(from the collection A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (Henry Holt, & Co. 1992; Penguin Books 1993); first published in Writer’s Forum, Fall 1991)
I was once able to bring fire from heaven. My wife knew that and her would be lovers soon learned that, though sometimes the lesson was a hard one for them. But that was in Vietnam, and when the need arose once more, here in America, I had to find a new way. You see, it has never been easy for a man like me. I know I appear to be what they call here a "wimp." I am not a handsome man, and I am small even for a Vietnamese. I assume the manners of a wimp, too, and I am conscious of doing that. I have done it all my life. I cross my legs at the knee and I step too lightly and I talk too much on subjects that others find boring. But there are two things about me that are exceptional. First, I was for many years a spy. You think that all spies look like the men in the movies. But real spies have a cover identity, even if that cover was in place many years before they began their secret life. The second thing about me is that I have a very beautiful wife. I married her when she was fifteen and I was twenty five. Her parents were friends of my parents and they liked me very much and they gave me this great blessing and this great curse.
Her name is Buom, which means in English "butterfly." She is certainly that. She would fly here and there, landing on this flower or that, never moving in a straight line. And how do you summon a butterfly? Only show it a pretty thing. It is not her fault, really. It is her nature. But it is a terrible thing to be married to a beautiful woman. We lived in the town of Bien Hoa, very near an air base and two big American camps, Long Binh and one they called Plantation, and when my wife walked down the street of Bien Hoa she was dressed in black pantaloons and a white blouse like all the other women but it was so clear how different she was. Her sleeves were rolled far up and her top two buttons were undone for the heat and her hair was combed out long and sleek, and the GI jeeps would slam on their brakes and honk and the Vietnamese men would straighten up slowly and flare their nostrils and the Vietnamese boys on their motorbikes would crane their necks going by, even though more than once I saw them run into some automobile or fruit cart or a pile of garbage and fly through the air for trying to look twice at my wife.
Of all these men and boys it was the Vietnamese I worried about. No American ever tried seriously to go out with my wife. They had their Vietnamese whores at the camps, and it should be said for my wife that she never much liked the looks of the Americans anyway. This is true even today, after we have lived in Gretna, Louisiana, for more than a dozen years. It was the Vietnamese who I feared. They loved my wife, all these men, and it was only to be expected that some of them would try to have her. They would believe that she could be had. Why else, they reasoned, would she be so beautiful and swing her hips in that way and unbutton those two extra buttons on her blouse? How much cooler did she really think that would make her?
But these men were warned. And some of them never showed up again after they ignored the warnings. I could bring the fire from heaven to keep them away from my wife. I was a spy, after all. I worked with many Americans at Plantation. They came and they went each year and I would always bring them what they needed. They called me an agent handler, because I had two dozen people working for me. My eyes and ears. The schoolgirls and the woodcutters and the old women and the regional forces soldiers and boys from the neighborhoods on their bikes and others like these they brought me information and I took the information to the Americans, signing onto the post as a day laborer. Most of what I brought them was tactical intelligence. A VC squad with a political cadre coming down from Lai Khe and working the widows' settlement near Bien Hoa. A rocket attack planned on the air base at dawn from a certain place in the woods. Things like that. And when I gave them this information, I was right often enough that the Americans didn't really question me after awhile, especially about rocket attacks. If I said there were going to be rockets at dawn from such and such coordinates, then first thing the next morning the United States Air Force would come in and blow those coordinates away.
