Rain. Falling on the inn’s red-tiled roof that slants sharply over the veranda. Sluicing over the low-hanging edge of the roof, falling and glittering in a white-water curtain. The veranda, deep and always shadowy even on a sunny day, surrounds the inn and shields the first-floor rooms from the pelting rain. Bundled up in my raincoat, I walk quick-stepped onto the veranda and set down the two bags of groceries and household supplies on the cement floor, next to the entrance door.
It’s forenoon now. It rained when I went into town. Rain hasn’t let up. Water started rising on the roads on my way back from the town. On a rainy day like this, Mrs. Rossi stays home. She came to this region to search for the remains of her son, a lieutenant who went missing-in-action during the Vietnam War.
The roadside inn where I live and work is old in the deep south of the Mekong Delta. During the war this was IV Corps that had seen many savage fights. Though the battle carnage might have long been forgotten, some places do not forget. They are haunted.
We also have new guests who arrived at the inn three days ago. A couple from Ireland. They drove down long-distance from Hồ Chí Minh City. The husband is some sort of a journalist. Since their arrival he has gone around the U Minh region always with a camera, a backpack, and a palm-sized voice recorder. The wife, in her late thirties, made friends easily with us. When she first heard of the purpose of Mrs. Rossi’s visit, she said to her, “Jasus, ye break my heart.”
The door opens with the familiar scratching noise the bottom-edge wire mesh makes against the cement floor. Since I came, I have sealed each door’s bottom edge with a wire mesh to keep out bugs and rodents and even snakes especially during floods. Chi Lan stands in the doorway, holding a mug in her hand.
“Chú,” she says, “give me a grocery bag.” Her voice is soft with a lilt in ‘chú.’ Uncle. She came to my inn with her American mother who adopted her in 1974 when she was five years old. She’s eighteen now.
I put the bag in the crook of her arm. “Where’s everyone?”
“My Mom’s in the back with Maggie,” she says. “Washing clothes. Alan went off somewhere in their car.”
I notice steam rising from her mug. “What’re you drinking?”
“Café phin. I made it myself.”
“No. With condensed milk. I can’t drink it black like you.”
“I’ve got you into drinking Vietnamese slow-drip café now, huh?” 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.
I get out of my raincoat and hang it on a wall hook several of which I have put up on the veranda walls, front and back, for guests to hang up their raincoats before they enter the inn.
She steps back for me to come in. Barefooted, her toenails look rosy, freshly polished.
“We’ll be even when I get you to quit smoking,” she says.
I smile at her gentle tone. I have indeed thought of cutting back on smoking. It is cool inside the house. Her black T-shirt and black hair blend with the dimness, and her white shorts are the only bright color as the whitewashed walls. My sandals squeak, leaving a wet trail behind me on the gray cement floor. Clean looking as the old woman of the inn demands it. At the end of the big room is a pantry that has a refrigerator. Chi Lan sets her mug on a shelf and puts groceries into the refrigerator. Suddenly she stops and holds up a paper-wrapped baguette.
“Bánh mì!” she sounds as if she’s just found gold.
“Yeah,” I say. “I bought plenty of them for lunch. Hope you and everyone’d like it.”
“I love it. What do we have in them?” She takes off the rubber band, opens the wrapper and peeks inside the baguette. The fillings seem to please her as she sniffs at the pork bellies and liver pâté garnished with cilantro, chili peppers, cucumber slices, and pickled carrots. “I’ve tried to make these at home,” she says, wrapping up the baguette and ties it with the rubber band, “and they never came out like this―the smell, the taste.”
“Because most of the fillings are homemade. The pork bellies in particular. They made the bread themselves too. Didn’t you know that?”
“And because I’m an amateur cook.” She taps her cheek with the wrapped baguette, picks up her mug and sips. “Are you a good cook, chú?”
“I can manage on my own.” I walk to the cupboard that stands by the door into the kitchen. “Alan asked me about a snake dish the other day. I told him before he and his wife leave, I’d cook a snake dish for everyone.”
“Oh my.” She closes the refrigerator. “Did you tell him you used to catch snakes with your father? Did you? And about the snake gallbladder?”
“No. I’ve never told anyone that. Except you.” I set down the supplies bag, squatting on my heels, and inspect the four legs of the cupboard, each leg shod with a tin cup half filled with vinegar. In one cup floats a mass of dead black ants.
