I sip my black coffee, peering up at her. I have offered her a cup of café phin―slow-drip coffee. She palms the cup with both hands. Head lowered. The cup raised to her lips. First sip. Gingerly. Her brow furrowed.
It’s so peaceful around here, she says, her partially-tilted face leaning into the morning light which glints on the fine downy hair at the base of her neck.
We live a slow life here, I say. I’m sure you’ll forget everything here by the time you go back to America.
I keep things I learn―things I select to remember.
Like the drip coffee, she finally says, chuckling. But I’m fascinated with those rivers and canals around here. And the lives that depend on them.
I catch her gaze over the cup’s rim, serene eyes, elongated and pretty, the brow not creased this time, perhaps she is now getting used to the bitter taste of the café phin, this orphan child having been displaced to grow up into a comely girl, always exuding liveliness and consideration.
She came to my inn in the Mekong Delta with her American mother who adopted her in 1974 when she was five years old. She’s eighteen now.
The rain pockmarked the pond’s water and the wind blew the rain across the pond and water hyacinths scurried in their crowded mass throwing up their petals pale blue and lavender and spun and wind-born and gone.
She keeps the cup uptilted, partially covering her face, as she tells me about the place she came from. Her words now paint images from her photographic memory, and I begin to see the one-story L-shaped tin-roofed, mango-wood walled house that sheltered nine orphans, four to ten in ages. Behind the orphanage was a fish pond, then a plot overgrown with banana trees whose fronds the nuns would cut and wash and later wrap foods in. In that banana grove, caught by a sudden late-afternoon thunderstorm, the head nun held her tight against her bosom, both crouching to hide from the lashing rain. The nun broke the fronds at the stems to screen themselves, then took off her headscarf and wrapped it around the little girl’s head. A streak of lightning at ground level, like a sudden flash out of a mirror, then an ear-splitting thunderclap rending the air. She plugged her ears just as another crash shook the ground, the earth rumbling in the soles of her feet, the air now thick, acrid smelling, and the sky wrinkling and pulsing with far-off lightning. Out in the open the hummingbird trees bent and snapped back and leaves flew fluttering like birds. The rain pockmarked the pond’s water and the wind blew the rain across the pond and water hyacinths scurried in their crowded mass throwing up their petals pale blue and lavender and spun and wind-born and gone. Then a blinding white flash across the pond. It seared a hummingbird tree in midsection. The tree snapped, loud. The girl could smell the burned smoke on the wind. She said, sobbing now into the nun’s chest, I don’t want to be here, and the nun cradling her in her arms drew her against her own chest and said cooing, We’d better stay for a little while and I promise nothing shall hurt you my dear. She held still, smelling a warm, sweaty smell on the nun’s blouse just as the nun squirmed, her hand touching her blouse here and there and her voice sounding panic, I’ve got something under my blouse. The nun eased herself out and her hands came up unbuttoning her blouse. The little girl stared, saw a black thing snatched away from the nun’s chest. A caterpillar. Across the air suddenly flashed a jagged line. Then an explosion so loud her ears rang. She mashed her face in the nun’s bosom, the nun shielding her now with the open fronts of her blouse. Eyes shut, she heard the nun cooing in the manic sound of the rain. She felt the flesh warm and abundantly soft, smelling like wet leaves, and she felt raindrops trickling down her scarf-covered head to her lips, her neck and the nun was humming a lullaby. The thunder came less and less now and soon rolled into the distance and then just the rain clattered on the leaves, the smoky smell now gone from the air, and it felt dank in the susurrus of the wind. The nun gently pushed her away from her chest. It’s safe to go now, child, she said. The girl wiped rain from her cheeks, following the nun’s fingers trying to match a button against its buttonhole. She kept gazing at the ample flesh of the nun’s bosom, then at a pink ridge of a scar astride her breasts. She didn’t ask. But it had stayed with her.