You can see how this might be a great help to a seemingly wimpy man with a beautiful wife. When my people brought me information about my wife and another man, or I used the evidence of my own eyes, I would send a warning to the man. The fire would come from heaven, I told him in a note delivered by one of my agents. I told him that my wife carries this ancient curse with her. The curse of the little man. I would sometimes go into historical detail. Napoleon Bonaparte, for instance, was very small and conquered 720,000 square miles of Europe. Attila, King of the Huns and ruler of an empire of 1,450,000 square miles, was still smaller, thought even to be a dwarf. History teaches, by the way, that not only is the curse I bring upon the would be lovers ancient, but the problem of the husband is ancient, too. Napoleon had great troubles with his butterfly of a wife and Attila died in the middle of making love, no doubt due to his being foolish enough to have many wives. But, of course, these are observations that I left out of my warning messages, which were clear and forceful. And if they were not heeded, I would find the coordinates of the place where the man cut wood every morning or where he went to eat his lunch or to fish or some other place where the United States Air Force could find him. We are all creatures of habit. And how did my wife react when she found some man who was pursuing her suddenly disappear? Perhaps the first time or two she felt that it was something she herself had said or done, or perhaps she thought they did not find her attractive anymore. (This makes me a little sad, to think I made my wife doubt herself. But surely she has always known how beautiful she is and nothing could truly shake that.) Later on she must have known that I was responsible in some dramatic way. But however it was that she felt, I can never say for sure. She would always maintain a face and attitude that revealed nothing. I would speak to her, as I often did, of history or politics or matters of daily life, and she would listen, her face bowed over her sewing, until it was time for us to sleep. Only once did she let on that she knew what had happened to her latest suitor. I believe that this man a woodcutter with a shack by a stream never understood what I could do. He was a big man, an arrogant man. One evening soon after this particular reported rocket attack was prevented by the United States Air Force, my wife looked up from her sewing. I had just paused for a few moments in speaking to her due to an itchiness in my throat, so at first I thought she wished me to quickly continue the observations that I had been making on the futility of using our Regional Forces irregulars to guard local government buildings. But instead, she said, "It's sad, the mistakes made in a war."
I knew at once what she was talking about. She had made a terrible mistake in letting this man get too close to her.
"Very sad," I said.
"Do you think someone is actually in control of all these things that happen?" she asked.
"I am sure of it," I said, and a clearer reminder than that was unnecessary. My wife is beautiful, but she is also subtle.
So finally history caught up with my country. I could see it coming for a long time. I stopped enough rockets from hitting the air base at Bien Hoa that in repayment my wife and I, along with our two children, flew from there a week before the place was overrun by the communists. I was not so very sorry to go, for I was coming to a country full of men that my wife would not look at twice. And it's true that in America, things have been much calmer, though this Gretna, Louisiana, is an area with many Vietnamese. But it seems as if somehow the men of Vietnam have lost their nerve in America, even with a beautiful Vietnamese woman. I sometimes receive a respectful compliment about my wife, but these men are beaten down; they are taller than me and even younger than me but wimpier by far.
We live near the Mississippi River and just over the bridge is New Orleans. My wife has seemed happy simply to live in an apartment where she can sit in the living room whenever she wishes and she and her women friends can go out together and shop and get their hair fixed. I work for the telephone company and we have a television set which makes me more interesting to my wife because she does not have to listen in the evenings to the thoughts I have on politics and history and such. I understand her limitations, and a wise man does not try to change the things that can't be changed. It's just that I'd begun to hope that things had changed on their own. For a long time she seemed utterly uninterested in allowing me to be tormented in the ways I was in Vietnam. There was no town street to walk down with the eyes of everyone on the open throat of her blouse or the movement of her hips. The hairdos she liked here seemed intended to impress the other women rather than any man. Things have been very good, very calm. That is, until two months ago.
It was, of course, a Vietnamese. He is a former airborne ranger, a tall man, nearly as tall as an American. And he owns a restaurant in a shopping plaza. The restaurant is called Bun Bo Xao, a name obviously chosen to attract the American diners out for some exotic treat that they can't even distinguish from Chinese. I know this because Bun Bo Xao means Sauteed Beef with Noodles. What if an American restaurant was named Grilled Hamburger with French Fries or Baked Chicken and Mashed Potatoes? Do you see my point? To call a restaurant a name that a whole people will understand as Sauteed Beef with Noodles is an insult to that people. And the bun bo they make there is second rate anyway, and the nuoc mam, the fish sauce, is even worse. This sauce is very special to the tongue of the Vietnamese. I do not expect to taste true Vietnamese nuoc mam in America. The nuoc mam from Phu Quoc Island was the best of all, clear and with an astonishingly subtle taste for a substance that a fish will give up only after a prolonged process lasting several days. But the sauce in this restaurant is from the Philippines, very bad, not from Thailand which at least is a pale second best. I do not criticize this man's taste and sincerity idly. These were my first clues. My wife and this man forgot that I am a spy. They may have known that I can no longer command the United States Air Force, but they forgot that I know how to read clues. You see, in spite of the bad bun bo and the worse nuoc man, this suddenly became my wife's favorite restaurant. We did not know where to go one Friday night, which is the night we usually go to a restaurant, and she said, oh so lightly, so offhandedly, that she heard that this Vietnamese place was quite good. She quoted one of her hairdo companions, a woman who would be plucking chickens and getting high on betel nuts in some Saigon alley if we had won the war. I have tried to avoid Vietnamese restaurants in the United States, but Buom seemed so set on this, yet in such a casual way, that I indulged her. She is, after all, still a very beautiful woman.
