WATER AND GREENNESS LANDSCAPES
Trần Trung ChŪnh
From here on my bed, I can see four rectangular windowpanes. To me, they look like the ancient landscape paintings of water and greenness. The wind sweeps a vagabond mist through my four landscapes. The leaves have all fallen now. An evanescent chain of mountains stretches across the first three paintings. From the fourth, Gothic cathedrals rise. I think to myself: Leaves fall, but resist the wind, clinging to the feet of trees to rot there, to nourish them, awaiting their resurrection in the spring.
A shadow glides across the first painting, enters my room. The nurse slips her hand under my shirt to take my temperature. Her hand is warm and heavy. Each time she touches my body, my temperature rises, and my exhausted heart swells, or suddenly retracts like a tiny, palpitating fish, frantic in her hand. Three years ago, for the first time, I felt the cold, metallic weight of the machine on my chest. My heart jumped like a tiny bird pinned under steel claws. All the same, the medical report confirmed that I was in good health. Mutilated, but not dead. At least I had proof of my existence in hand.
The sky is illuminated with a greenish glow. The mist dissipates. For an instant, on the second painting, tiny white clouds appear, like a layer of marsh flowers. Mother used to say, back then, that she gave birth to me at the Hour of the Boar. But her eldest sister contradicted her≠: "No, it was already the Hour of the Mouse." My aunt was right. She was the one who had greeted me in her arms when I came into the world. My mother fainted at the edge of the marsh. She had been gathering duckweed. I can imagine the icy November water. Seized by a sudden, blinding pain, she had swum hurriedly toward the bank. The cold curdled her cries in her throat. She could have taken the bridge to the bank, but she looked toward the bamboo groves. The earth there was furrowed with crevices. The spines of the bamboos ripped into her hands. No, she didn't try to save herself from drowning. She just pulled me from the bottom of the water to get me dry. My aunt used to tell it this way: "We thought you were both dead when we found you. If you hadn't been so feisty, you would have died. The night was pitch black. We didn't know where to look. When we pulled you out of there, you were covered with duckweed, so I called you Weed." Mother fell ill. Her legs were paralyzed. My aunt told me this: "Your father didn't know he had a son. He only slept with your mother once, secretly, in a little hut near the edge of the pond. Then he left the village to go and earn a living in the South. That was a long time ago." So, I was born on the second of February at the Hour of the Mouse, on the Day of the Mouse, the Month of the Mouse. That is why I am like a mouse, fearful and sickly. Where could I have found the strength, the courage? To the village, I am just a bastard. My mother fed me on rice gruel, first very thin, then thicker and thicker. She crawled around our bed, covering me with rags she had begged at the four corners of the village. We survived thanks to my aunt.
The nurse has come back to take my temperature. Her shadow flits, intermittently, across the first painting. The autumn sun glistens on her blond hair. Limpid blue eyes. The curve of the eyebrows, the ridge of the nose, the fold of her lips seems tenderly sculpted in marble. Something about her walk, seen from behind, reminds me of the swaying of Agnes, that Venus who abandoned her shell to slip into the beds of the Vietnamese immigrant workers. Every Saturday morning she would bring the porno videos and Chinese kung fu films on tape, for my friend. The first time, I had wanted to go out to leave them the room. They told me to continue working. I duplicate the tapes while they re≠enact them in bed. Agnes screams like an animal. My friend, stunned, doesn't understand a thing. He only knows a few words in the local language, enough to count, to greet people, to say yes. I translate for him: "I'm hungry! I'm hungry! Oh my God..."
Agnes always eats, sleeps, washes, dries her hair, and parades around the room, stark naked. I watch the curls of cigarette smoke float under the ceiling. Sometimes Agnes stops suddenly in front of me, grabs my cigarette, and plants it between her lips; she takes my hands and places them on her breasts, makes them caress her rosy nipples, their hard little points. I feel something like iron claws tearing at my heart, petrified by the impetuosity of this woman. She pushes my lips open brutally and sticks in her tongue. Her generous, taut body, like a long mountain chain, like forests, is enough to intoxicate billions of men, this interminable procession of ants who crawl, patiently, uselessly, in search of the universe. I would have liked to have been a man of steel, an automaton driven by a powerful, inexhaustible energy. I wept over my impotence, my humiliation. Clutching the edges of the toilet, I vomited. Agnes sobbed. I was just a traitor.
