I worked hard to rent a room in that province, at Mama Nam’s. A brick hut with a tile roof, at the edge of the town, in the middle of some fields surrounded by coconut and banana groves, not far from a tiny hamlet. From there, you can’t see the town. But in front of the house, there is a sad little stream that reminds you it isn’t far off. All I have to do is bicycle the length of the stream, down a tiny path, to get where I want to go, where the stream joins the town, cutting it in two.
To tell the truth, when I learned why Mama Nam had accepted to take me in as a lodger, my gratitude knew no bounds. Apart from the small sum I gave her to round out her daughter’s monthly salary, the main reason she agreed was to give her son, Can, some company. She had put a second bed in Can’s room, forcing him to push the table, chairs and his own belongings into a corner so that half of the room was left to me. Can obeyed in silence. The brutal shrinking of his space, the clutter of piles of odd objects, appeared to fill a void in him. The appearance of new, foreign objects -- of which I was one -- seemed to distract him.
I felt like putting up a bamboo partition to divide the room into two, but I hesitated. I didn’t dare tell Mama Nam. Time passed. I no longer had the courage to raise the problem.
All in all, I had found a refuge. I can’t ask for more. Mama Nam’s family treats me well. The rent is nothing. I finally have a place to sleep, a home to go to, people to talk to. I’ve had a hard time of it. I had knocked on every door of every house in the town to rent a room, in all the enterprises, in vain. Finally, they hired me as a worker in the Phat Loi brick factory. That’s where they introduced me to Mama Nam.
Right from the beginning, Mama Nam assured me that Can wasn’t dangerous. And, in truth, while oddly simple-minded, he was sweet and taciturn. He would putter around the room and the house all day. He helped Mama Nam cook, wash dishes, looked after the pigs in the garden behind the house; sometimes he would plough the earth along the hedgerow to plant vegetables. When the weather was bad, he would lock himself in the room, and sit there, mute. He’s incapable of earning a living. Even at age thirty-five he still depends on Mama Nam. He’s tall, fair-skinned, with thick eyelashes that join over his two bright eyes.
One night, I come back to the house after a long, painful day of work. I go into the room, see Can spread out on the bed, absolutely still the wavering shadows, clutching a tape recorder in his hands. His illness must be getting worse, I think. The next morning, when I leave, he’s still that way.
The tape recorder slowly clicks out a blank tape. I throw on some clean clothes, smile warmly before going out: “Brother Can, if you feel like helping Thao cook, come take a walk with me, to get some air. It’s not good to just lie there, it’s bad for your digestion, you’ll get sick.”
Click. Can turns over the cassette, presses the “play” button, stays in the same position. The tape recorder is still mute. Outside, in the big room, Mama Nam, murmurs prayers on the alter. Two flickering candles light the portraits of the dead. Her face quivers, her eyes, two hollow black sockets atop her cheekbones, are closed. Without a sound, I slide into the kitchen. Thao is seated next to the stove, she raises her head, looks at me, a blush rising to her full cheeks. “Today we’re having fried catfish marinated in nuoc mam, it’s your favourite dish, brother Can’s too!”
“Great!” I answer. The heady smell of fish marinated in nuoc mam fills the kitchen. Suddenly, I feel ill at ease. Night has fallen over the garden behind the house. There’s a shower at the back of the garden, hidden by large woven bamboo panels. I throw off my dirty clothes, and douse myself with water. I’m not Can. It’s against my will that I share his room, that I keep him company all the time. But apparently, Mama Nam and Thao take pleasure in matching us up like a pair of cards. They can’t talk about one of us without mentioning the other.
Water soaks into my hair, falls to the ground, runs down my neck. I douse myself again, puffing my chest in pleasure, the cool water dripping from my head to my feet. All in all, it’s thanks to Can that I found lodging here. What’s more, Mama Nam needed a normal, able-bodied son. Someone she could mother. Someone who could help out. I don’t even really help Mama Nam, or Thao; so why do I get so irritated?
I get out of the shower, awkwardly fold my dirty clothes. All of a sudden, by a strange intuition, I turn around. Two glittering eyes disappear behind a thick grove of hibiscus. I get goose pimples. It’s too dark, I can’t make anything out. But there’s no doubt about it: I saw two eyes disappear behind the bushes. And this feeling of being spied on, watched behind my back, I could be mistaken...Why does he watch me? I stop, take a step towards a hibiscus bush, and then drop back. The owner of those eyes probably isn’t there anymore. All around, everything is calm. Only the wind murmurs through the garden. I shake my head, return to the house.