We pulled into the little shopping center and found the place just a few doors down from Ngon Qua Po Boys and the Good Luck Bowling Alley. I noticed how my wife's hand casually slipped off my arm as we stepped into the Bun Bo Xao Restaurant and I only had time to make a quick note of the Chinatown lanterns on the ceiling and the lacquer paintings on the wall mass produced in Hong Kong, when this tall Vietnamese man in a tuxedo was suddenly bowing before us and shooting little knowing glances at my wife. The owner. Tran Van Ha. He was so glad to see us and I felt a chill going up and down me from my scalp to my toes.
So we ate this second rate food and the owner visited our table twice to make sure everything was all right. I explained carefully to him how it was not, how the food was falling short of this or that standard of excellence. He listened to me with his temples throbbing and I could hear my wife peeping in repressed contradiction to me. It was all so clear that I almost laughed at them then and there and said, Do you take me for a fool? Have you forgotten how severely I deal with matters such as this?
But the fact was that I no longer had access to the fire. I did not even have my eyes and ears who could go out and gather more information for me and deliver the necessary warnings. So I held my tongue about all but the food. Nor did I speak of these things on the way home nor that evening nor even, a week later, when my little butterfly said she had a craving for Vietnamese food and suggested the Bun Bo Restaurant. I simply said no to the restaurant and with my spy experience kept a cool exterior, a calm and placid exterior. Inside, however, I was a whirlwind of feelings and plans. At no time in the past dozen years had I such a strong sense that I was in a foreign country, behind enemy lines, as it were, without any resources but my own. But soon my head cleared enough to understand that no matter where you are in the world, the forces of history and culture have been at work, and these forces create solutions to problems for the man who knows how to find them.
Take New Orleans, Louisiana, for instance. Napoleon snatched the city from the Spanish, who he defeated in Europe, and then two years later he sold it to the United States. This city was the casual possession of a small man who commanded fire of his own. But the city had a long history even before Napoleon held it. For a hundred years it had been a city with French and Spanish people but with many from the Caribbean, too, the West Indies and elsewhere, black people with fire of a different kind. You can't live around New Orleans without hearing about voodoo. And one night soon after I learned about Tran van Ha, I saw a program on our television where a very thin little black man taught hard lessons to his enemies with voodoo. My wife was sitting there with me and I kept my face very calm, never letting her know that I was listening to the voice of history right there in her presence, and even when the thin little black man made some mistakes that let the lumbering Americans catch him, I knew that I had to grow and learn and command the fire once more.
So on the very next day I called in sick to the phone company and I went across the bridge and past the great mandarin hat of the Superdome and down into the French Quarter where the television and the movies all suggested voodoo was practiced. I walked the main streets of this area and there were boutiques and tee shirt shops and pizza parlors and jazz places and places where women danced whose husbands, if they had the power I once had, would have long ago bombed New Orleans into rubble. But the shop I found among all of this was run by white people, large Americans with neat shelves full of books and jars and dolls that I clearly sensed had nothing to do with the real voodoo.
So I went out of that shop and looked up and down Bourbon Street and I realized that this was all like Tran van Ha's Vietnamese restaurant, a phony thing. I went up to the next corner and turned down a side street, then took another turn and another until I was in a cobbled street of narrow little houses with spindlework porches and I walked along and I smiled at the black people on their stoops and I stopped at several of the stoops and asked if there was a voodoo man in the neighborhood. I have learned the lessons of history and I felt a kinship with these people and I was comfortable asking them for help, even though most of them looked at me very strangely. Finally an old man with a gray film in his eyes and a walking stick leaning on the post next to him said to me, "What you want him for?"
