The Slow Act of Love

Just as the monsoon rains hit Hue, I visited the secret garden of Doctor Minh Khanh Nguyen. I’d heard about it from a couple of students snarfing Cao Lao by the canal and getting smashed on cheap rice vodka.

“Oh,” said the girl, “I can’t describe it. It’s just too obscene.”

Her student boyfriend elbowed her. “Don’t be coy. It’s horticultural art.”

“It’s pornography!” She giggled, then pouted theatrically and slapped him on the cheek, rather hard, I thought.

“Where is it? I must see this garden.”

“It’s over the old Japanese bridge, down the second alley on the left. Then there’s a sub alley off that one. It’s very hidden.”

It was very hidden, and I got lost several times, which meant I had to drink several iced coffees at street stalls. You can’t very well ask for directions and not buy something.

By the time I reached the walled villa, the rain clouds were roiling, the wind had picked up, making the thickets of TV aerials rattle on the roofs of the surrounding houses. I was also suffering from a kind of tunnel vision brought on by an excess of caffeine.

The gate was a chipped, sick-green piece of metal set in a high, whitewashed wall. There was no bell, so I knocked on the gate. It reverberated like thunder. I waited. Nothing.

The first fat drops of rain spattered onto the dusty tiles on the street. I knocked again. Nothing. The air smelled chalky and sour from the dust and the build-up of pressure. The overdose of caffeine in my blood made my temples throb.

Fuck this, I thought, which is pretty much what everyone feels like about everything just before the rain starts. I contemplated the sweaty, wet walk to my room, back over the old Japanese bridge that would now be packed with everyone and their dead fish trying to get out of the rain. My stomach rebelled at the thought of the smell. Fuck this, I thought, and pounded at the gate again.

“Doctor Nguyen?” I hollered.

“Patience, patience!” a voice beyond the gate yelled back. It was reedy and emphysemic.

Metal grated and squealed and the steel door shifted a little. A face like a dried up apple peered out at me. Its bald head was splotched with melasma. Small eyes like gleaming lychee seeds looked me over.

“What?”

“Doctor Nguyen?”

“Everyone here is called Nguyen.”

“Are you the Doctor Nguyen with the famous garden?”

“Go away. I don’t want any more problems with the Ministry of Culture.”

The rain had started to plummet down in earnest now. I could feel it trickling over my scalp, running down the back of my neck.

“I’m not from the Ministry of Culture. How could I be? I’m a foreigner.”

“Those bastards turn up in all sorts of disguises these days. And I’ve told them: it’s foliage. How can foliage be pornographic?”

“I promise, I’m not from the Ministry of Culture.”

“Well, maybe not. What do you want?”

“I came to see the garden.”

“Come back when it’s not raining,” he said, and the door began to grind closed on its rusty metal runners.

“Please. I don’t live in Hue. I’m just visiting!” I hooked my fingers into the opening, to stop the gate from closing, but it had a momentum of its own. The pain shot through my hand, down my arm, and I screamed. Then suddenly the pressure was gone.

“Stupid woman,” he said. “Obviously not from the Ministry of Culture.”

“No,” I said, cradling my fingers against my chest. “Ow.”

“Let me see. Let me see!” he said, grabbing my wrist and pulling me through the gate and into the small tiled area that fronted the house.

“Don’t. It hurts!” I tried to pull my hand back, but his bony, tiny frame was misleading. He had a strong grip.

“I’m a doctor. Let me see.”

“Oh, I’m bleeding,” I muttered, feeling slightly woozy. It was hard to see through the downpour, but my fingers were dripping blood onto the puddle forming on the tiles.

“Crazy foreigners. It’s lucky you aren’t missing any fingers. Yes, they’re all still attached,” he said, holding my hand out in the rain and inspecting it.

I heard the skittering rip of lightning tear the sky above our heads, and then a deafening clap of thunder. Fuck this, I thought, and fainted.

* * * * *

I woke up on a broken lawn chair, tilting sideways. The sun was out, gleaming on every wet surface, throwing up reflections, off the leaves, off the white-tiled walkway. I shut my eyes against the glare and felt the throb in my hand.

“Ow.”

“Lucky. No broken fingers. I had to put a few stitches in one, but you’ll be fine.”

I cracked my eyes open again, squinting through the tears. Dr. Nguyen was squatting next to me with a stained, chipped cup in his hand.

“Drink this.” The cup rattled on its mismatched saucer and I watched a raindrop from the roof plop into the pale yellow tea. “Come on.”

I took the cup with my good hand and sipped it. It was lukewarm and smelled of chrysanthemum and honey. “Thank you.”

“Take these, too,” he said, rummaging in the pocket of his oversized, grubby shorts and pulling out some pills. He presented them on his outstretched palm. It was calloused and brown. The creases stained darker with ingrained dirt.

“Uh, no thanks. The tea is fine. Thanks for taking care of my fingers.”

What I was really thinking was that I needed to start a course of heavy-duty antibiotics fast. I closed my eyes and tried to remember when I’d had my last tetanus shot. If he was a doctor, I was mistress of the universe. But when I looked down at my throbbing hand, it was neatly bandaged in blindingly white gauze.

“Still want to see my garden?”

“Yes.” I knocked back the last of the tea and put the cup back onto the saucer he was still holding.

He stepped aside and turned, like a tiny half-naked magician. “Take a look.”

Two rows of huge, ornate pots. Growing from each of them, were the strangest, most tortured bonzai trees I’d ever seen. I struggled to get out of the lopsided chair and he caught my arm, and led me down the walkway that bisected his garden.

Each tree had been coaxed, clipped, wired and bent into the shape of couples. It wasn’t just the leaves that had been clipped into shape, but the thick, gnarled trunks and branches too.

A woman with her legs around a man’s waist, her arms around his neck, her head thrown back into a burst of emerald green, his bent forward, as if nuzzling her neck.

The second, also a scene of ecstasy, but here there were three trunks, three bodies, intertwined, hips joined together, the roots of the miniature figs their tangled legs. Some branches as arms flung out, some curled around the trunk of the other, clinging, on the verge of something.

“This is my favourite,” he said, pointing. “It was hard to get the trunks to grow sideways, they kept wanting to spring upwards, but I said, no, no! You’re not finished yet.”

The two stunted trunks, lay almost horizontal, but bowed. One hunched over the other, growing over her, the arms wrapped around her waist, tiny knots above them, hanging like breasts. Soft green leaves and tiny white flowers clipped into a ball for her head. His arched back, elongated, also flowering.

“How did you begin this?” I asked.

The doctor chuckled. “It wasn’t my idea. I wanted to learn the art of bonzai when I retired, and the first pot I got had two figs in it. They just began to grow this way.”

“Like this?” I said, astonished, pointing at yet another erotic tableau in bark and leaves.

“Not exactly. But it didn’t seem to matter how much I tried to train them apart, they just wanted to be together, intimately. I couldn’t stop them, so I decided to help them.”

“And then?”

“Well,” he said, shrugging. “You know what it’s like. Desire is like the measles. It spreads. The next plant I got saw what the first one was up to, and that was it.”

“It’s incredible. I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“Do you think it’s pornography? That’s what the bastards from Ministry of Culture say it is. They’re coming back next week to take them all away.”

I looked around the garden at all the little pots with their tangled, enraptured trees, each growing into an achingly slow act of love.

“I don’t know. What will you do after they take them away?”

He tilted his stained head towards the sky and set his jaw. “I’ll just grow some more.”

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