Dinner. The atmosphere is lugubrious. Two candles on the ancestors’ altar have gone out, the morose light of the yellow ceiling lamp harshly illuminates the meal set out on the low table. Can didn’t come to dinner. He isn’t in his room either. Mama Nam looks depressed. Even though I’m starved, I don’t dare eat much. Thao keeps putting bits of food in my bowl, but she only takes a single bowl of rice.
After a long silence, Mama Nam says: “He’s probably wandering along the river”. Thao and I, we look at each other, mute. This isn’t the first time Can has disappeared from the house. Sometimes, at night, I wake up, I glance over at his bed and see that it’s empty; I try to stay awake, to keep alert for noises, to wait for his return. I end up falling asleep, seized by a vague fear...But this is the first time Can hasn’t come to the evening meal, especially this meal, with the stewed fish prepared by Thao herself. At the end of the meal, Mama Nam says: “Leave it, my girl, I’ll clean up.”
Thao prepares tea, comes outside, sits down beside me on the steps to enjoy the cool breeze. A full moon glints feebly on the river. Crickets chirp in the bushes along the banks of the river. Fireflies flash in the distance. The shadows of the vases, plants, and miniature mountains strewen around the courtyard rise, uncertain, motionless. No one speaks of going in search of Can. His behaviour is familiar in this family. Nevertheless, as she hands me a cup of tea, Thao says: “I’m worried about brother Can.”
“Where can he be?” I ask, knowing that Thao is more concerned about a relapse than where he is.
“If he is wandering, he can only come back through the banana grove.”
“How do you know?”
“Before his sickness got worse, he used to leave the house for days on end. Every time we found him there.” She continued. “A few miles beyond the banana grove, there’s an old cemetery, no one knows how long it’s been there, no one in this region dares go there.”
No one speaks. Thao serves me some tea, and then, as if to change the subject, suddenly askes me. “Brother Quang, how’s your work at the brick factory?”
“It’s exhausting, but manual labor relaxes me, I’m less tense.”
She looks at me. “Are you often tense?”
“Oh, not really..”
“I hope that it’s not because of what happens here...But you know I’ve got lots of problems.”
“I know,” she sighs, “Once you lived in the big city, you taught, now....the life here, it’s not worthy of you.”
“That’s not it either. I’m very happy to have found work in the brick factory. It helps me change. I don’t feel like teaching anymore. I’m starting over.”
“You’re right. Mama and I, we’ll help you as we can. You see, mama thinks of you as another son.”
I almost winced. I didn’t like the turn the conversation had taken. Somehow, I thought I could sense pity behind these words. But in the night, her face is radiant, beautiful. A feeling of tenderness washes over me. Is this her way of declaring her love for me ? I stare at her. She lowers her eyes to the cup of tea, embarrassed. I want to take her hand, but I don’t dare. We stay silent. For a long time, we sit there, side by side, in silence. In front of us, the full moon drifts slowly toward the town.
The next morning, Can came back to the house, dutiful, as obedient as he was before. Mama Nam’s worries have subsided somewhat. A few days go by. She regains her calm. Gaiety returns to the house, the dinners become moments of happy reunion. Can and I are more spoiled than usual. All day, aside from the moments when she cleans house, prepares the meals, and attends to business with the neighbours, Mama Nam makes sticky rice for us, che, cakes, sweets, sugar cane, yoghurt. She always ask us: “Can, Quang, what would you like to eat my children?” She even orders Thao to buy us two new pyjamas at the market. Can doesn’t seem to notice anything, he is sweet, indifferent. But I’m moved, touched. One day, I offer to expand the pig sty, since I know Mama Nam is planning to raise a few more pigs. She is mute with surprise, emotion. While I work on the pig sty, she can’t seem to stop hovering, watching me take measurements, nailing the boards, impatient to see the result. Can could probably never use a hammer, or do this kind of work for her. After the pig sty, I think I’ll replace the broken tiles on the roof.
