On the Granta Podcast Robert Olen Butler reads from his story ‘Banyan’ (below) and talks about why memory can be like compost.
I’m wrong. Wait. Listen. It’s quiet, the night. The only sound is the racing of my heart, the pop of it in my ear, and I am back in the world, and I am old. I left Vietnam long ago and I am old. And my hand gropes toward the naked girl – I can’t even say her name right, but it means ‘flower’ – and she is not here. I turn my face to the window. My live oak is jaundiced with the security light and, beyond it, the sky is black. This past year I have stretched out my hand to my wife a hundred times in the night and she is not here. She has gone.The only sound is the racing of my heart, the pop of it in my ear, and I am back in the world, and I am old. I could not imagine her dying before I die. I did not expect to live past that night in Hue. Tet 1968. The New Year offensive by the North. And I ran. I was six blocks away from the compound. I put on my pants and I did not even look at her. I was in her little room. I bought her drinks at the bar. I bought her. And I realize that my hand is still extended to touch her. I have reached in the night to touch a Vietnamese bargirl instead of my wife and they are both dead – my wife Maggie and the bargirl named Flower – I daresay she is dead – and I pull my arm back quickly – my left arm – and my face is flushed with shame. My throat clutches with shame at my betraying my wife tonight, even if it began in a dream. My arm aches with shame.
And I understand. I am dying. The pain is beginning to run down my left arm. My throat is clutching. It is not from shame. I sit up. I will die. And I put my pants on and my shoes and I do not look back at my bed, and the girl named Flower does not speak, and I am down the back stairs into the dead-fish stench of the alley and the AK47s are popping from across the river. The Viet Cong – or maybe even the North Vietnamese regulars – we don’t know jackshit about them, for all our counting – the enemy is taking the Imperial Palace. I go out into the street, and far down, in the street lamps along the river, I see the men moving. The men I count. I am a dead man. I turn and I run in the direction of MACV. I run.
I put my feet on the floor. I know the signs. I know my heart. I can call 911. I can call my daughter or my son. But I don’t. I rise and I am unsteady and I move across the room and out the door and along the hall and I am at the top of the stairs and I hold tight to the banister and I descend. And I am in my own back yard and before me is the live oak, a hundred years old, two hundred maybe, and it will live two hundred more, and I knew it would someday need to hold me. Its arms are open wide – the lower horizontal branches thick as most trees, thick as water oaks and pin oaks – and I go to it and I turn my back to it and I sit heavily down in the crotch of two roots and I press back against my tree even as my chest begins to clench, and the oak’s trunk is rough, it touches me hard in the back, in long, up-running ridges, I am in my own back yard and before me is the live oak, a hundred years old, two hundred maybe, and it will live two hundred more, and I knew it would someday need to hold me. and I am rushing past the bar fronts, dark now, and past the passageways into rear courtyards and past the smells of mildew and dead fish and the smell of wood fires and from all directions now comes the din of weaponry, of small arms and RPKs and the whoosh and suck and blare of rockets, the sky flaring beyond the palace walls – they are hitting Tay Loc, the city airport to the north – and now I see men before me, as well, a squad of dark-clothed men a block up the river and gunfire is crackling everywhere and now a needle-thin compression of air zips past my head and I lunge into an alley mouth and I am running hard and figures are coming to doorways and I think the local communist cadres are emerging, I think again that I am dead, and there is only darkness around me and the alley slime underfoot and I push hard, and if I am to die I’d rather not see it happening, so I don’t look right or left or feel any of the bodies coming out. I just run and I run and I am out of the alley and I am in a pocket park and standing before a great, dark form.
A banyan tree.
The pain drills down my left arm like a rifle round. The shooter is in my chest. In the centre of my chest.
I let my head go back against the live oak.
And I approach the banyan.
It is old and it is vast. Its aerial roots are thick as trees and nuzzled together into a dense forest, propping up a billowing dark sky of leaves, and there is a deep inner curve to the roots and a turning, and in the direction of the MACV compound there is heavy small arms fire now and I hear the AK47s and I hear the answering M16s and I know where I belong.
I enter the tree.
I move into the turning and I put my back to its roots and I sit and I draw my legs into me and I am in the dark. I can see around the out-curving columns of roots. Bodies appear, nearly as dark as the night, moving quickly past, and I pull my head back, squeeze into myself. I close my eyes and smell a dank wet earth smell and Rifles flare nearby and I press back into the killing embrace of the banyan. something fainter beneath, an almost-sweetness, and a little sharp thing in the nose, and I think of the girl’s incense and the dead she prayed for. I know this tree has killed another to live. These roots around me, holding me in the dark, began long ago by wrapping themselves around another tree, the strangler roots, embracing a living tree until it vanished, until it was dead inside the growing banyan. Rifles flare nearby and I press back into the killing embrace of the banyan. I expect never to leave.
And I lay my head upon my live oak. I am glad for its hardness against me and I am glad to smell the damp Georgia earth around me, and the squeezing in my chest begins, the deep clamping in my chest. I am glad I am in my own country now. But I was sent to Vietnam, and I know this was meant to happen long ago. Long long ago.
Photograph © Photomatt28