Fade In

Cathy Linh Che

  a golden shovel using the beginning lines of the script of
Apocalypse Now, in which my parents, who were
     Vietnamese refugees, were hired to play extras

I chew my dinner carefully. A
helicopter arrives. The single
man at the table is my father. The image
of his younger self fades, then a faint scent of
Baler. So I walk in the forest listening to trees.


My aunt asked her son to serve us coconut
cut from the cluster of trees
out front. For the time being
it is 2011. History is being viewed
on the television, through
the eyes of a white American. The
fact is, my parents were barely visible through the veil
of that gaze. They were the props of
empire. Characters with short time
and no lines. Or
props to smell like a
real thing. Movie so real, it’s beyond a dream.


While directing, Coppola occasionally
chomped on a green colored
mango, skin and all. Film was all smoke
and rigging, wafts
of bright sulfur through
salt spray and surf-ready waves. The
scene opens just outside the frame.
My mother sleeping in a room, scented with yellow
droplets of piss. How then
she lay, bathed in violet.


The music
blares. A speaker begins
to call like a child, quietly,
on its way to howl, then silence, suggestive
of taxidermy. Mother of
God, pray for my mother in 1968,
13 and sent away––
eager for the year to become, finally, 1969.

Then, perhaps
she listens to the
radio, through to the end
of the evening. By
the time she wakes, my father is already gone. The
scene opens just outside the doors
of the schoolhouse. I can see him now,
walking toward the beach, moving
past fishermen selling their catch, through
the crewmembers setting up their cameras to capture the
morning’s just-rinsed light. He waits to enter the frame.
The director asks: Are
you ready? My father climbs aboard a helicopter, which skids
across the shore. He considers his role of
an interpreter. His English, his training as a mechanic. The
borrowed from Marcos (Ferdinand, not
Imelda), suddenly swerve. The Hueys that
Coppola used to stage a war are needed to put down rebels. We
had to wait, my father says. But we received payment. Still, we do
      what we can:
keep busy, practice English, prepare to make
a life somewhere new. My mother insists that filming was fun
      for them,
a way out
of the boredom of the camp. As
I listen to their telling, I realize that
my version doesn’t match theirs, though,
I take what I can. Along the way, I discover a lost uncle. Rather
than seeking hard
fact (he may still be alive somewhere), I record the shapes
of my family’s feeling: the guilt that
stays, the glide
when I press my mother, who by
now, engages with the narrative at
a distance, with the triggered up-close at random
intervals. She pastes album after album of photographs, then
marked Cathy Linh Che, 1980–, a
nod to a gravestone, in defiance of (or an elegy for?) a phantom
country. The construct as real as a helicopter
exploding ceremoniously when her friend from the camp tosses
      her straw hat in.
Her face in full
In Baler, a surfboard floats
atop a few waves, right by
“Charlie’s Point.” The
guide drives me via sidecar to a grove of palm trees—
when the scene from the film comes at me suddenly.
“Napalm” dropped along this ridge. River mouth without
vine or cover. The charred remains warning
my mother about the
American life ahead of her: a jungle
in flames. Mortar fire bursts,
only, it’s just a dream she carries into
America, and only when I ask her a
question. Her answers are never reluctant, bright
with detail, her face alight as if diving into a red-orange
fire, her past defoliated under a glob
of liquid heat. In exchange, 80 pesos for a day of
acting work. Just playing life anew, napalm
that never burned her, even though she lived inside that flame.


I chew my dinner carefully. The
year is 1976. My parents asleep on a cot. The view
outside: beach waves curling. After three moves,
they ready themselves for a journey across
Luzon, back to Manila, in preparation for the
journey at last to Los Angeles. My grandmother burning
incense, praying for her daughter. She combs the trees
for meaning as
she lies in her hospital bed, wrapped in the
loss of a gone daughter who won’t return until 1993. Smoke
forgives the distance. That ghostly
veil. In Los Angeles, the helicopters
spotlight another car on the run. It will crash come
morning in the most congested city in the world. I stop the
      tape and
empty a vase of its water. From here, where to go?

Cathy Linh Che is the author of Split, winner of the Kundiman Poetry Prize, the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America, and the Best Poetry Book Award from the Association of Asian American Studies.
Originally published:
September 1, 2022


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