Her Brother’s Sister

In Issue 72 by Shauna Singh Baldwin

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Photo by Katherine Grace on Unsplash

Roziana unfurls a violet yoga mat on the studio’s laminate floor. From wicker bins at the back of the room, she chooses a pair of mauve blocks, a purple strap to match, and a crimson blanket for what Paula calls her “sitz bones.” She sets up, facing the dazzle of the river beyond the ceiling-to-floor windows. That way, her view will change with each pose.

Paula will keep her back to the river all through. Green eyes intent, her svelte thirty-something body flowing lithely from pose to pose. Serious yogi, that one.

In the full-wall mirror, Roziana’s pandemic-gray ponytail suits her. But her face looks saggy, and her eyes are muddy brown from lack of sleep. That tummy roll should go. And those arm flabs could be halved.

It’s five minutes till noon. If no others show, Paula will be giving her a private lesson. She isn’t sure she wants that much attention. She has to attend Ang’s funeral after class.

Angelo, last of the two survivors from Neil’s Hanoi cell. Ang’s sister, wife, boys and grandkids will mourn him – open casket. With flowers, photographs, a mass, hymns.

Ang came home. His body did, anyway. And after all the books, movies and documentaries he consumed about the war since he came home, she remembers him ranting a few years ago that Americans “should have nuked those fuckers.” And because Ang was a vet, she couldn’t say that if they had, no one would have lived to eighty-plus anywhere. And because they hadn’t nuked, Angelo lived to eighty-plus.

Lived as long as Neil could have.

Approaching the windows, she gazes down at the burgeoning brown river. Cars zipping across the two-lane bridge spanning it look smaller from here. A flame-colored paddle tilts and pulls as a kayaker aims into the shadows and graffiti beneath.

A silver delivery truck has stopped on the far end of the bridge. The driver emerges and unloads boxes onto an upright dolly. He wheels it past a sandwich board that brings to mind the years she spent paying bills for lettuce, tomatoes or cucumbers. She is beyond grateful that she sold her restaurant in the before times – so many restaurants failed in the last two years.

A gunmetal-gray pontoon bobs at the river bank. Beside it, a staircase climbs to a three-story faux-Victorian, its balconies half-hidden behind billowing leafy branches.

Neil would lift her to grab branches and climb, only a little downstream from here. She was – what? – eight? Or maybe nine?

Om bhur bhuvah svah tat saviturvarenyam
bhargo devasya dhimahi dhiyo yo nah pracodayat

That ethereal voice could be singing the Sanskrit equivalent of America the Beautiful or America the Devil – how would Paula know? Foreign languages are mysteries; Roziana can’t remember a single word of Vietnamese from her early-90s visit.

She returns to her mat. Paula’s tranquil voice instructs:

Lie on your back and take a moment to adjust...observing your breath as it flows in and out. Noticing where you’re feeling the movement of the breath beyond the chest, belly... Deepen your intention with the breath. Taking some time to visualize the heart center. First becoming aware of that part of the body. Imagining that the heart center is a warm, glowing light, like a pilot
light...

Neil always wanted to be a pilot. Needed to fly over this wonderful world. And if he had to drop bombs along the way, then he would. He did. Thought he was doing his patriotic duty – he had no idea. Trusting those generals, all in groupthink.

Manifest destiny – Ha!

And then with each inhale, imagine we’re stoking that little fire, so allowing that light energy to expand in the body, first maybe filling up the entire heart space. Then with each breath allowing that light, that flowing warm light to fill up more of the body. Filling up the shoulders, the neck, the head, filling it into the low belly, low back, just like you stoke up fire. Down into the hips, out into the limbs, all the way into the fingers and toes. Expand that light energy beyond the body, extend your awareness around you into the entire space, fill the entire room with that energy.

Three deep breaths, let that light fill the room. Then with the exhales, start to draw that light energy back into the body. Then very slowly we’ll send that energy into the center of the heart. We can then call upon that heart energy to flow through our practice...the light that’s always glowing...to fill the body when we need it, for challenging postures, challenging times, to fill our bodies with energy.

Those were challenging times. Mother wept the day Neil received his draft notice. But he never spoke of leaving for Canada, or joining the Peace Corps. Just reported for duty. Did he say he was anxious? Had she asked? Damn – her memory should retain more details than those in his citation.

Start to invite some subtle movements in your fingers and toes...bringing your knees to chest – apanasana. Squeeze, gently rocking from side to side. Then bring your palms flat to the floor, flex the feet, pressing the feet and squeezing thighs together.... Feel the body engagement in your core and legs. Now, keeping that engagement, with both knees together, going as slow or fast as you want, we’ll start to circle in one direction with both knees together.