My landscapes shared the same space, followed each other in the succession of the panes of the same window, and yet they seemed disjointed, autonomous. In the third painting, the mountain looks wild, icy, deserted. Like the place I worked for ten years, a factory in the suburbs. Never again will I set an alarm clock before going to sleep. No matter what the season, we always left the room at five A.M. Once I leaned against him as we waited for the bus, under the avalanches of snow. My heart beat, frozen, starved for warmth. He hugged me in his arms. In the shadow of the snowstorm, a man can also warm the body of a man... Without him I was helpless. He helped me. In his heart, he never admitted the dangerous reality. If I hadn't left with him, how many years would I have survived at my handicapped mother's side? Together we closed my aunt's eyelids. We inherited her little stall, where she sold poor man's tea and candies at the edge of the dikes. I remember saying to my mother: "Just five years. Then I'll come back. I'll build a house with a roof over the terrace. There won't be any more leaks after it rains. I'll buy a wheelchair to take you to visit Aunts tomb. I'll be strong and healthy, I'll be able to get married (my mothers dearest wish). Over there, in three months I'll be cured. Over there, you get chicken every day, Here, we just eat it at Tet. Over there, it'll be Tet every day. I'm going to see what we can still sell to grease the palm of that doctor. He'll give me the work certificate." Mother said nothing. The next day she begged my friend to accompany her to the district hospital. She came back pale as a ghost, carrying two boxes of milk, a pack of sugar, and the usual candies for her business. My friend handed me my new certificate of health and the money to celebrate the event. Once again, my mother had bled herself white for me... We stuffed ourselves, got drunk; they praised my courage, my filial piety. A few years of separation and then my mother would be proud of me. I sipped the wine, moved. My heart raced, ready to burst.
The plane roared with all its strength, racing down the runway, tearing itself away from the earths pull. Already, it reeled in the air. The acceleration pinned me to the back of my seat. My hand searched for his. My eyes were red. Like a sea of blood. The red globules burst, a surfeit worthy of a feast for an entire village. The plane rose higher and higher.
No doubt there was a time, in Eastern Europe, when kurons, levas, and rubles grew on trees. Otherwise, how could we have believed for so long in their riches? Today they are rarer; they hide in tiny wallets, visiting us infrequently. I had to build a house, a flat roof, with these evil little drops of sweetness. I've got to find them, whatever it takes, whatever hardships or danger. Again, he was there for me. Twice, he took the medical exam in my place. He sold everything we had. He bought a folding caddy. He paid me to transport the beer, Coca‑Cola, alcohol, and cigarettes that he resold in the dormitory. Six months later, he began to sell video tapes. My job was to write the posters he put on the door to our room. Later, he employed me to watch the machine, duplicate the tapes, and serve refreshments to his clients.
A turtledove just alighted on the windowsill; there, between the second and the third painting. Is it you, my friend? She walks around the panes as if to look for a passage to me. Around her neck, she wears a collar of pearls. Familiar here, she comes to see me every Sunday morning, the only mornings that belong to me. Agnes and my friend are still sound asleep. The peace of the battlefield, after combat, must look like this. I stare fixedly beyond the window; I hunt the sun beyond the fog. The turtledove alights. I lift the curtain, scatter bread for her. I take a deep breath, until I am sated with pure, icy air. Don't leave me, beautiful bird. I don't dare move abruptly. The turtledove stays with me, kneading my hand with her sharp claws, letting me tub my cheek against her tender breast. Then she leaves. I don't have any way to make her stay. In my wounded heart I feel the beating of her wings against the blue of the sky ... and I sink into, something like delirium. Four silent, deserted landscapes. An icy, dry wind. The sky is covered with mist. A sea of grayish mercury. My turtledove left in a flapping of wings. She rejoins a multitude of birds, who cover the sky with their black wings. They fly toward the South, toward the ocean, fleeing the vault of fog that heralds winter. Too late, beautiful bird; I will not return, even one last time, to see the dance of the waves as they caress the gauntness of my native peninsula. Not for me to feel hunger, one last time, in the Moscow airport, the pressure of the shrieking crowd of my compatriots faced with a wall of police, to hear the sobs of the plastic Venuses hidden in the bottom of our crushed sacks. Don't cry, little blond sisters, we'll bring you back home.
