Dismounting the Tiger
He put his hand in his jeans pocket and felt the broad, crusted coin. He had found it here the day before and had washed and studied it carefully. There was little either to study or learn from it. One side depicted a rice plant in relief, nothing more, three long leaves and at the head inordinately large grains of rice. The other side bore the Arabic numeral "five" and the word "dong" in the Latin-based Vietnamese. The coin bore no date and he had no reference for knowing which regime had issued it. By the time the communists had come inflation would have made five dong worthless.
But before they had come he believed the South Vietnamese were using the French piastre. The Americans used their own money. By this logic he had realized again that he could not place even the roughest date on the old coin.
"What can I buy with this?" he had asked Minh Tam the night before. Minh Tam had not taken the coin he held out.
"Nothing," the Vietnamese boy answered.
"Some chewing gum?"
It was a game and he had known well that five dong was worthless. The cheapest glass of coffee at the poorest coffee shop was two thousand dong. Tea was one thousand dong. The cheapest item he had ever come across was a stick of gum at five hundred dong.
As he held the coin in his pocket he detected a flaw in his earlier reasoning. He stopped assuming that the coin had been minted here in the south. Instead, it had been issued in the north during the division of the country, before inflation and after the communists had started using the Vietnamese dong. Then it had trickled down here and was eventually discarded as worthless.
He walked through the bamboo and considered whether the path could possibly have been two thousand years old. The path was probably one thousand years old, as Khmers and others had inhabited the Plain of Reeds before the Vietnamese had arrived. However, the landscape would have changed with the coming of wet rice agriculture and irrigation. The Vietnamese had learned wet rice farming from the Chinese, but he did not know from whom the Khmers learned it. If the Khmers had wet rice farmed then the trail was old. If they had not, then the Vietnamese had altered the landscape when they introduced irrigation.
Still, the trail was old and one cannot lose one's way on an old trail like this, even as it passes through thick bamboo in the growing darkness of late evening.
The bamboo opened and he came out onto the flooded rice paddies. The sun was down below the far stand of coconut trees, where a Khmer commune lay.
He stood on the edge of the paddy. The rice was in the third month and had not born yet and still grew straight. The paddies stretched from his right to his left, cordoned by dikes according to families, each paddy square, green like corn in June, and lush like an oat field in late July.
To his far left, a line of children emerged from the bamboo and crossed the paddies on a dike. He watched and attempted to name them. The first three young boys and a girl were the most spirited. Then came the older boy and girl who played with and kept the younger children. Someday the two would marry. Then came the quiet and slow boys and girls. Finally he noticed the village idiot, who was surviving a failed romance with a local girl. The children disappeared into the far commune. He looked up at the late evening's clear sky. A person came up softly behind him.
"Minh Nhat," came Minh Tam's voice.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm looking at the fields."
"Because the fields are beautiful."
He squatted on his heels and ran his fingers over the dry alluvial of the bank. Minh Tam, having been born around the time of the liberation of Saigon and in his twenties now, was the oldest of his generation in the village and was the village's "first son." He was the first to go to the city for a college education. One of his uncles, the youngest of the previous generation, had finished the university in Saigon, but that was before reunification, and since reunification such a degree had been discredited. Tam's achievement could not be over appreciated. He was the first, and, it was accepted, would be the last.
No more of the village's children would finish even primary schooling. Minh Tam had attended the high school in the provincial capital, bicycling to and from the large town twice a day, morning and afternoon, fifteen kilometers. He had finished the high school and surprised many because his level of poverty was severe even in such a poor province. He had never brought friends home with him for shame. The villagers had been joyful when he had finished high school and passed the university entrance examination, but the celebration was limited to the village and his success was a very quiet thing. He chose the national research institution, where he studied morphology and semantics.
His family had sacrificed and suffered and he had always honored them.
"Where were you, Tam? At your grandfather's tomb, when the man came, where did you go?"
"To look after the boat."
He looked down into the clear water of the paddy. He replayed the meeting in his head because he could not get it right. He had wandered into the drained rice field to stand among the buffalo and ducks. The buffalo had been gaunt with too much skin. The white ducks could not fly and had all been spray-painted to distinguish one family's flock from another. The Vietnamese man had been well-dressed and had come across the level, dry field uneasily in inexpensive dress shoes and the children had walked affectionately with him. The man had saluted in English but they did not greet with a handshake.
"Who was that man?"
"From the people's office."
He looked out over the rice to the far commune, then over the coconut trees at the purple sky.
"Why did you leave me alone with him?"
Minh Tam stood behind him. The frogs were sounding off in the paddies.
"Xin loi. I am sorry. My family disagreed."
"Why? I don't understand," he said in Vietnamese. "Did he come to the house?"
"No. He came to see you. When he came to meet you, he did not greet my grandmother."
He looked over the dark even paddy. For convenience the Vietnamese man and he had moved to the whitewashed tomb elevated in the field. The Vietnamese man had spoken a very learned if not always grammatically correct or suitable English and the two had found things of common interest as they sat on the tomb. The man was a teacher in the provincial capital and he had welcomed the opportunity to practice his English. They had spoken first of English books, then American literature, and even of Emerson and Thoreau.
The conversation had faded after the man mentioned that Thoreau had been a Marxist. They had separated civilly.
"Who was he?"
"I tell you so you know. He is a government official."
"He is rac roi," Tam said. "He is troublesome."
"Can I stay here?"
"Yes. He cannot make problems for you."
"For your family?"
"He can do what he wants."
"How long has he been an official?"
"How about before 1975."
"He used to work for the Americans. But he worked for both sides."
He stood and his thighs hurt. Minh Tam came out from behind and they stood next to each other on the bank.
"What can I do?"
"Should I give him money?"
"It's not necessary."
They walked between the bamboo and the rice on the packed clay. At the dike on which the children had walked the two young men walked out between the paddies. There were no ducks or snipe, but as they walked the narrow dike the frogs fled in front of them, pitching into the lush rice and clear but darkening water of the paddy. In the middle of the dike, in the center of the smooth paddies, he stopped. He turned and surveyed the landscape. The paddies were open and the sky was open above. In the east the sky was black and in the west purple. The bamboo and rice were falling black.
In the paddy under him a farmer had left a trail through the rice. The farmer had waded through his paddy planting insecticide. Where he had meandered the rice was divided and bent, leaving a trail as when a man walks through a dewy field of alfalfa in the morning and his path remains until the sun burns off the dew. The farmer's imprints lingered, and around each print the water was cloudy. The rice stood thick and the mud of the paddies lay deep. By morning the cloudy water would have settled, the mud fallen into the footprints, and by midday the young and healthy plants would again be straight and the evidence of the farmer's passing would have faded, as when one walks through snow during a storm. Though the prints remain for a time, they always disappear.
"Will you go to the field of cau Muoi Kien in the morning?"
"Yes." He took the coin from his pocket and held it out. "Make a wish."
"Yes," Tam assented, not understanding.
He set the coin carefully on his thumbnail over his fist, and gave it a light toss into the air. The coin disappeared without a sound in the lush rice. They walked the dry narrow dike between the paddies. Tea was waiting in the next commune.