Doesn’t every war have rules of engagement, even undeclared ones? When Neil circled, then spiraled down over Laos – where the Air Force denied he was bombing anything – when he heard the scream of metal on metal, when his plane’s huge wings were cutting like scythes through the jungle, catching on the vines...he had one little laminated card with the Geneva Conventions. Name, rank, date of birth, serial number. If captured, that was all the intel he was supposed to give the enemy; all he gave. No matter what they did to his body. He was supposed to resist by all means available; he did. He was supposed to make every effort to escape; he did.

Worthy enemies, he’d said in a letter home. They’d fought the Japanese, then the French for years. The Americans were just another colonizer. A colonizer dropping 750-lb cluster bombs with six seconds from release to explosion. And why should any NVA soldier observe Geneva Conventions when the guy who’s been bombing and shelling him crawls out of the jungle, half dead on the roadside? The roadside of the Ho Chi Minh trail.

...Now lower your feet and hover your legs just above the mat. A little more core action, here. And then hug the knees back in. Let’s do that a few times...then a gentle rock from side to side. Then we’ll roll like a ball, along the length of the spine, a few times, and come into boat pose, paripurna navasana. Pause, balancing on your tailbone, letting energy shine from your heart. Then down, one vertebra at a time.

And then let’s find our way to a seated sukhasana, rooting down into those sitz bones. Use your blanket, Roziana. See if you can get really heavy from the waist down, almost as if your legs are concrete.

Dragging a fractured leg must have felt like dragging concrete. Yet, as Ang told it, Neil had not only overcome his pain but also hacked away vines around his downed plane with a bolo he bought in Manila.

Stay grounded, lifting your upper body like a resilient dandelion breaking through a crack in the sidewalk. Think about the crown of your head shining that energy up to the ceiling.

Good, uh-huh. Deep breaths here.

Neil wrote home about that bolo – said he’d show her how to wield the machete when he came home. Wield it for what, she’d wondered. Beheading dandelions?

Bring the palms together in Anjali mudra at heart center, bring them up and overhead, then peel them apart, pinky edges rotating forward. Keep that lift. With your exhale, fold over your crossed legs. Tuck your chin, let your shoulders release. Soften the upper body...

Behind Paula, past puffs of white cloud, shines a bright blue sky. Perfect for rescue pilots, perfect for NVA gunners. All those delayed-action cluster bombs, Sparrow missiles, rockets and Vulcan gun pods, the best-trained air force in the world, a hundred and eight aircraft – those black-beaked, jungle green and pinky-beige camouflaged Phantoms, Sandys, and Jolly Greens – and four ground radar sites had not been able to rescue Neil.

If only Neil had not refused to allow them to endanger another man by winching someone down to help him crawl the few yards to the jungle penetrator. The penetrator could have, would have lifted him clear of those thorny vines.

Neil’s CO wrote to tell them how terrible he and all Neil’s mates felt on the second day, when there was no answer and they had to RTB. Return to Base, with the penetrator unused. As Ang told it, by the second day Neil had run out of flares. The spare battery in his radio ran down; his rescuers couldn’t find him.

Almost, it made Roziana believe in fate. But not quite, because of the forty-six days Neil willed himself to stay alive and evade capture after that. With a fractured leg, a mangled right hand and a cranial injury.

Free will. He believed in it. So fifteen-year-old Roziana did too.

Walk or slide your hands over to the right side, keeping that left hip planted. Use your blocks, if you need to. Think about breathing into your left lung, stretching those intercostal muscles between your ribs. Keeping that right hand planted, reach up and overhead. Take a big breath. Stay in Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana for a few more breaths, then rock back to center. Switch the cross of your legs. Now the other side, rooting into the right hip, rounding over. Deep breath into the side body. And find your way to tabletop, Bharmanasana.

Drop the belly, do a couple rounds of Marjaryasana, Bitilasana, Marjaryasana, Bitilasana. Cat and cow, cat and cow. Think of a water fountain, how fountains pull energy from the bottom. Open the heart and the hips. Exhale, hugging the belly button into the spine. Drop into child’s pose – Balasana – for a moment. Follow your own breath.

Every joint in Roziana’s body is cracking, though the mirror shows her flexing beautifully in child’s pose. This is how she must have looked to Neil on Bradford Beach so long ago. Her earliest memory of him. She was six – maybe seven. Legs splayed like a frog’s, scooping sand, as he gamely helped her make a sand castle. For Barbie, she solemnly informed him, who was smarter than her boyfriend Ken. That comment became the family joke. Roziana, who thought her Barbie doll was smarter than Ken.

Well, women were smarter, back in the sixties. They marched for their rights; they didn’t march to give them up, as her Alexandra had. Anti-abortion, Alex called it. Pro-birth, Roziana called it.