I didn’t lie to Thao. I like manual labour. I believe it helps relax the spirit, that it’s suited to the body’s needs. Naturally, mental activity is necessary, even very necessary, but one shouldn’t abuse it. Also, the hard, backbreaking work at the brick factory, despite everything, comforts me. I slave away under the burning sun on those flaming afternoons, I carry bricks, set them out to dry, bake them. I mix with my worker friends, exchange my sweat for a meagre monthly salary. And this frees me, helps me not to think. I immerse myself in work, sincere, enthusiastic. Once, the boss at Phat Loi congratulated me, gave me a slight raise. He doesn’t know how grateful I am for this hard work. Of course it doesn’t help me solve my long term problems. Because I know that a man who likes to think will always be a thinking being -- especially when he lives everyday with Can, another man who likes to think. Can doesn’t say much, but when he speaks, he’s unstoppable. Once, he went to the pigsty, he stayed seated behind me, watching me work. Suddenly, he shouts: “Look!” Surprised, I raise my head. He points to the pigs lying in the pigsty. “The pigs aren’t crazy, but men are,” he says.
Excited, I reply. “What are you basing that on?”
“Well, there might be rabid pigs. But that would be natural madness. Men aren’t naturally crazy, they choose to become that way.”
“That’s certainly not your case,” I say cruelly.
“No...No, I don’t know. But most of us live like madmen. Sometimes, we make ourselves crazy to justify our ideas, our actions. Whatever, it’s contrary to human nature.”
“Who, for example?”
“The boss at Phat Loi,” replies Can. “He rakes in the money, gets rich, gets fatter everyday thanks to the hard work and the misery of the workers, but he believes in morality, theories, dogmas to justify himself, to continue to make a profit without shame. Don't you think that’s a kind of wilful madness? As for the workers -- and the beggars rotting away in this hamlet -- haven’t they consciously chosen madness when they believe that fate has given them this miserable, bitter life?
I interrupt him. “Where did you get the information on the boss at Phat Loi? I thought you never set foot in the city.”
“I’ve been here for ten years, now I don't feel like going anywhere else. But before, I was like you, I criss-crossed the town, knew a lot of people.” He watches me, inquisitive, and continues. “I don’t mean to sow discord between the rich and the poor, I’m not making revolution. As for that, I don’t care. It’s just one example among others. Hmmph. What can you say about the people who started the war? They sent millions and millions of people to their death, displaced millions of families. And the soldiers, the people, who just bow their heads, obey the authorities like lambs, aren’t they crazy, and consciously, for one reason or another?”
“So...you think that man is crazy by accident, because he is naturally good?”
“But don't you think that if we -- human beings -- if we let our instincts run wild, if we don’t try to control them, to repress them, the world would sink into chaos, overrun by piracy, massacre, and ruin? If lust and desire aren’t controlled by values, by faith, or dogma, they’lll run rampant. Man in the state of nature would be just as crazy. Ever since the beginning of history, and up until today, human beings have done everything to avoid this madness, to find a certain balance, like the world we live in.”
Can listens, attentively. “Hmm. You’re not wrong. So, man is also crazy by
I shake my head. “No, you don’t understand me. If by nature we are evil, how could we seek this balance, a certain morality?”
Can looks at me attentively, amused. “You’re right. This is a fundamental problem. We’ll have to talk about it again. It’s more complicated than I thought.” He gesticulates, rising to go back into the house.
I start again. “In fact, I believe our nature is double.”
Can turns, walks toward me. “Drop this work. Come with me to the banana grove.”
I step back, involuntarily. I remember the glistening eyes that stared at the back of my neck the other night, behind the hibiscus bushes.
Can says calmly. “Ordinarily, I don't go further than the banana grove. The bananas are green, the bananas are plump, beautiful, the cicadas sing. There are lots of hoopoe birds. It’s very pleasant. Sometimes, I meet farmers who’ve come to cut down the banana trees. They chat with me, teach me things, and from time to time they invite me to share their food, their rice wine. Everything is good...I stop at the banana grove. I don’t go any further. I’m afraid...
He steps back, his eyes become haggard.
“I’m afraid,” he repeats. He glances around, anxious, and stalks off into the house. I know that three days from now, or less, he won’t say a word.
The river sparkles in the sunlight. When it’s good weather, the water seems to lose its chill. The coconut palms sway and murmur, exhaling their fresh breath on the small dirt path. We walk. Thao’s hair floats in the breeze, grazing my cheek from time to time; it smells of lemon grass. On Saturday night, we go for a walk through town. Thao wears an ivory coloured ao zai, white silk pants, and high-heeled ivory sandals. On her wrist, she wears a gold bracelet, in addition to her earrings and necklace. I wear a white shirt, well-pressed black gabardine pants and dress shoes. If I put my hand around her waist, we would be like lovers. But we keep our distance. Thao is always light-hearted, gay. She has no idea what goes on in my head.