* * *
Dawns she would rise to help the nun in the rear kitchen, sitting on her heels on the packed-earth floor, stacking up coconut leaves, brown and dry, then stripping the leaves of the stiff midribs, then tearing each leaf from its stem, and the nun would light the leaves and feed them into the hearth and then when the flames spurted quivering she poured a bowlful of rice husks into the fire. The hearth crackled, the husks exhaling acrid smokes, and the flames rose in blue tongues. She would save the midribs and the stems for the nun. The children would tie the stems together into a multilayered fan-shaped bundle into which they would fit a midriff for a handle. And that was how they made brooms. The nun would let her pour rice flour evenly onto a white gauze that screened a wide-bottomed pot, the square cloth stretched and held down drum-tight by the weight of four bricks strung from four corners of the cloth, the pot steaming with boiling water and the rice flour―a creamy white mixture of sugar and coconut extract and sesame seeds―was spread out in a round layer and the nun then lidded it with a cane cover. Like a wonder, she would stare at the rice crepe after the lid was removed shortly after, the crepe so thin now it was no longer cloud-white but opaque-white hazing from the steam. She watched the nun slide a wide wooden blade under the crepe, lifting it gently so it hung flapping, round-shaped and wet and paper-thin, and dropping it on a palm-woven sieve. As the nun bent to scoop up rice husks with a bowl to add to the fire, the girl could see the nun’s breasts through her collarless blouse, the long scar, braidlike, across her chest. They had to use up the flour just before the sun had burned off the morning mist so they could put out the sieves for the crepes to dry in the sun. By noon the crepes would dry. The children took the sieves back in and they stacked the crepes by tens, tied them down and wrapped them in brow papers and a nun would later carry them to the local market and sell them on consignment. By then the girl had forgotten about the scar.
* * *
A boy her age was shaking a bushwillow’s branch until a cluster of its four-winged fruit fell tumbling to the water and she watched them drift away until their pale green blended into the water’s desolation.
Then the flood season came. It came one morning after a three-day rain when she woke and saw floodwaters rising to the doorsteps. By noon rain had slackened and the water was coming into the house. She could no longer see the long table where they would sit eating, only the tops of the straight-backed chairs that told where each chair was. The nuns put the children in three canoes, the long, slender canoes always tied to the trunks of the hummingbird trees behind the house, and now with the children safely together, all bunched up in their clear-plastic raincoats, the nuns began paddling away. The plain behind the house was a steely white sheet of water brimming to the horizon. Markers of boundaries between landowners’ paddy fields were the yellow-flowering riverhemp bushes, their crowns mirroring themselves, yellow on yellow, in the gray water. She could tell where they were by the familiar sights of things―clumps of half-submerged flatsedge fringing a pond―the pond now rising with cloudy water and on it floating white waterlily and blue waterlily. The head nun handed her the short paddle and reached out for a blue waterlily. She gave the girl the flower and took the paddle back. The girl asked if the nun’s arms were tired from rowing, for the nun had taught her how to row, how to paddle with the cây dầm, much shorter than an oar, made of thingan wood, polished and always light. The nun shook her head, rowed on. They would stop when they spotted small crabs taking shelter on a floating quilt of water hyacinths so the children could pick them up and play with the mottled-brown crabs that always camouflaged themselves with the color patterns of their surroundings. Sometimes late in the afternoon when the water had stopped rising, the nuns rested, the canoes now leaning against the crown of a young bushwillow with its trunk, at least two meters tall, submerged in water. Neighbored by nothing but gray sky and white water, the nuns began setting the fishing poles, fitting their butts into a bored hole in the upper side of the canoe, the poles arching over the water watching the lines plumb the water’s depth. The children ate rice balls out of their banana leaves. The girl, too, chewed a rice ball, long-grained and sticky with ground, salted sesame seeds. She could smell its bursting roasted aroma in her mouth. Eating, she touched a bushwillow’s leaf, still damp, feeling its downy hairs. Her mind grew dreamy. A boy her age was shaking a bushwillow’s branch until a cluster of its four-winged fruit fell tumbling to the water and she watched them drift away until their pale green blended into the water’s desolation. They caught several perches. One hand holding the line, the head nun held up a perch, its dusky-green body quaking in her hand, and as the children gawked told them this fish could walk. The children giggled and asked how. It used its tail and fins, the nun said, to move over land. The girl remembered that. The walking perch. They rowed on, the nuns stopping at times to untangle feathery roots of water lettuce from their paddles. Passing an earthen dike with only its top above the water, gapped in several spots, the head nun pointed toward a paling of cajeput stakes, closely joined, and asked if anyone knew what the barrier was for. The girl said it was to catch fish. The nun said, You’re very smart, child, but this isn’t fish weir. Then as the canoes came alongside the wet, battered-looking paling, the nun told them to look down into the water. Fish weir, she said, has stakes with a fair distance between them, and with horizontal wattling between stakes to trap fish. Do you see any wattling down there? The children said no. The nun said, This paling is to protect the dike from further water damage. You as my children live your protected lives in the house, but out here people’s lives depend much on the waterways and sometimes water encroaches their habitats and so their work never ends, the year-round mending of things in the delta. Then beyond the fence, the dike, they came around a hummock rising above the water like an elephant back. The nuns shipped the paddles, docked the canoes, and led the children up the knoll. Twilight was falling, spreading a fan-shaped glow across the water, luminous