I said, "I have a beautiful wife who has a wandering eye."
The old man nodded and said, "I know that trouble," and he told me how to find the house of a voodoo man, a Doctor Joseph. He said, "You ax Doctor Joseph what you want. He be a powerful low down papa." (I learned later that a papa is what many people call a male voodoo witch. And a "low down" papa is willing to perform black magic and do evil deeds.)
I thanked the old man and made my way to another street much like the one I'd just left. I found the house, but I was expecting something different. This was like all the other houses, no strange symbols hung over the door or animal bones dangling on string or anything at all, except I did see a tiny sign by the doorbell. I went up onto the porch and the sign was a three by five card, laminated and nailed there, and it said, "Doctor Joseph. Hard problems solved." If he had a great power like the old man said, then I liked Doctor Joseph already. This was my own style, of course. Low key. I rang the bell and waited and then Doctor Joseph himself answered the door. I know this because he said so. As if he already knew me and knew what I wanted, he opened the door and instantly said, "I am Doctor Joseph. Come in."
I stepped into a dark foyer that smelled of mildew and incense and my eyes were slow, straining to open to the darkness, and I couldn't see a thing but I followed in Doctor Joseph's wake and we entered a front sitting room. He waved his hand and I sat in an enormous soft old chair and I could feel the springs of the cushion beneath me. Doctor Joseph sat opposite me in a cane backed chair and he had seemed from the moment he opened the door like a very large man, bigger even than any American, but now that he was sitting before me I could see that I was mistaken. It may have been a little spell he'd cast over me. I hoped so. But now he let me see that he was not big. He was as thin as any Vietnamese and he was a younger man than I'd expected, though this too may have been a spell. His eyes were very clear, very large, and the tight black curls of his hair had not the slightest touch of gray. His lower lip pushed up into an inverted smile and he was obviously ready for business, so I began.
I told Doctor Joseph everything about my wife, about the burden I've had to bear. I did not tell him that I once used the U. S. Air Force to correct my problems. I am still, at heart, a spy, even in the presence of a low down papa, though being the papa that he was, he probably knew all of this anyway. After hearing me out, he tented his fingers before him and looked past me to the window where the filmy curtains let in the morning light that illuminated the room. He kept his eyes outside for a long while and I finally looked away from him, too. The room was very small, and except for the two chairs and a wooden pedestal table beside Doctor Joseph, there were no objects at all in the room. The empty walls were very dark in spite of the light from the window, and when I looked closer, they seemed to be actually painted black. There was a heavy curtain at a doorway which must have led to the rest of the house and perhaps back there were all the potions and mysterious objects of the voodoo doctor. I don't know. All that was in this room was the smell of incense and the low down papa's gaze, which was traveling beyond me.
Finally Doctor Joseph's eyes came back to my face and when they did, I felt a burning in my sinuses and a weakness in my arms and legs. Then he said, "How much is this woman worth to you?"
I figured he was talking about his fee. I shrugged and he knew what I was thinking because he kind of snorted and said, "You and I will deal with that later. I'm speaking of a different realm. Three times you will have an opportunity to deny her. If you are going to call on the High Heavens, then you best know exactly what you want and exactly how bad you want it."
I was losing track of his words, but I could sense he wanted some kind of declaration from me before he would proceed. So I gave him the only answer I could possibly give. I did not even think about it. I said, "She is worth bringing fire from heaven."
Doctor Joseph nodded his head at this and his eyes bored deeper into me. I felt like I was about to sneeze. He said, "I could give you some good gris gris for the doorstep of this man, but I think something stronger is called for."
I nodded and I found that I could not raise either of my hands and I twitched my nose at the threatened sneeze, hoping Doctor Joseph would not take this as disrespect. Then he rose from his chair and he did not need to tell me to stay seated because I knew for certain that I had no command of my body at that moment. He disappeared through the curtain and I waited and it struck me that I was not even breathing, but then Doctor Joseph reappeared in the room, a sea wave of incense smells following him. He passed his chair and was looming before me and I sank down, the springs sproinging beneath me, and Doctor Joseph bent over me and I closed my eyes tight. "Here," he said and something dropped lightly into my lap.
