The road was slick and steamy with morning rain as we rode out of the city into rural Can Tho province on An’s cherry-red motorbike. Turning sharply, we zipped down a narrow path alongside the river, bright gold sunlight flashing through emerald leaves as big as elephants’ ears.
Long grasses swayed and bent like dancers in the rice paddies, iridescent insect wings flitting over the tranquil pools of moss-dark water in which they stood. Barefoot boys with almond eyes ran and shouted on the opposite bank. A slender girl crossed the bridge ahead on a bicycle, silhouetted in her conical hat against the yellow sky. All along the river, Baba Yaga houses perched on chicken-leg stilts in the shallows and women in patterned pyjamas squatted in the mud to beat armfuls of washing against the rocks.
The family house sat back from the river amidst an orchard of orange trees. Chickens scratched at the dust, burnt russet and copper feathers ruffling in the breeze that shook the leaves of the ancient willow standing by the door. Beneath it, An’s Grandparents offered warm smiles and crumpled paper handshakes.
The house was full of shifting shadows and dust motes dancing in shafts of light, family photographs printed in dark ink and heavy wooden furniture on straw mats and woven carpets. A scent of sharp citrus and umami-rich broth drifted from the kitchen, where the women sliced onions expertly with burnished blades.
I felt hesitant, full of my own un-belonging. An’s Great-Aunt, 101 years old; blind, deaf, bird-boned beneath a halo of white hair, touched my face with skeleton-leaf fingers and smiled a toothless, wordless smile.
We ate on the porch, river fish and glass noodles and a hot crunch of peanut salad, scooped from china bowls with rose gold patterns swirling like smoke over the surface. My own family thousands of miles away, I found myself an unexpected part of theirs; initiated through the most ancient of customs. Food, that shared language of raised glasses and broken bread, of plates passed from hand to hand.
Too soon the afternoon faded, the sky darkening like a bruise. As we rode away I looked back to see a 101 year-old hand, mapped with storylines that need no voice, waving until we reached the road and I could no longer see in the gathering darkness.