water swelling to the sagging sky. They walked under cajeput trees, between their thin pale trunks into a gloom harbored by their damp leaves, green now turned black and still dripping rainwater, then out in a clearing. A stilt hut sat three feet above the ground. Flanking the steps were clay vats, lidded and waist-high. Beneath the stairs sat a skiff covered in a moss-green plastic sheet. Outside the hut sat an old man on the bottom step. The girl recognized him. Leathery, sun-spotted face. Gap-toothed grin. He was the janitor who helped fix things around the orphanage. He built all the furniture―tables, chairs―and one time made a pen nib for her. She remembered one morning seeing him on the doorsteps pounding a leaf of gray metal cut out from a milk can. She sat by him. Making you a new pen nib as she told me to, he said, referring to the head nun, as he cut the metal into a sliver. So you can write again, he said. You write, eh? How old are you? She said, Four. He looked at her, head to toe. I don’t even know my age, he said, but I can count good with my fingers. Then, with the tip of his tongue protruding between his lips, he began hammering the metal sliver. Now he raised his hand to greet the nuns. So this is where he lives, she thought. In the ash-blue twilight beyond the clearing where bushes grew wild, she saw humps of graves plagued by needle grass and false daisy. The white, small flowers glimmered. She saw them around the orphanage. When they followed the old man up the steps and into the hut, she could hear from behind the hut the hens clucking and the throaty gargles the ducks made in their pens. The old man lit the kerosene lamp hung from a hook on a cockroach-maroon post. The hut glowed eerily in the trembling light, the corners full of shadows. The floor, lined with shorn boles of cajeput, glowed with a bone-shine. She could see a lute hung next to the lamp. Odd-looking lute, its body round as a coconut. The hearth crackled now with a fire going strong, the old man feeding the fire with cajeput wood, then dropping dry cajeput leaves onto the flames that smelled foul. Keep out them mosquitos, he said to the children sitting around the hearth. She followed a nun outside to get away from the smelly smoke. The nun knelt on a flagstone by a vat and with a knife began gutting a perch. Watching the nun prepare the fish, the girl heard heavy wings up in the dark tangles of cajeput trees. Then she saw white storks and white egrets coming home to roost for the night. The twilight stillness broke by the incessant, raw beating of wings. Someone was coming out of the hut. It was the head nun who said to her, Are you hungry, child? She nodded, Yes. How long are we staying here? The nun said, Till the water goes down, then we go back home and start cleaning up. I’ll be back shortly. The girl asked, Where’re you going? The nun pointed toward the gloom beyond the clearing. The girl saw the humps of graves now just blurred swells. What’s there? she asked. The nun looked down at the ground, then lifted her gaze again toward the graves. My daughter’s grave, she said. The girl said nothing. A sense of separation between two people came to her like a fleeting thought. Can I go with you? she asked the nun. The nun patted her head. Yes, child. And they walked in the rustles of wings to the graveyard. The small grave sat on the rim of the knoll before it sloped and disappeared into an overflowing canal now lambent with the twilight glimmers. The ground felt soft around the grave, matted with toothache plant. Aren’t they pretty? the nun said, bending to pluck a handful of the plant’s flowers. The girl asked, What’s this plant? The nun gathered the long-stemmed flowers, each shaped like a yellow-colored eyeball with a red dot in its center. Cỏ the, the nun said. Like its name says. It tastes like mint, strong enough to numb your gum. The nun placed the small bouquet on the grave. The girl gazed down at the restless water rushing headlong as though the earth was tipped, a dank smell rising from the turgid canal three meters below. Then a sudden wing rush. A pond heron shot up, coming over them so low she could see its brown-streaked plumage as it sailed into the dark vault of trees. She looked at the nun who was standing, head bowed, forming words with her lips in her prayer. Then she crossed herself. The girl imagined a presence in the grave. Forever out here. Heat. Rain. Why she died? she finally asked the nun who now took a sharp breath and then slowly exhaled. She drowned in the flood, the nun said. Something seized the girl’s mind so suddenly she found no words to say. She remembered stories about drowned people who would always float back up, bloated and blue-cold looking, after three days in the deep. So she just gazed up at the nun whose face was shadowed now by dusk with only tiny glints in her eyes. The nun said softly, Since then I’ve been always prepared for the flood, so you children shall always be safe with me. Then she patted the girl’s head, said, She was only your age. The girl couldn’t help but notice the small grave, small enough to be overlooked had it not sat alone on the tip of the knoll. She imagined the nun’s daughter then said, But this grave is so small. The nun nodded, the corners of her mouth wrinkled as if she tried to smile, then she said, It is small, my child. Just a grave. Nothing in it. I could not recover her body. But I want to remember her, that’s my wish. The girl felt the nun’s hand squeeze hers. The vegetation-damp smell coming up from the water below then reminded her that she would always be safe on a high, dry ground like this. Then the nun still holding her hand turned and led her back toward the hut. Walking the nun said, She had eyes like you. The girl looked up, met the nun’s gaze when the nun said, You have the Virgin Mary’s eyes, my child. The girl kept pace with the nun until they came to the water vats where the nun sat down and took a washcloth she kept in her blouse’s pocket, soaked it in the vat and started washing herself. From inside the hut drifted a thick smell of smoked fish. The fire in the hearth made shadows in the doorway. Leaning against a broken vat, the girl stood watching the nun clean her neck. Then unbuttoning her blouse, the nun began washing her chest. In the yellow glimmer, the girl gazed at the abundant flesh, the hand that rubbed it that went with the shadows so the flesh went from dark to alabaster. Then the hand went away, the flesh bare, milky, and across the ample flesh was the long ridgelike scar.