Alex was a toddler by the time Roziana fled her first husband. Alex thinks her dad would have changed. Alex believes Roziana should have done more to change him. Alex, her daughter Alex, believes Roziana could have – should have – endured her torture longer. Alex doesn’t know how much planning, courage and luck it takes to escape. Many never do.

Neil never did.

The singer carries on to a new mantra, repeating:

Om asoto ma sadgomaya
tamasoma jyotir gamaya
mrityormaamritam gamaya
Om shanti shanti shantih

Shanti – peace. How could anyone declare peace after dropping all those bombs, killing all those people? Not “gooks” or “Charlies” or whatever the GIs called them. People. NVA.

Roziana went as soon as an American civilian could get in there, with a “Peace Mission” for the new era of Doi Moi, the “socialist-oriented market economy.” Expensive, but she was posing as a well-heeled investor so she could land at Tan Son Hut International and travel up the coast to Da Nang and Hanoi. She needed to see Neil’s cell in the Hanoi Hilton. Needed to sense if his silence, escape attempts, and consequent torture had made any difference to the world.

Others in the group may not have been what they seemed either. Introductions on the flight from Singapore revealed a pig farmer, a professor of engineering, two retired businessmen, a couple of  students on their year before college, a mother in search of her MIA son, and Roziana – sister of a decorated bomber.

To the three vets in the group, she was a goddess. Her brother’s sister. She caught herself wishing Neil had been more like them – all three hit the floor at the first burst of welcome fireworks when the tour bus pulled up at the Rex Hotel in Saigon, renamed Ho Chi Minh City. They all probably had PTSD. Had they been brave – or foolhardy? –  when they were Neil’s age?

Their Vietnamese hosts were expansively welcoming, hoping to give the Americans a tour and sign them up as investors. They didn’t ask her reason for joining the Peace Mission – they probably thought each traveler had been chosen by the Federal Government, because that’s what would happen in a Communist country. Their objective, unlike that of the American delegates dozing through their speeches, was to win the war though it might take generations.

If any additional movements feel good, sway from side to side. Back to the neutral tabletop position. Then take the right leg back, touch the toes to the ground. Press into your palms and send your weight back for a really nice stretch. The crown of the head should be facing the front of the room. Then float the leg to hover parallel to the floor. You want the hips square. Flexing that foot.

From here, turn the right foot out to the right – a little intense on the hip, right? Bring the leg off to the side and hover it here for one round of breath. Set that foot flat on the floor and turn the toes in to you. When you’re ready, bring your hands to your hips. Make sure that left knee stays under your hip... That looks really good, Roziana...

No matter what she wore, Neil would say, “That looks really good, Roziana.” Even when he couldn’t see her on phone calls from Saigon or Manila.

What will happen to the audio tapes and letters Neil sent from ’Nam when Roziana goes? Will Alex or Rob care what Neil felt about democracy back in the sixties? Rob is proud his uncle fought Communism; he seems dedicated to the proposition that all men are created unequal – so Euro-Americans come first and only. Privilege stunts the imagination.

She didn’t raise either Rob or Alexandra to be bigots. They just married know-nothings and turned that way from loving them. Now she can’t discuss politics with them. And is silent whenever Alexandra proclaims her love of a Jesus who loves guns and hates anyone who doesn’t speak English.

Rob is even convinced that retired Dr. Fauci will somehow vaccinate him into subservience. He has – what’s-it? Apophenia. Like ancient soothsayers reading symbols into the entrails of sacrificed animals.

Lord knows she had enough reason to distrust the military and her government after learning of the defective fuses that prematurely detonated all six bombs right below Neil’s plane. Or learning that Neil’s radio communications with his rescuers weren’t scrambled – even her grandkids probably know how to...what do they call it?...encrypt communications, so the enemy can’t lie in wait for you. Or three years later, when Ellsberg spent hundreds of hours photocopying seven thousand classified pages to prove her government knew they were sending more and more Americans into Vietnam only to die.

But for some reason Roziana, though no longer believing in a caring Church or a benevolent God, still believes in the spirit of America. In democracy, with restrictions on mob rule and oligarchy. In the value of ideas, ideals, and hard work.

Stupid, like some refugee.

Press into the outer edge of that right foot. Now bring the palms together in Anjali mudra. Flex and open. Lengthen and lift.

Drop the right palm and reach up and over into Extended Triangle pose – Utthita Trikonasana. Roll that left arm back, dropping, tucking the shoulders away from the ears. Big breath. Reach both hands back to center...lean in. Surrender to the pose.

Neil could have surrendered. In the jungle, he could have fired his revolver’s remaining bullets to attract NVA soldiers to his position. He’d have spent only a few hours in hunger, thirst and pain. What kept him going for forty-six days? What kept him planning escape when there was no chance of escape?

...Use a block or bring your hand to the floor for an extended side angle poseUtthita Parsvakonasana. Good, uh-huh.