“Quang, I’m curious, why do we always go to the town when we go on a walk? On the other side, there are probably lots of things to see, no?”
I look at the river. A barge piled high with green bananas slowly descends in the direction of the current. “Because we’re afraid,” I answer.
“Of the unknown, of things that we might see if we went in the other direction, and that would disappoint us.”
“Is that why we always go to town?”
“Yes, there everything is normal, or at least considered normal. We tend to follow the current, to accept what exists, to do as everyone else does.” I think of Can.
“Thao, don’t you think crazy people are just people who dare to go against the current to search for truth?”
“I’m not afraid of the banana grove, nor of what’s beyond it,” says Thao. She turns around, looks at me.
“But you’ve never gone further than the banana grove!”
“How do you know?”
I say nothing.
“I don’t follow the crowd. But I can also go far to search for the truth. My own truth and I’m not crazy.”
“In effect...And me, why am I convinced that I’ll never go beyond the banana grove? We are also there, in the crowd that we see in the streets of the town, and other beings who, from time to time, wander far from the banana grove, and no one recognises anyone...but the crazy ones dare, and they say it publicly.”
“There are those who have gone crazy because of a lesion in the brain, or because of some other birth defect. Others because of strange, unhealthy mental disturbances. There are people who dream of murder and pillaging...not everyone is crazy out of idealism. Let’s stop here, Quang. Let’s not go to the town.”
She folds the hem of her ao zai, sits down at the foot of a palm tree. Unconsciously, her gesture revealed the fresh, white skin of her thigh. “Let’s not talk about madmen anymore, Quang. We don’t know enough to say anything. In any case, this world belongs to the lucid people. We have to stay lucid, like them. There are realities obvious to healthy people that crazy people don’t understand, or refuse to understand. That’s why they’re crazy.”
I try to kiss her cheek, but Thao pushes me away violently and steps back, at a distance. “No, please!”
I feel fragile, awkward.
Suddenly Thao giggles, relaxing the atmosphere. “It’s hot, I’m going to dip my feet in the water.” To bath her feet, she has to pull up the legs of her pants. Does she do this innocently, or consciously? She pads about a moment in the water and then gets out. I watch the water drip the length of her tender, white thighs.
“Come on Quang, let’s go home,” she says calmly.
We were mistaken. Can’s health hadn’t improved. His docility, his gentleness, were only a temporary calm after the first shocks of a quake that augurs others to come.
One Sunday, Mama Nam and Thao have to go to the town to take care of their business. They leave me to watch Can and the house. Morning slips by peacefully. By afternoon, rain.
I wake to see the blackness of the night engulf the sky and earth. Rain pounds down on the house; thunder roars through the sky to North and South, smothering the countryside. I run to the garden, close the pigsty, all the doors. I can’t find Can anywhere; I’m surprised, worried, he’s fled again, he must be wandering somewhere outside. I reach the room with the ancestors’ altar to close the entryway door. In the courtyard, near the miniature mountain, I recognise Can’s silhouette. He is standing, stiff, motionless, watching the house, a pickaxe in his hand. He’s not going to plant vegetables in this flood? I cluck my tongue, run towards him. Suddenly, I stop. Can moves toward me, threatening, still clutching the pickaxe. Rain streams down his face, his body. We stare at each other, almost face to face. Suddenly, Can raises the pickaxe. I’m paralysed. In a flash, an idea crosses my mind, too late to flee. But the pickaxe slowly falls, coming to rest on my shoulder.
Can pulls me toward him with the edge of the pickaxe wedged in my shoulder, he smiles tenderly: “Get the hell out of here!” His eyes glisten. “You’ve stolen my place. You’re stealing Mama Nam and Thao from me. Get out of here, or I’ll kill you.” Lightning rips through the sky, the air shudders with thunder, a tile falls from the roof, shattering in the courtyard, torrents of water pouring down the hole. Can presses my face against mine. “You think she loves you, Thao? You’re wrong! You’re just a loser who sponges off them, that they rent to take care of a sick person.” I push back the pickaxe, I step back. Water drips from my face. Rain continues to fall, bleaching the courtyard. “Drop the pickaxe, brother Can. No useless violence.” Can stares at me, transfixed.