* * *
Now she hovers her hand over the cup, then closes her hand trapping the steam in it. Long, tapered fingers. Unpainted fingernails. I try to picture her as a child. I imagine hearing her gentle voice spoken in Vietnamese by a little girl. I try in vain to conjure up the child. I say to her, Maybe someday you’ll find the nun.
I think so, she says. I will come back here.
That night she woke me before midnight and told me to go with her. Said to me, I want you to see something in person that you won’t ever see again once you leave Vietnam.
This morning she wears a scarlet, collarless blouse. The top of the round neckline, held by a button, opens out in a small V. A lock of raven-black hair curls over her clavicle. Something comes back to my mind.
The nun, I finally say to her, how did she have such a scar?
From a rape, the girl says.
I draw back. The chair creaks. During the war? I say.
Yes. She fought him and he cut her with a Bowie knife.
An American Marine―when they raided her village.
One in The Plain of Reeds, where she ran her orphanage.
Where you were raised.
Her daughter was the result of the rape?
I raise my cup, bring it to my lips. When was the last time you were with her?
It was after she agreed to have my American mother adopt me. I cried when she told me the news. She held me a long time and when I stopped crying she told me it was the right thing to do. For me. That I shall have a future. That such a future will allow me to grow as a free spirit. That night she woke me before midnight and told me to go with her. Said to me, I want you to see something in person that you won’t ever see again once you leave Vietnam. I said, What is it that you want me to see? She said, A marketplace. I said, But it’s night now. She said, Yes, child, it’s the hour that matters with the event. I said, But why a marketplace? She said, You’ll see, child, it’s called ‘The Yin-Yang Market.’
I interrupt her. Do you mean Chợ Âm Dương?
Yes. Then she flicks a smile. I had the words translated in my head before I told you, because I didn’t want to say it wrong.
I know what it is.
Do you? What is it then?
We had it in the North. It’s hard to explain to the outsiders what it is.
I want to know if we’re talking about the same thing.
In the North, in this particular village in Bắc Ninh Province in the Red River Delta, there was this marketplace called ‘Chợ Âm Dương.’ It opened only once a year on the fifth day of the Lunar New Year.
Chú . . . She cuts in. Her voice is soft with a lilt in ‘chú.’ Uncle.
I pause, peering at her, and take another sip of coffee.
The nun, she says, perking up now, was born in the North and came to the South in nineteen-fifty-four when Vietnam was separated into North and South by the Geneva Accords. She said the people who started this yin-yang market in the South were Northerners, the anti-communist Catholics. She stops, smiles at me. Now you can go on.
It makes sense, I say, drawn by her riveting gaze. And so they said the location of this marketplace used to be a battlefield back in the feudal time, centuries ago. So many had died their tragic deaths there they said the yin force just shrouds the place. So on that day, just past midnight, the market opened. Nobody carried a lamp. In the dark people then came to buy things. It was for the dead to come back and buy things from the living. Then the market closed before first light.
Yes, chú, she says as she palms her cup in her lap. The market she took me to was outside our district. It was near a river. An empty tract of land with stilts standing but no houses atop them. The nun said, There used to be a village here ten years ago. In just one day it was gone. She said the Viet Cong took cover in the village to ambush the Allies and the Allies counterattacked and shelled it to ashes. Nobody survived. The Viet Cong and the innocents.
