets were so strange that I wanted to take a picture. But, when I dug for my camera, the young monk said, “Please. It is not allowed to take photographs here. It is not good luck.”

We followed the head monk through the cavernous temple. He took us to a row of Bodhisattvas, a group of semi-human figures lounging against a wall with demons and dragons and all sorts of strange animals twisting around them. He led me to the Quan The Am Bo Tat, the Goddess of Mercy, a white statue of a woman armed like an octopus. She had eyes where eyes shouldn’t be – in her forehead and cheeks, each eye looking a different direction. The monk showed me A Di Da, the Buddha of the Past, and Di Lac, Buddha of the Future, two fat golden statues high on a dais. A pyramid of smaller statues surrounded the Buddhas. Incense rose from clay pots below them, releasing whips of smoke through the room. An elderly woman prostrated on yellow satin cushions, her long thin arms stretched out before her.

The young monk asked me if I as Christian. I told him that I was raised Christian, but that I had no idea of what I believed any longer. He studied me, pity in his eyes, and said, “You must discover this. It is important to know who you are.”

The praying woman began to chant. Her voice rose into a high-pitched moan.

“This is a very old pagoda,” the young monk said. “I have been here since I was seven. It is a sanctuary for us.”

The old woman’s prayer-half-song, half-groan-made me nervous. I was just about to excuse myself and leave, when the old monk put three joss sticks of incense in my hand. He pointed to the Buddha statues and said something in French.

The young monk translated. “He says you must pray.”

“Pray for what?” I asked, as he lit the incense with a plastic lighter.

“You will know,” he said, guiding me to the alter. “When you begin.”

I had not knelt in prayer in so long that my knees felt rigid as I bent next to the old woman. Up close, I could see that she had a weathered face, and that she was much older, and more battered, than I had originally thought. The sadness in her face made her voice less abrasive. I blew on the incense and the ends fired orange. The rich, sharp smoke blanketed the base of the alter. I felt clumsy as I leaned forward, over the wooden steps that led up to the Buddhas, and stuck the incense into the sand of a clay pot, all three at once. They stayed for a moment, wobbled, and then fell over. When I tried to extricate them from the mess of smoke-so many sticks of incense burning with prayers-I singed my knuckles. Trying again, I pushed in one stick in at a time. This time, they stayed.

Through the haze of the smoke and chanting, images of my childhood filled my mind. I remembered the reels of 8 mm film shot during the years I was growing up. When we lived on Trussoni Court, we used to watch them on the wall of the living room, all of us kids in our pajamas. We had forgotten these tapes after our parents’ marriage broke, but for some reason Dad had recently decided to transfer the film to video. My father always said that the best years of his life were those spent with my mother, raising us, and so it must have taken a lot of strength for him to sort through the hours and hours of this forever-lost past, watching each reel. But he went through them all, selecting the best scenes and preserving them.

Dad gave me the tape when I was in graduate school. I watched it one evening, the lights turned low, as I drank a glass of pinot noir. The video cut across ten years and presented me with a father that I had long forgotten. I saw my father at Matt’s christening, holding my brother as if he were the thinnest, most delicate Christmas ornament. I saw him planting the trees in the front yard of the house, just after Matt was born. In another shot, I saw myself, at two-years-old, dressed in Oshgosh overalls, my hair drawn in pigtails. I was an apple-cheeked girl with big black eyes, gazing up at my father, adoring.

My favorite part of the tape was a clip of my father helping me learn to ride my bike. I didn’t know it at the time, but my mother had stood in the lawn and taped the whole thing. Dad wore jeans and no shoes. A cigarette dangled from his lips as he walked alongside the banana seat bicycle I used to share with my sister, holding it steady. The camera followed me down the driveway, as I looked over my shoulder, checking that my father was there, and began to pedal. Dad stayed alongside the bike, holding the bar of the seat so that I gained balance and momentum. With Dad next to me, I was confident. I pushed the pedals harder until I was riding down the driveway, and onto Trussoni Court. I remembered that when I looked back and saw Dad far behind, I wavered and lost my balance, sending the bicycle crashing, falling hard onto the blacktop, scraping a layer of skin on the stony pavement. But in the video, I never hit the pavement. I kept my feet stiff on the pedals. I gripped the plastic handlebars. I knew that Dad would save me if I tipped.

I was grateful that my father had made the videotape. It was a record of my childhood free of the distortions of memory. The tape helped me to see that many of my recollections had been colored by love and anger-that I had often made my father in the image of my emotions. I saw that my memory had wrapped itself through the battle scenes of my life, ignoring the moments of tranquility. There were many things about those years that I had forgotten-the tenderness that my father was capable of when he wasn’t sad or drinking or lost in remembering. He had been pushed to the limit by the war-he looked defeated and worn out in every shot. The tape forced me to see that, more than anything, my father had been defeated by Vietnam. He had lost his war, his pride. Nothing would change that.

I folded my hands and asked for my father’s illness to disappear. I prayed that all the terrible things that had happened in Vietnam-to Americans and Vietnamese alike-would never happen again. I prayed for the one thing my father and I had never shared-peace. Then, I stood and walked away from the alter.

On my way out of the temple, I dropped a bundle of Dong notes into a box for donations. My eyes had filled with tears. I could hardly see by the time I pushed past the doors and left the temple. Outside, the afternoon had become hot and bright and overwhelming. I leaned my head against the sun-warmed door, letting the heat soothe me.

Danielle Trussoni was born in La Crosse, WI. After attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she went on to do a MFA in fiction writing at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she was a Maytag Fellow and Callen Scholar. She has written for The New York Times Magazine, Glamour, The Telegraph Magazine and The New York Times Book Review, among other publications. Her first book, Falling Through the Earth: A Memoir, published by Henry Holt in March 2006, was recipient of the 2006 Michener-Copernicus Society of America Award and was chosen to be part of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Program.