“Drop the pickaxe. I’m going. Right now. I thought I was useful here. I thought this family needed me. Now everything is clear, don’t be afraid of anything, I’m going! Who cares about the rain and the wind.” I turn around, go back into my room, my face dripping. A terrible anger rumbles inside me, my brain is on fire. But no, suddenly a huge sadness. I take out my suitcase, mechanically pack my belongings, my clothes. It’s finished. I’ve lived here for six months, I’d started to think about settling, about a new start in life. None of that was true. A child’s wail resonates. A shuddering sob, stifled, desperate. I freeze, stunned, drop the suitcase, run into the room.
Curled up under the ancestor’s altar, Can is crying, his face bathed in tears. Seeing me, he seems seized by emotion, sobs rising in his throat. Outside the lighting flares, intermittently flickering, illuminating Can’s face. The pickaxe lies in the garden. I kneel in front of the altar, place my hands on his shoulders, console him. In fact, I don’t understand what happened. He speaks to me through hiccups, his arms trembling in my hands.
“I...I said that...just so you would go.”
“I understand, I understand.”
“No...you can’t understand...I don’t want...It’s not good for you...with me...in this room.”
“I understand. I’m going.”
“I....don’t love Mama....I don’t love Thao...I’m not jealous of you, I’m not angry with you Quang.”
“I don’t believe any of it.”
Can softens. “Go, go, don’t stay here with me.” He suddenly pulls back his arm violently, rips the gold chain from his neck, stuffs it in his hand. “Take this, and flee. Get out of here, now. Don’t let the people from the psychiatric hospital catch you.” I take the heavy gold chain and put it back on his neck. “I can’t do that brother Can. And there’s nobody in the psychiatric hospital who is after me. They’re after you, and if you don’t listen to me, if you don’t go change and go to sleep, they’ll come and get you.” He pulls back, his eyes rolling upwards. “No! Don’t let them take me! No, no!” He lets his head fall on my shoulder. “I left the town. I just want to wander in the banana grove, always. But no one can stay there for long. It’s just one beautiful day in a life, we gather bananas, feast, drink rice wine. Then we have to go, we have to go...to the town or to the banana grove, always. There’s nothing beautiful in the town. But it’s the fragile balance men have reached, in the constant war between the banana grove and the cemetery. There’s no other choice. So, let’s go back to the town. Try to live with normal people. Accept their rules of the game. Don’t mimick, don’t stroll for too long in the banana grove. You can help plant little banana groves in the heart of the town. But remember. Even if you fail, never go near the cemetery.”
“Can! Can! Where are you my child? Where are you? Come to mama, my child!”
Mama Nam violently pushes open the door. She stares at me, rigid, her face taught, withered with anxiety. It’s past ten o’clock. I drop my book. “I’m here, Mama.” She seems reassured, she comes to sit down beside me, caresses my face, my neck, strokes my hair, pulls the covers up on my chest. “Careful not to catch cold my child. Stay here with me, don’t go. You’re my only son, if you leave me, I won’t survive it.”
“I’m here Mama, I’m not going anywhere.” She pulls back, closing the door. I sigh, I turn my face to the wall. Since Can’s death, Mama Nam has gone mad, she can’t stop calling my name. I can’t seem to help her regain her spirits. When she’s overexcited, I don’t know what to say, I just give in to calm her.
For the last few nights, I haven’t slept at all. Sometimes, in my anxiety, I gaze with envy at the tranquillisers scattered on Can’s bedside table, near the tape recorder loaded with the blank tape. I get a grip on myself, I resist, I go out into the room with the ancestors’ altar, I light a few sticks of incense, I say a few prayers to him.
Can has disappeared in this stormy Sunday night when, in a trance, he attacked me. He murmured senseless words, then he dozed off...When I woke up, his bed was empty. Through the window, the sky looked peaceful, cloudless. I was relieved, I prayed that everything would be as it was. But he didn’t come back. We searched for him everywhere. Three days later, they found his body, fished it up, near a bridge in the town. The corpse was puffy, naked, his face green, squashed. All there was left of him to give me was the gold chain.
The investigators searched everywhere, even the old cemetery. That’s where they found a trace of Can. He had smashed his head several times against a tombstone, then thrown himself in the river.
We placed him in his coffin in the hospital. We organised a hasty, simple ceremony right there. Thao was frightened. Superstitious, she didn’t want to bring the corpse back to the house. And then; it was already so sinister, so funereal. We all wanted to avoid, as much as possible, creating a spectacle of our pain.