Now she pauses, sips, her lips puckered as she sets the cup down in her lap. It was past midnight, she says, when we got there. A new hour that began a new day on the fifth of the Lunar New Year. There were no lights. I asked the nun, Why it’s so dark? She said, Just follow me, child. So she held my hand and we found our way in the dark, walking on the bare ground, stepping between people who sat with baskets and bins in front. I could hear my footfalls in the dead stillness. And wisps of murmurous voices. I could smell the steam of rice porridge, the rich odor of beef broth they used to brew porridge with. Then white steamed buns, rice balls, bánh lá—the leaf-wrapped dumplings―laid out on the sieves. Then the familiar odor of beef noodles. Finally the nun found someone. A turbaned woman who sat with a tray at her feet. The nun made me sit between her and the old woman. I bent to see better what the old woman had on the tray. What are those? I pointed at the tray and whispered to the nun. She said into my ear, Betel leaves and areca nuts. Then she picked up a betel leaf, tore it halfway and held it at my nose. I wrinkled my nose at a dark, spicy smell. That old man, the janitor, always chewed this sort of leaves with a sliver of areca nut. We the children were fascinated at how he prepared his chew as he dropped the slice of areca nut in the center of the betel leaf and brushed the leaf with wet white lime. Then he rolled the leaf into a tight quid and eased it into his mouth. He spat a lot after he chewed. I flinched the first time I saw him spit. I thought he spat blood. His spit was red. His lips too. When he grinned―he had no front teeth―you could see his tongue, his gums like they were bleeding badly. Now I thought this was some strange market but I didn’t know what to ask. It was chilly. The nun held me against her side and I rested my head on her shoulder. Blurred shapes in dark and light garments sitting all over the ground in an eerie stillness. I could smell the river in the breeze, its old muddy smell. The sky was low and moonless, so dark you could see neither stars nor lights. I didn’t know how long I had fallen asleep on the nun’s shoulder. Then someone spoke, someone answered and I woke. A woman wearing a conical hat was standing before me. She was folding a betel leaf into a quid and then worked it into a pouch in her mouth. The oyster-gray skin of her palm-leaf hat glimmered, it covering most of her face, her bà ba blouse so white she seemed to glow. She handed the turbaned woman a coin, then turned and walked away. The whiteness of her blouse sank into the blackness. Like stepping into a dark doorway. There were more people now, shuffling about, indistinct, shapeless, their attire dark-colored, the bà ba blouses, the wide-legged pantaloons. They sat down, eating from the vendors’ bowls. I could hear the slurping noise they made. The air felt cold. It felt damp on the skin, a shivering dampness not there before. I snuggled against the nun and she put her arms around me. Who’re these people? Where’d they come from? I wondered, as I rested my head on the nun’s shoulder. Around here there were no habitations. But I didn’t ask the nun. Nobody spoke. It was like seeing things in a dream, black-and-white, soundless. Someone came for a betel chew, then another. Older women. When they came the air would feel colder, like when you open the door and the rain-damp air came in after it had rained all night. I fell asleep on the nun’s shoulder and when I woke the market vendors were packing up. Now some vendors had lit their kerosene lamps, the glows painting amber lights and shadows on their faces. The turbaned woman had sold out her betel-chew condiments. The nun said something to her and she began emptying her blouse pockets onto her tray. Wrinkled arrowroot leaves, dried-up banana leaves, holed seashells, pebbles round and square. Like child’s things. Why d’you carry them in your pockets? I asked the woman. And she looked down into my eyes, about to say something when the nun said, These aren’t hers, child. They came from the people who came here to buy things from her. I glanced at them again and said, Are they worth anything to give to somebody? The nun shook her head, said, No, child. Themselves they aren’t worth anything. But they were money when those who came here paid her and other vendors. I said, They are not money. The nun said, They were money when those people were here. Then picking up a round pebble, the nun put it in my hand, said, This was a money coin when they paid her. Now she picked up a dried arrowroot leaf, said, This was paper money when they gave it to her. You see, child, those people aren’t living people, like us. They had been dead for many years now. They came back from their yin world into our yang world, this marketplace, so they could enjoy again our worldly pleasures even just for one brief moment. There was no bargaining, no asking about the prices of things in this market. They came, bought things, paid for them. It was real money when they paid. The coin money, the paper money. Only after they have left to go back to their yin world did the money then turn back to its true origins. The nun then patted my head. Now, do you understand why I said that you shall never see anything like this again after you leave Vietnam? I stood looking at the pebble in my hand. A child’s thing, like when children play buy-and-sell. We’d use seashells, pebbles, cutout papers for money.