Near the fourth painting, near the end of the third, the silhouette of the mountains softly fades away. The dikes back in my village; I can imagine the blades of grass, the trampled clumps of white flowers. I still see the familiar faces clearly. But nowhere in my memory, or my dreams, have I found my mother's face. Memory, when it suddenly burst and wells with tears, like a tiny electric wire subjected to a current too strong, too brutal, is capable of disgorging decades of a life in a fraction of a second. The electric shock consumes me. I am delirious. I see my mother's wizened arms, covered with blue veins, emerge trembling from the ripped sleeves of her blouse. Groping, she opens the aluminum cover on the candy jar. The jar is empty. It crawls with black ants. A boy's trick.
In those days, I remember, the population of our village was about the size of an anthill. I emptied the jar and filled it with mud, hay, and ants. By the next day, the mud had dried. The following day, the ants had dug long underground trenches the length and width of it. Ants are a hardworking society. They work day and night, systematically organize, don't quarrel, don't kill each other. When they meet, they greet each other by rubbing their whiskers. Black ants rapidly cover the veins on my mother's hands. Soon, there will be no more hand, no more flesh, or bone. There will be only a rippling black mass, a vast procession of crests carting away a black stream... The rest of us, the workers, we also have uniforms like the ants. We trudge, single file, down the city sidewalks, slip onto the buses. Always, I am the slowest, the most lost of all the ants. In winter, I see other uniforms: the crows. They dart between the naked branches. Dressed in their tailcoats, in gangs, they parade ceremoniously on the snow. If only I had the confidence that a suit like that gives you. I'd go to the Continental Hotel one night for dinner.
I dream often. I have increased the doses of sleeping pills, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 packets of Seduxen. The night Agnes stayed, even five packets of Seduxen wasn't enough. I plugged my ears with a pillow. Pain shot through my chest. I saw myself in a kung fu film, my body in shreds, swimming in my own blood. Tens of thousands of naked Agneses were dragging me by the hair, trampling me, straddling my body, strangling my neck, screaming, biting... Painfully, I would get up in the darkness, my pants damp.
In the fourth painting, the clouds drift through the sky, pierced by arrows, the spires of Gothic cathedrals. No doubt God reigned somewhere in those clouds, shedding gold light down on the roofs of the cathedrals. Faith is opportunistic. Religion has to take charge of both the misery of the poor and the spiritual needs of the rich. Faith doesn't inhabit the churches, the pagodas. These edifices only posit it as a hypothesis. The way I see it, God is to be found in the heights and Buddha in the depths. In my native land, under the dazzling tropical sun, I used to stumble on pagodas choked by greenness. Unfathomable eyes that shed no light on the world through their shadowy brows. Once, just beyond a stand of trees, in the sublime freshness of the shadows, a door to a pagoda that lay ajar stopped me in my tracks, forced me to grow accustomed to shadows, to the chill, dank air that surrounded me. There was a path that led to the heart of the earth.
It won't be long now tilt I have my last doctors visit. To think that my shirt, my shoes, even made of these flimsy materials, will survive me... Never look back. Courage, strength, for the first time I find you on the threshold of death. Why did they bother to even wipe the duckweed from my body? Already, Doctor, I lie waiting, translucent, on the lid of the coffin. This is the first and last of my voyages, I am alone, no hand will wave goodbye. No one shares the prayers that I am preparing to whisper. My body is still young, my hands, my legs may still be of some use, if only they could live with a healthy heart. I can overcome the rest of my troubles, but my lazy heart refuses to channel the blood to my lungs. As if someone had clutched my throat, shaking it, strangling me. He ignores my legs, my exhausted hands. He sucks each drop of blood that flows toward my body. He watches and hits me just when I need all my strength. He degenerated before his time. He was rotten at birth, never had a chance to mature. He doesn't deserve to survive, to be healed. Don't go to the trouble. I refuse to have it replaced; it would just prolong my misery, and I don't have the means to pay. But please save my hands, my legs. They deserve to live. My hands know how to work, to hold a hammer, to pull a kite string, to sing like leaves in the wind. My legs know how to hold up those crippled by accidents; they know the way to stand, to hold them all up on this earth. Medicine has worked so many miracles, buying blood from some and selling it to others, now, surely, out of humanity, she will buy my members. And you, my heart, one last effort, so I will be able to endure the final operation. There's no choice. You took my mothers blood and you have returned nothing...
My heart pounds, gasps. Blood floods my eyes. I see the four suns in the four panes of my window embrace. The clot of blood in my chest bursts into a thousand, pulsing droplets, and I feel the blood drown my arteries, pulling me fat away, farther and farther away from a mother who has slowly turned to stone. Mother‑ The Statue That Waits for the Son's Retum.
Translated from the Vietnamese by Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson
First published in Trafika