The atmosphere is heavy, suffocating. We don’t speak to each other anymore. Mama Nam has withdrawn to her room, in silence. Thao and I, we wander through the house. We avoid making eye contact. The rare times Mama Nam comesout of her room, she runs feverishly toward me, caressing my face, my neck. She calls me Can. The name Quang seems to have been totally erased from her memory. Sometimes, out of habit, Thao also calls me Can. I toss in my bed, stare at the ceiling. The frigid, dazzling moon slips into the room through the window, lighting the roof beams, the sinuous, twisted veins, minutely sculpted into the ceiling. The crickets have gone silent. The wind too. Everything is infinitely silent, as if frozen. In my bed, I turn, and turn, anxious. The heat is suffocating. Sweat drenches my shirt, soaks into the mattress, the pillows. It’s as if I feel no pain, no regret for Can’s death. To tell the truth, I admit it, these last few days, mixed in with the sadness and regret, a light, pleasant sensation of having won. The sole obstacle seems to have been removed. Whether one likes it or not, I’m the only man in this house now. If I decide to go, they would beg me to stay. One night, as I pass in front of the shower house, I hear the rush of water, Thao scrubbing her body. For the first time, I dare stop, turn my head in her direction, tip my ear for a moment, before going on my way. No, why do I think of that ? I’m going mad, rambling, like Can. I try to get a grip on myself. I remember our conversations, we understood each other so well. I remember his tears for me, that last time.
To tell the truth, in my heart of hearts, I never hated him. Between the two of us, he was the victim, he was the one who suffered from my mockery, my coldness. No doubt, he never considered me a close friend. I never wanted to behave as I did toward him, but my pettiness, my neuroses still weighed too heavily on my soul, I couldn’t find peace. I murmur a prayer. I am in a boat, in the middle of a huge black lake, the glittering moon spreads a thin silver film across the water. My boat is leaking! The water rises, higher, higher! I sink, deeper and deeper, I try to swim, but my arms stick to the water. The black pigs that I am transporting in my boat drown, flailing all around me. Why are they black? In the pigsty, they are white.
The door swings open. Mama Nam steps into the patch of moonlight, distraught, her gaze lost in the distance. I rub my eyes, wake myself. Mama Nam is well-groomed, her hair drawn up in a chignon, she wears a white silk shirt with silver highlights, rings glisten on her fingers, a bracelets glints at her wrist. It must be past midnight. “Can, wake up! Come take a walk with mama.” She stammers, she walks, staggering, toward the bed. I sit up. She grabs my arm, drags me, ardent. ‘Can, come take a walk with mama, look outside, look how the moon shines, do you still like the moonlight?” I resist. Suddenly, she tenses her muscles, pulls me to the edge of the bed. “Can, you ingrate! All the time I’ve fed you, how much money and trouble, and you think of leaving? You’ve never loved us, your mama, your sister. May heaven damn you!” I pull my arm violently from her hands, I jump to the floor. “Mama Nam, you’re wrong. I’m Quang. I’m not Can.” Mama Nam widens her eyes, stares at me. “You’re mistaken Mama, you’re totally wrong. Go now, let me sleep, we have to work tomorrow.” “Can..now...don’t you want to take a walk with Mama?” She moans, panting. I grumble. “Can is dead. Are you crazy or what?” Mama Nam pulls back, slowly, slowly, all the way to the door. I’m seized by remorse. Suddenly, she raises her head, laughs aloud, her eyes distraught, wild. I don't have time to react. She lets out a long wail, and in a flash, she’s gone.
I jump up, running after her. Ordinarily so slow, so serene, Mama Nam runs at a speed I can’t even imagine. In a flash, like a female buffalo at gallop, she enters the garden, opens the door, runs across the fields, plunging into the shadows of the forest. I run until I’m out of breath, but I can’t seem to catch her. From time to time, I hear her laugh ring out. Her white shirt glistens in the moon, she disappears, then reappears from behind the tree trunks, branches, leaves, bushes. “Ha, ha ha” She runs ahead of me, I pursue her. We cross a forest of coconut trees, a forest of banana trees. I feel, I hear the large low leaves whip my chest. I hear my own panting, I feel my strength wane. Mama Nam continues to race forward...The forest here is wild, arid, chaotic, stunted trees, gigantic, thick brambles tear at my face, my hands, the wild grass comes up to my knees, crackles and folds under my feet in sheets. Sometimes, her silhouette flashes in front of me and I bound toward her, immediately a bush blocks me, or some unforeseen obstacle. Does she know this maze by heart, each path, each loop, each crossing? Still running, I pray to Can, that he may stop her, because I don’t know how I’m going to get out of this.