The air stirs faintly as she kneels beside me. “Must be the sugar jar in the cupboard that attracted them. Look at them.” She bends closer, sweeping back her hair over her ear. “That looks like a moat around a fortress―the water and the cups. Is this your idea, chú?”
“You’re a good custodian.”
“It’s not water in those tin cups. It’s vinegar.”
She looks again. “What’s the difference?”
“Ants might survive in water and they’ll crawl up those legs into the cupboard.”
“I didn’t know vinegar kills them.” She turns to face me, her eyes gently holding my gaze. “My Mom appreciated having that clothing trunk in our room to store our clothes. I didn’t know why it’s lined with tin till you told us. Otherwise our old suitcases if we’d used them would’ve crawled with moths and cockroaches.”
“I’m going to replace the vinegar in those cups.” I take out a bottle of vinegar in the bag. “When I lift a leg up, can you remove the cup under the leg for me?”
“Go ahead, chú.”
She remains on her knees, head bent, as I plant my feet and slowly raise a corner of the cupboard. I glance down as she slides the cup out, and through the open top of her T-shirt I can see that she’s braless. I hold my breath, set the cupboard back down. She tilts her face up at me.
“What now? Should I empty the cup―and the ants?”
Each time I heave the cupboard, despite my knowing what I will see when I drop my gaze at her, I still look down through the crescent opening below her clavicles, holding my gaze at the milky white of her skin, the fullness of her bosom, and what comes back to my mind is a child’s innocent eyes and a man’s disturbed thoughts.
The next day the heat comes early and by sunrise I have to open the window shutters in my room. The local laborer, whom Mrs. Rossi employs to take her into the forest every day to look for bones, arrives shortly after sunrise and drives Mrs. Rossi to the forest in his motorboat.
Before the sun is high and the heat becomes unbearable, I pick up a machete and begin clearing the bushes along the front base of the veranda. In the bushes I find some old moss-covered logs, still damp from yesterday rain, and ax them to small chunks so rattlesnakes would have no place to nest. There are rocks that the bushes have covered and now with them hacked away I could see the rock’s surfaces worn slick by the coming and going of the snakes. Under one bush I find a small carton full of seeds. It dawns on me that they are watercress seeds the old woman has asked me to sow. Summer heat is so thick now the seeds would sprout in a week. I was to sow them in the back, next to the lemon tree. I pick up the carton and empty the four tin cups half filled with vinegard. We have many cartons of vegetable seeds we plant year-round and I fitted each carton’s bottom with four wooden pegs, so that if I leave them indoors or outdoors, they always perch on their legs each of which is inside a vinegar-filled cup. Without protection, ants would devour all the seeds. Before I came up with this solution, the old woman told me about ant problems and the disappearing of seeds. She said once she saw a patch of watercress sprouting up in the rear land as though someone has sown the seeds there. I told her the ants did that. But not sowing the seeds, I assured her. They just eat the seed caps which had nutrion for them and leave the seeds behind. The seeds later sprout where the ants have left them.
I remember I’ve left the carton behind the bush when the Irish couple was arriving. I must plant the seeds today before the old woman asks again. She said most of our guests like watercress among all the greens. After leaving the carton on the rear veranda, I go around the inn and empty all the recepacles of standing rainwater. I’ve forgotten to turn those planters and flower pots upside down, several of them sitting empty and when filled with rainwater becoming a breeding ground for mosquitoes. After dark those whiners would come out. They can’t fly far, but they breed and multiply where they find water.
Everyone except Mrs. Rossi is still in bed. It’s quiet in the rear of the inn. The air stands still as I go about sowing the watercress seeds. With this heat, I believe, we could eat watercress in the next couple days. Once I stop to wipe my face I see a lone painted stork flying across the hazy sky. I can see its trailing pink legs and the black stripes beneath its wings. On the skunk tree a yellow weaver is coming back with blades of grass in its beaks. Dangling on a branch is its funnel-shaped nest, about done. The agave at the base of the tree is flowering for the first time. Strong, broad and fleshy leaves are spiny along their edges. It must have flowered overnight. Now the flowers burst forth in busy bottle brushes and their sunset red strikes the eye against the cactus-green of their leaves. And that was Chi Lan’s impression of the agave the first time she saw it by the skunk tree. She thought it was cactus. I told her the old woman had wanted it uprooted so she could use the area for a vegetable plot. But I said to do it you’d need an ox to pull it up. Chi Lan smiled and said she liked its lone, fierce look. I said to her, “Looks unusual but pretty when it flowers.” And she said, “I’ll photograph it when I see it.”
