Fatherland

It was a most peculiar thing to do. Everyone said so who heard the story, of how Phuong’s father had named his second set of children after his first. Phuong was the eldest of these younger children, and for all her twenty-three years she had believed that her father’s other children were much more blessed. Evidence of their good luck was written in the terse letters sent home annually by the first Mrs. Ly, the mother of Phuong’s namesake, who recorded in bullet points each of her children’s height, weight, and accomplishments. Phuong’s namesake, for example, was seven years older, fifteen centimeters taller, twenty kilos heavier, and, from the photographs included with the letters, in possession of fairer, clearer skin; whiter, straighter teeth; and hair, clothing, shoes, and makeup that only became ever more fashionable as she graduated from a private girls’ school, then from an elite college, followed by medical school and then a residency in Chicago. Mr. Ly had laminated each of the photographs to protect them from humidity and fingerprints, keeping them neatly stacked on a side table by the couch in the living room.

The letters accompanying the photographs were the only communiqués that Phuong’s family received about the children, for over the course of some twenty-seven years’ absence, Phuong’s namesake and her two younger brothers had never written a word themselves. And so, when the first such letter finally arrived, it was the cause of a great deal of excitement. The letter was addressed to Mr. Ly, who, as the plenipotentiary of the house, always took it upon himself to open the mail. He sat on the couch and slit the envelope carefully, using one of the few relics from his past he had managed to keep, a silver letter opener with an ivory handle. Flanking him were Phuong and her mother, while his two teenage sons, Hanh and Phuc, sat on the armrests and craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the words their father read out loud. The letter was even shorter than the ones written by the ex-wife, merely announcing that Phuong’s half sister would be coming for a two-week vacation, and that she hoped to stay with them.

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