Suddenly I stop. The moon, luminous, bathes a vast, open stretch of the sky in its light. Tombs rise, inert, black, broken. Mama Nam is seated, motionless, on a tombstone. She looks at me. I hear my own wild breathing in this silent space. Sweat runs down my body, as if I had just come from a river somewhere far away, a river that the shadows of the forest prevent me from seeing. I walk slowly towards mama. The burial mounds have crumbled, there’s no trace of the ancient tombs except these stones, broken, inclined, fallen, decapitated, old stones, shattered, scattered, crunching under my feet; here and there, stone tombs, almost intact, no doubt erected by recent generations. “Can, my child, come, come.”
I stand in front of mama. I hear my heart beat violently, the jerky pant of my breathing. She rises, slowly, comes to me. She puts her hands on my shoulders. “Can, my child, be good, like that, you make me happy.” She embraces me, raising her face to kiss my forehead. A cracking. I jump. My pyjama rips, buttons spraying in the air.
Mama Nam walks back to the tomb. She undresses. Her immaculate white blouse falls on the black earth, then her embroidered black bra, her trousers, her panties. She lies down, spreads herself, her back against the stone. My sweat beads in large drops. For the first time, I notice the round, firm breasts, full buttocks, of this woman just over fifty. Below her gaunt, deeply wrinkled face, lies Mama Nam’s long, supple body. Her legs, fresh, appetising, are spread apart, like softly ploughed earth, ready for cultivation. “Can, come, come my child...You chose this spot, because there’s not much moss, because the stone is polished, don’t you remember?” I approach. Moonlight, gluey, bathes her body, pours over her face, her skin, in long, sparkling rivulets, outlining the bumps and hollows. “No, no” I shout. She sits up, staring at me fixedly.
‘Brother Can!” I turn around. Thao emerges from shadow, naked, beautiful, desirable, as if sculpted from jade, walking in the moonlight. She bends over slowly, seated by mama, their lips touch, their tongues fondle each other feverishly. I am paralysed, as if in a dream. Could I be hallucinating? I know I’m still sick, but not to the point of having hallucinations. Thao strokes my hair, gently, slowly. Then, suddenly, violently, she pulls me toward her. I fall to my knees. “Make love to mama, make love to me big brother,” Above my head I hear her breathing, ecstatic
I freeze, feel a chill down my neck. An odd, prickly, itching, unbearable. I turn around, abruptly. Behind me, Mama Nam kneels, her eyes, cold, shiny, glinting. A mysterious beauty transfigures her face.
“Mama, mama, you know that I’m not Can....don’t you?” I stammer.
She smiles tenderly, raising the gold chain, she places it around my neck. Motionless, I let her. Cold metal against my naked flesh.
“Yes, you’re not Can. You’re Quang. Can is dead. Now, you’re my child, Thao’s elder brother. Everything that’s mine, that’s Thao’s, Can’s, is yours.”
I shove her away violently. The jade statue falls, but the two gnarled hands with their red painted nails claw at me. I grab her neck. I feel her nails release me. I leap back.
Quang was crazy, he got upset when we reminded him. He tried to return to normal life, to work, to think, to behave like a normal man. But that didn’t mean he hadn’t been...that he wasn’t crazy. In spite of everything, the day he knocked at our door to ask for lodging, with two letters of reference -- one from the psychiatric hospital, the other from the boss at the Phat Loi brick factory -- my mother was happy.
Mother had already thought about going to the hospital to adopt a second son. At the time, Can was going through a serious crisis, Mama thought he was too lonely, that he needed friends, human contact. He needed someone who had the same problems, to keep him company, to share his life, and if the need arose...That didn’t present any difficulty. We knew that the hospital secretariat was often at a loss when faced with the problem of long-term cases. Once healed, or convalescent, they no longer had any family, or they had been abandoned -- no one wanted to take care of them. And yet, accompanying them, treating them so they could gently return to normal life, was the best way to save them.
We told them the kind of young man we would accept: the sickness had to be relatively light, not dangerous, the man should be gentle, obedient. All the better if he were a bit naive, a bit stupid. Quang seemed to fit the necessary criteria. He only had one flaw; he thought too much. His mind was always spinning. His odd stories, without head or tail, depressed me. He was also obsessed by the idea of being autonomous, lucid, of not going crazy. No doubt that was because of his past illness, the serious crisis that broke out every time his mind exploded.