I drive back to the inn in a downpour and by the time I reach the inn at noon it begins slacking off. Now the sky is clearing and the breeze carries the heat south, leaving a breath of moistness in the air.
The Irish couple must have gone out, for their car isn’t there. After putting the groceries away I go checking on the old man and see that his wife is bathing him in the bathhouse, adjoined to the side of the inn. Upstairs the Irish couple has their room locked. The door of Mrs. Rossi’s room is open but I do not see Chi Lan. I go back down and out to the rear. The rain has stopped and the field blazes in the sun. Hazy wisps of vapor is curling over the ground. I wonder where she must have gone when my eyes catch a sudden glint of beaded water on the agave bush.
I run down the veranda to the rain-soaked field and find her lying on her back behind the agave. Drenched, her leaf-green T-shirt clings to her skin, her hair matted in strands on her face. Slung across her shoulder is the camera strap, the camera itself in the crook of her arm that flops on the ground. I grab her arm, check for pulses. Her eyes shut, lips parted slightly. I can feel her pulses. There are mud stains on the sides of her white shorts and her legs fold into each other at the knees as though she’s sleeping. No bite marks on her legs. The two prominent bite marks that would have told of snakebite. None on her neck. Then I see a small red bump on her upperarm near the elbow. The red looks fresh on her light skin. I see the stinger. A wasp sting. The old woman got stung once by a wasp and nearly fainted when she got into the house.
I gather the girl in my arms and carry her up the veranda and into my room. She must be allergic to the wasp sting. Certain of that, I lay her gently on my narrow bed and work the camera strap off her neck. Water is dripping from her clothes. The purplish color of her lips makes me wonder how long she has lain in the rain. When I look again at her soaked-through clothes especially her T-shirt, I know I must do something. I snatch a bath towel from the wall hook and after some hesitation begin drying her. Her skin is cold and her T-shirt is so soggy that I stop wiping her wetness and, the towel flung over my shoulder, manage to peel the T-shirt off her body. It drips onto the floor as I drape it over the back of the chair. I pull out a clean shirt in the old mango-wood dresser and, sitting down on the edge of the bed, look at her. Her face pales against her strikingly black hair. I haven’t forgotten what I saw from her yesterday. Now I am looking at her nakedness and holding my breath. My worry for her becomes muted, for I am drowned in the moment. I dry her hair, her face, then her chest. My hands stop. A bright red mole beckons me to her bosom. Its fullness I remember touches my hands. A crimson mole on the creamy white of her skin. Unspeakable beauty. I struggle to get my shirt on her. As if changing shirt for a child that needs care. Or for a woman with whom I have just shared intimacy. My short-sleeved shirt on her is too wide at the shoulders it sags. I want her to wake up. Yet I want the moment not to end. I believe I hear her noticeable breathing now. I don’t know what to do with her mud-stained shorts but I know what I must do right away.
I boil water on the hot plate and while waiting for the water to heat up, I cut some ginger slices and drop them into my coffee mug together with a tea bag. I hear her stir. When I glance over, she is trying to sit up.
“Chú,” she says with some difficulty.
“Lie back down,” I say, moving to the bed.
She looks down at herself and touches her face then her arm, her eyes unfocused. “I can’t remember what happened.”
“You were stung by a wasp.” I take a cigarette out. “Were you out there photographing something?”
“Yes, chú. The agave flowers.” She looks at my cigarette. “Your cigarette is wet.”
“From carrying you in.”
“It won’t light I’m sure.”
“Maybe it won’t.” I tear the cigarette paper, set it on the bed and point at the brown tobacco. “I’m going to put this on the sting. But first let me pick out the stinger.”
I hold her arm by the elbow, feeling her faint breathing on my forehead, and screw my eyes to look at the tiny stinger left in the reddened bump and pinch the end of the stinger with my long fingernails. The hard stinger comes out. Like a fishbone.