I opened my eyes and he had pulled back. In my lap was a small brown paper parcel and Doctor Joseph said, "Inside is a hog bladder. You will also find a vial of blood. You must fill the bladder with the shit of a he goat and then pour in the blood, tie up the bladder with a lock of your wife's hair, and then at the stroke of noon throw the bladder over your rival's house."
I nodded dumbly.
Then Doctor Joseph's inverted smile poked up again from his chin and he waved his hand and I don't remember getting up and crossing the room and going out the door, though I must have. But I just found myself standing in the street before his house and under my arm in a brown paper parcel was a hog bladder and a vial of the blood of who knows what and I was faced with a quest for goat shit. And I thought to myself, What am I doing? I thought of Buom's face and I could see in my mind that it was very beautiful, but history taught that a beautiful woman would always bring torture to her husband. Simply ask the American actor Mickey Rooney. I should drop this paper parcel in the nearest trash can and leave that woman, I thought. It might strike you as strange, but this was not a common thought for me, to just remove myself from the field and let my butterfly fly away. It was a very uncommon thought. In fact, this may well have been the first time I had it. I later realized that this was also my first opportunity to deny my wife. But the thought vanished as quickly as it came. I pulled the parcel from under my arm and looked at it and I wondered where in New Orleans I would find goat shit.
I am a small man but very clever, and soon I found myself approaching the gate to the petting zoo in Audubon Park. I was in luck, I thought, because it was a weekday morning and there was no one in sight. Just me and a pen full of sheep and goats who were as fidgety as unwilling whores, waiting for the petting that would come at them every day. Before going in, I sat down on a bench to figure out how to handle this. My hands began to work at the string on the parcel, but then I realized that the goat shit didn't have to go straight into the bladder. I could gather the droppings in something more easily handled and then put them in the bladder later. I was very pleased with myself at this thought. I knew how to plan effectively.
So I got up and went back to a concession stand and ordered a box of popcorn, thinking to dump the corn and use the box. I glanced away for a moment, hearing the crunch of popcorn being scooped into the box, but thank Buddha I glanced over to the girl just as she stuck my box under a silver metal spout and reached up to the pump. "No butter!" I cried, and the girl recoiled as if she'd been hit. This could not be helped. I was concerned about inadvertently altering Doctor Joseph's formula. Who knows what butter might have done?
With the box in hand, however, I grew calm. So much so that I returned to the bench near the petting zoo and sat and ate the popcorn and enjoyed it very much. And this turned out to be a big mistake. I did think to wipe the salt out of the box with my handkerchief, but taking the time on the bench to eat the popcorn set up the arrival of a class of schoolchildren just as I stepped into the pen. I heard them laughing and talking and then saw them approaching along a path and I had to decide whether to back out of the pen and sit on the bench and wait for everyone to clear out or head quickly for the goats. The sun was getting high and I figured that it could be one class after another for the rest of the day, so I looked around the pen. There was a scattering of pellets here and there, but I didn't know exactly what a sheep's shit might look like and I didn't want to make a mistake. I spotted a white goat rubbing itself against a wooden post and I went over to it and lingered at its tail.
The goat continued to rub and the children were at the gate and I started to pat the animal on the hindquarters, both to look less conspicuous and perhaps to coax something out. But the goat looked up and twitched its ears at the gabble of the children and the voice of the teacher riding over the others and saying to calm down and be nice to the animals. The goat pulled away from the post and I could feel it tense up and I knew that there were little hands heading this way.
"Come on," I said, low, and I watched the goat's tail flick once, twice, and then there was a cascade of black pellets. I have particularly good reflexes and not more than half a dozen of them fell before my popcorn box was in place and clattering full of what I needed.
Then a child's voice rose from behind me, right at my elbow, howling in amazement, "Miss Gibbs, this man is putting goat doodies in his popcorn!"