On the way to Hanoi the bus parked by the side of the road, at an angle. Roziana remained in the bus, while peace mission members left the bus to pee. The tour guide handed out bottles of water. A sea of conical hats spread beneath Roziana’s window. Vietnamese people were squatting by buckets of eels, some beside pyramids of oranges, some selling vegetables she could not name.

So, this is how it feels to be outnumbered, she thought. This feeling of being marooned, your words useless. Hands chilling because you can’t see anyone who looks like you, anyone familiar. She’d only feel it a few days. What should she call it?

A child of six, maybe seven, approached the bus. A zippo lighter in his outstretched hand. She read the engraving when he held it up to her. Bury me face down so the NVA can kiss my ass. A white bandage wound around his head, covering one eye. Roziana gave him a twenty for the lighter, like that was going to help him.

The guide came to her window and translated; the boy said he had gone crab fishing and triggered an unexploded shell. Could have been one planted by the VC, or one dropped by Neil – who knows? The kid could have been faking injury, but no kid she knew would wear that dirty bandage like a crown. The war was not over.

Do any wars end? A policeman with his knee on a Black man’s neck...men brandishing confederate flags in the US Capitol Buildings. Laws passed to restrict voting, control women’s bodies...

Now from extended side angle, bring your left arm down, wheel it over, bring your right arm up, and sight along your middle finger, in Virabhadrasana – Warrior 2.

Bring your right hand up, raise your gaze to look at it. Arm bent behind your back. Use your strap if you need to. Lean into your lunge, with the knee at a ninety-degree angle. A little back bend, now. Stay in Exalted Warrior, viparita virabhadrasana. Three deep breaths here.

The half known leads to disproportion, uncertainty to legend, to fictions created out of love. For justification, for History. The telling and retelling of Neil’s story raised him to glory, to a state of perfection he may never have desired. He wanted learning, growth – neither are possible after Perfection.

But no question – he’d done his best. He always did. Mother instilled that in them. Mother demonstrated how to bear all the crosses she was given to bear. Mother attended every memorial event to honor Neil, right up till she was unable.

Roziana was more like her father; believing all would be well if everyone came together, broke bread, shared a bottle of wine.

That is, till she figured out who was the gaslighter, who had become the gaslighted. Who was the master, who had become the servant.

Then Roziana was the coward who would take her babies and leave.

They never said it, but she knew her parents thought it. Oh yes, she did. Thought she could have taken that asshole’s degrading words and beatings longer, “for the future of the children.”

Well, her children turned out half-assholes, like they would have turned out anyway. Do they see Alex and Rob now? Do they see this future Now, this future democracy Neil fought for?

Neil never had to see their parents grow old. Never had to watch helplessly, as old age claimed their father’s mind, their mother’s dignity. He never had to make the decisions she made: Increase the morphine, and increase the morphine, till they joined Neil in his Phantom.

... Fold your hands, bring them to your forehead; may your thoughts be tranquil. Bring your hands to your heart; may your actions be righteous. Bring them to your lips; may your words be compassionate. Remember as you go about your day: Life happens in the present moment, and every breath is different.

Life happens in the present moment.

So, Roziana will go to Angelo’s funeral, for all who are left behind. She will wear her jungle green jacket over a pale pink dress. She will hold Ang’s wife’s hands in hers, hug his sister, shake hands with his sons, and exclaim how big his grandkids have grown. She will look into their tears and be glad for them that Ang’s wasn’t the 58,282nd name etched into black granite. She will kneel before Angelo’s coffin and mumble a bullshit prayer to the inscrutable Almighty who saved Ang for old age, but not Neil.

Then she will drive home to their parents’ home. Maybe she’ll play the modern arrangement of What a Wonderful World. And she’ll raise a glass to her parents and exalted warrior Neil. Maybe they’re way way above those torn puffy clouds, holding orbit with him – and now Ang – looking down on this seventy-year-old woman’s battle-scarred body doing yoga.

Namaste. The divine light in me honors the divine light in you.

About the Author

Shauna Singh Baldwin

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Shauna Singh Baldwin is the author of three novels: WHAT THE BODY REMEMBERS, THE TIGER CLAW and THE SELECTOR OF SOULS. Her short fiction collections are: ENGLISH LESSONS AND OTHER STORIES, and WE ARE NOT IN PAKISTAN. Awards include The Writers’ Union of Canada prize, the CBC Literary Prize, the Commonwealth Prize - Best Book (Canada-Caribbean), and a Giller Prize shortlisting. In 2016, her play WE ARE SO DIFFERENT NOW was staged in Toronto, and RELUCTANT REBELLIONS: NEW AND SELECTED NON-FICTION was published.

Read more work by Shauna Singh Baldwin .