“Is it venomous?” she asks, drawing a sharp breath.
“No. But it can knock you out.” I daub a pinch of tobacco with my saliva and paste it on the lump. “Does it hurt bad?”
“It’s stinging now.” She bites her lower lip, rubbing the swelling. “You said a wasp did this?”
“Here’s the proof.” I hold up the stinger. “Could be a digger wasp or a great black wasp. Those I’ve seen around the inn.”
After I bandage her arm, she pulls up her soiled legs and rest the bandaged arm on her knee. She massages the swelling. “I don’t recall what happened to me.” She leans her head to one side, her eyelids fluttering. “Well, maybe I do. I felt something very painful on my arm. I took a couple more pictures then suddenly I felt dizzy.”
“It’ll take a day or so before the pain goes away.”
The water boils. I walk over to the table and pour hot water into the mug. Blowing on it, I bring it to her. “This will help ease the sting.”
She looks down at her knees, not taking the mug from me. “I’m wearing your shirt, chú.”
“Yeah.” I keep my voice even. “You were soaked through. Have a sip of tea.”
She says nothing, keeping her head down. I wait. The mug breathes curling vapor. She takes hold of the mug with both hands but avoids meeting my eyes. Her face reddens. She hides her expression behind the mug tilted up, only her eyes glimpsing at me then at her T-shirt flopping and still dripping over the back of the chair. The tiny black mole dots the corner of her left eye. I think of the red mole. My gaze makes her drop her head. She shifts on her bottom. The bed creaks. Its white sheet is wet and stained black.
“Your bed is messed up,” she speaks to her knees. “I’ll clean it up, chú.”
“Will you do the wet floor too?” I grin at her nervousness.
She giggles then winces and touches the bandaged bite. Her mussed-up hair, still wet, gives her an untamed look so pale so raw that for the first time I feel a man’s desire for her.
“I’m surprised,” she says with the mug still covering half her face, “you could carry me in from out there.”
“I had to.”
She watches me wipe dry her camera with the towel. “Thank you, chú,” she says, peering across at me. “Did you buy the tobacco today? My Mom said she’d do what you’ve told her to.”
“Yeah. Then you can soak her socks in the tobacco water. Make sure they have enough time to dry before she wears them in the morning.”
I’d told her mother the cure against leeches in the forest.
Chi Lan caresses her bandaged forearm. “Are you sure it’ll take the sting out of me, this tobacco treatment?”
“I’ve done that myself. For wasp sting.”
“You got stung by a wasp?”
“It knocked me out, like it did to you.” Picking up the torn cigarette off the bed, my hand brushes her foot. “I was a North Vietnamese soldier then.We were behind the lines, deep in the jungle.”
At that time, I tell her, I was deserting my unit and for the whole night I kept moving not even resting my feet. By morning I came upon a trail. Just when I took to the trail I got stung by a wasp. It left its stinger in my forearm. I pulled it out and kept walking and felt miserable with that numbing pain like someone had punched a hot needle into your arm. The trail took me to a graveyard in a clearing. Then everything suddenly went black before me. When I woke, I was lying facedown and around me the earth was red. Red dirt, red humps of graves, red-stem taros with their giant elephant-ear leaves flopping like red fans, and just as the vision of red struck me that I was dying I heard a shoveling noise. I sat up. Nearby a man in a visor cap stopped digging and looked over at me. He was an old man. I said I passed out after a wasp stung me and he began doctoring my sting with the cigarette tobacco. He told me he took care of the graveyard. He thought I was a corpse and he was ready to bury me. He said he buried corpses just about every other day when trucks brought in bodies from the front line. Or he buried the remains of those mauled and eaten by tigers that ran out of the regions destroyed by the American bombing. Sometimes he buried the deserters’ corpses.
She lowers the mug and her face looks calm again. “That must’ve been a bizarre encounter. I wonder what’d happen if you didn’t wake up soon enough when he was set to bury you.”
I chuckle at her remark. “I wouldn’t be sitting here telling you this.”
She gives a small laugh. A glint in her eyes. “I would’ve been dead if it were a poisonous snakebite.”
“Yeah. So be careful when you’re out there.”
“I remember what you told me about your father.” She pauses, offers me her mug of tea. “Would you like a sip?”