Plunk. The corpse dropping into the river. The black water closes around it, erasing all traces. We watch, distraught. An immense void opens, deepening between us. We don’t know what to do anymore. Finished.
And yet, for a long time, we live happily, mama and I. The love mama gives me is like the ocean and the sky, but I don’t know how to return it. I just promise myself to offer her my life, to give her all the happiness she has given me, to console her for everything she has lost in her life. Twenty years ago, she became sterile from complications after giving birth to me. My father took a second wife who gave him lots of male children. Mama was abandoned, she decided to leave, to take refuge with me on the edge of this town, so rich, so foreign to us. Ever since, she has worked alone to raise me, to pay for my studies. I’ve grown up under her protection, I’ve known the supreme happiness of having a tender, intimate, maternal love. We grew apart when I became a woman, when the suitors started to hover. We hated men, disdained them, but I knew that, deep down, for both mama and I, we desired them, still needed them. Men have muscles we don’t have, a different scent, things we lack. They bring life to our home, sensuality. Can came, a sick man abandoned by everyone, waiting to get out of the hospital.
“There, it’s over with the two crazies -- quite a pair of cards they were -- at least they agreed to die in the same way, in the same spot, just a week apart. God himself would get lost here!” Mama said, wiping her forehead. Even I didn’t expect her strength. That Sunday, in the night, Mama and I had to drag Can into the forest. In the cemetery, he fell into a trance, screaming, struggling like a madman. Furious, Mama grabbed a rock and hit him on the top of his skull. She has the strength of a man, and she hits quickly, precisely, unexpectedly. Can died at the second blow.
We dragged Quang’s corpse all the way to the river. It was flooded, the moon gilded the surface of the water. Quang spreads, gangling, his shirt torn open. He has the hard, white muscles of a vigorous young man. Gazing at the corpse, I suddenly feel regret. Quang wasn’t handsome, or tall like Can, but his intelligence and his sincerity attracted me. His body was well-proportioned, pleasant to look at. When he tried to strangle Mama, once again, quick as lightning, behind his back, she grabbed a rock. Her hand came down, strong, hard, like the claws of a tigress in combat. Quang didn’t die as quickly as Can. He fell, moaning in pain, his eyes turned toward Mama. She had to strike him several times before he expired. She raised him by the neck and dragged him all the way to a stele and smashed his head with a shard. Can’s blood, on the stele next to it, had dried.
Plunk. Mama threw the stone in the river. Now there’s nothing left. Nothing but the void.
Hmm. That parasite. His rent didn’t even pay for his two meals, and he was always putting on airs. We take them in out of charity, we raise them, give them everything they need, materially, spiritually, they don’t lack anything, and all they bring us is bad luck.
Mama thinks for a minute and then says, “It’s pitiful...their lives were an error, a mistake. No real life, no real death, just a soul wandering far from the body. They should have died near their mothers, they would have suffered less. I got too angry, didn’t mean to..Well, in any case, we have freed them, all the good we did them, for so long, should redeem us in the eyes of Heaven.
Mama sighs. She wheels around, staring at me. Her gaze penetrates me, her eyes narrow to slits. “Get married,” she says.
“You’re crazy!” I scream. The image of the corpse bobs to the surface. Two suicides in our house, the authorities will believe it...But that’s the limit.
“That Dinh guy in the next hamlet, he’s poor, handsome, well-built. He’s been pining for you for a long time.”
“What a bastard, that guy!” Mama snickers, her face relaxing. “You don’t know it, but the day I had him come to pour cement in the courtyard, when he finished, I was changing my blouse in my room, the door was open...He hid behind a beam, watching me, his eyes bulging. I scolded him. Dinh! Panicked, he dropped to his knees, begging me to forgive him...”
I close my eyes. The image of a man, naked, bent over, twitching, quietly, totally obedient to Mama and me, rises in me like an electric shock that penetrates every pore of my skin, swelling every cell of my body. Desire overcomes me, desire. For a week now, since Can’s death, Mama and I, we haven’t made love. I look at her blouse, hastily cast on, hanging off her shoulders, unbuttoned. I lick my lips, press her breasts. Mama pushes my hands away. She buttons her shirt, shakes her head. “Wait, I’ve got to go back to the house. First, I must pray for their two souls.”
By Ngoc Khoi
© 1995 Translated from the Vietnamese by Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson