I don’t remember when and where exactly, but I remember what I saw: a lone tiny house far away on a high steep mountain.
Time passes. Some images keep recurring, emerging out of the foggy mind in unexpected moments between daily activities. Going to the market for some trivial stuff and suddenly see again so vividly the face of an ancestor who had died before one was born.
As if the tiny house since then has been residing in my memory so quietly and so long that it turns out it’s me who is staying inside the house: inside of an inside of an inside.
And that is the origin for The Tree House: to search for a house that has receded so far in the deep holes of memory, but whose afterglow still lingers in one’s body. An abstract origin it is.
It is always uneasy when one returns to one’s childhood home. Confined in the indoor air is the smell of old objects piled up like rocks that nobody cares about anymore. I find myself clumsily moving through the small rooms in my parents’ house, which once was immense like a dark cave for me. I remember jumping off from the stairs to land on the mattress on the ground—how joyful it was. But it was in the past. Now, I am too big to find the joy in doing the jump, any jumps: how could I still fall so lightly with this tall, heavy body? Perhaps only children can fly.
Mrs. Cao Thị Hậu, with her brothers and sisters, used to slide up and down on a boulder in the cave where her mother gave birth to her. When her family moved to another cave for a better food hunting, one of her regrets was that the new cave didn’t have such a good rock for her to play with anymore.
A rock to slide on, a stairs to jump off, a closet to hide in, and so on, and so on—childhood memories strangely stick to things. And things lost.
When she was 11 years old, Mrs. Cao Thị Hậu, with her family and other Rục fellows, had to leave their beloved caves to settle down in a new place built by the local authorities in the village. More than 55 years later, she sometimes returns to visit her cave. Does she, as every adult, still feel bigger in the childhood home, here a cave?
The tiny house on a high mountain I saw, was there a light coming from it? I can’t recall for sure, but my imagination tells me that there was one. Is it not that every house comes with a light? The space inside of a house is always lit, warm, safe in contrast to the outer space where darkness, cold and threat prevail. But I wonder: does this duality apply to Mrs. Hậu’s home? A fire kindled at night in the cave still can’t evade the darkness around, instead the fire makes the darkness thicker. In a cave there is no threshold between outside and inside.
My childhood house is a narrow, cramped, three-story building in Buôn Ma Thuột, a small city in the central highlands. Vertically I lived, due to the house’s architectural space that is similar to most of the urban houses in Vietnam. And like many other houses all over the country, this house has been demolished under the development policy.
In the thick vast darkness in which mountains appear like silhouettes of sleeping giant dinosaurs, flickering afar is a tiny dot of fire. A fire to warm people up, to scare away wild animals and unknown forces. The space around the fire is the place dwellers call home. But as destiny would have it, people have to be homeless. All, nature-made and man-made, houses are to be destroyed and lost, left behind in high mountains and deserted cities. Imagining in the spirit of Gaston Bachelard, there remains in the midst of the whirlwind of this destiny the last house that still can stand and resist: the house where memories are housed.