“Sure. Just one sip.” I receive the mug from her, cupping my hands over hers, and sip.
“Didn’t a snake catcher like your father know how to doctor himself against snakebite?” She sets the mug on her knee.
“He could have. With an antidote.” My gaze falls on the black mole on her left eye’s corner. “Did you know that they make antidote for snake venom out of the venom itself? And my father used to sell the venom he extracted from all kinds of snakes to the professional snake catchers. I used to watch him squeeze a snake at the throat so hard the snake’s mouth opened wide and he jammed its mouth with a cup. You should see the snake’s fangs hooked onto the inside of the cup and when he raked them the venom started oozing into the cup.”
“Ew.” She shivers. “What color?”
“Yellow.” I look down at her mug. “Like that.”
“Stop that.” Giggling, she draws up her shoulders. “I won’t drink it now that I know.”
“You can drink snake venom. It’s harmless.”
“No way, chú.”
“My father used to mix it with rice liquor and drank it in one gulp. Said it’s good for digestion.”
“I thought it’s deadly.”
“If a snake bites you, yeah. Because its venom goes into your blood stream. But not when you take it by the mouth.”
“Why the difference?”
“By the mouth? The venom goes down to your stomach. The acid there will neutralize it.” I pause with a grin. “And it’s good for digestion.”
“Yes. But not for me.”
Shaking her head, she brushes strands of wet hair over her ears with her fingertips. Her foot shifts and touches my hand. In the silence I can feel her tense up. If she could shrink to make herself smaller she would. I let her come back to herself and she did, her voice casual. “Why didn’t your father protect himself with an antidote?”
“He was careless.”
“And you were too young to tell him otherwise?”
“It made no difference. He used to tell me, ‘Son, if a snake bites you on a finger and you’ve got no antidote around, chop off the finger. If it’s a toe, chop off the toe. Then you’ll live.’ Easy to say. But I’d seen men do that in the jungle during the war. Men with missing fingers, missing toes. We had a jar of antidote we kept in the shack. But my father never carried it with him anywhere he went. Like he had a death wish in him.”
She sips, listening. “One night,” I say, “my father saw a girl sleeping outside our graveyard shack under the weeping fig. The base of that huge tree was a snake colony. With snakes crawling around in the bushes around the tree, my father thought she must have been dead. But she had passed out because she was starving. This beggar girl was in her early twenty. So my father fed her a bowl of snake meat and some rice and let her sleep on the floor in our shack. She would come back to sleep in the graveyard whenever she was hungry and father would take her in. When he asked her where she came from, he found out that she was a daughter of one of his former servants who had denounced him before the People’s Court during the Land Reform in the North. She cringed when he told her who he was. A former wealthy landowner with ten servants in his household. He told her not to be afraid. ‘We’re equal now,’ he said. ‘Think of one million people already dead from starvation. You and I are blessed.’ He would drink himself to stupor every night and one night he took the girl outside our shack and they slept there. From then on he never slept inside when the girl came. Then one morning I woke up to her cries. I ran out and saw her weeping over his body. I found snakebite’s marks on his leg. Even the girl did not know what happened to him and so I believed that he died in his stupor.”
Rubbing her arm, Chi Lan says, “That’s very sad, chú.”
“I was worried when I saw you lying out there.”
“What if someone here got bitten by a poisonous snake?”
“The old woman has antidote. There’s a jar in the refrigerator. It has a label in both Vietnamese and English.”
She laughs. “Chú, I won’t mistake it for the cooking broth.”
A water bead rolls down the side of her face. She hunches up one shoulder and dries her cheek with the shoulder of her shirt―my shirt. Breathing in sharply she keeps her face tilted at me, smiling. “Now I smell of tobacco just like you. From wearing your shirt.”
Khanh Ha is the author of Flesh (2012, Black Heron Press) and The Demon Who Peddled Longing (November 2014, Underground Voices Publisher). A three-time Pushcart nominee and a two-time Best of the Net Award nominee, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Waccamaw Journal, storySouth, Greensboro Review, Permafrost Magazine, Saint Ann’s Review, Poydras Review, The Underground Voices, Moon City Review, The Long Story, Red Savina Review, DUCTS, Lunch Ticket, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Sugar Mule, Yellow Medicine Review, and other fine journals.