It was now that I once again thought about my wife's face. I considered it in my mind and asked if it was worth what I was going through. I knew that many eyes were turning to watch what I was doing and part of me was saying, Let her fly away. And this was the second chance I had to deny my wife. But something was happening quite apart from my free will at that moment. I have heard the one or two rare, brave soldiers that I knew in my home country speak of a time under fire when your mind knows you are in serious danger, but your body will not budge; it holds its position in spite of the terrible force moving toward you. It was this that I felt as the child ranted on about this strange thing that I was doing. I kept my face down, my eyes focused on the flow of goat shit into the box in my hand, and I did not move. I held my ground until the tail twitched again and the flow stopped and the goat wisely galloped away from the little demon behind me.
I, too, moved away, never looking back at my tormentor or Miss Gibbs or any of the others. I followed the white goat; we escaped together along the perimeter of the pen, and it struck me that I must appear to the children and their teacher to be pursuing the goat for still more seasoning in my popcorn. But I veered away at last and waded through the children, heading for the gate and escape. To keep me from seeing the wondering glances of these little faces, I went over in my mind all that I'd just accomplished. I was very conscious of the weight of the popcorn box and the press of the paper parcel tucked tightly under my arm. I could get a lock of my wife's hair tonight. The tough part was done. I had the shit of a he goat. And this stopped me cold as I touched the gate latch.
A he goat. I had not checked the sex of the goat. I spun around and there were children all around me, drawn close, no doubt, to see this strange man and his strange snack depart. But when I turned, they drew back squealing. The white goat had stopped by the far fence. I knew it was my white goat because it was standing where I had last seen it and because it was looking at me almost in sympathy, as if it understood what I was going through with the attentions of these other little creatures. It was a very hard thing for me to do, but I moved back into the pen, amidst the children. I would not look at them, but in my peripheral vision I could tell they were all turning to watch me, some of them even following me. I approached the goat and it looked very nervous. I spoke to it. "It's all right," I said. And then the toughest thing of all. I went to the goat's tail and I crouched down, and I heard two dozen little voices gasp. Thanks to Buddha I saw what I needed to see underneath the white goat, and I rushed out of the pen and the park as if the darkest voodoo demon was pursuing me for my very soul.
That night, as my wife slept, I bent near her with her own best sewing scissors and she was very beautiful in the dim light, her face as smooth and unlined as the face of the fifteen year old girl that I married. How was it that fate brought such a woman as this to a man like me? Even if my surface hides quite a different sort of man. She sighed softly in her sleep and though it was a lovely sound, it only made me restless. I could not bear to look very long at my wife's beauty until this whole thing was resolved, so I went to the back of her head and gently raised some of her hair so the lock I took would not be missed, and the silkiness of her hair made my hand tremble. Badly. I feared even that I might slip and cut her ear or her throat. But I took a deep breath and my blade made a crisp little snip and I was ready to work my voodoo magic.
The next morning Buom said she was going shopping at the malls with her friends. I said, "You know those women would be plucking chickens and getting high on betel nuts in the alleys of Saigon if we had won the war."
Buom huffed faintly at this and she even whispered to the toaster, "Try saying something new."
It's true I'd made this observation before and I said, sincerely, "I'm sorry, my pretty butterfly. You have a nice time with your friends."
Buom turned to me and there was something in her face that I could not place. Part of me wanted to believe that it was a wistful look, tender even, appreciative that I am the kind of Vietnamese husband who might even apologize to his wife. But another part of me thought that the look was simply repressed exasperation, a Vietnamese wife's delicate loathing. Either way, we said no more and when I left the house I did not head for the telephone company.
I drove to a local library and read the newspapers and the news magazines for a few hours. The world was full of struggle and you had to be clever to survive, that much was clear, and in the back seat of my car in a gym bag was a hog bladder full of blood and the shit of a he goat and it was tied up (this was not an easy thing to do, as it turned out) with a lock of my wife's hair. I had Tran van Ha's address and I knew the neighborhood he lived in. At a quarter to twelve, I carefully folded the newspaper I was reading and replaced it on the shelf and I walked past the librarians with the softest tread, the calmest face (I was still a splendid spy, after all) and I drove up Manhattan Boulevard and under the West Bank Expressway and a few more turns brought me to Ha's street and I found his house on the corner.
I still had five minutes, so I parked across the street and slumped lower behind the wheel and observed the place. His was a shotgun house in a neighborhood of shotgun houses. They get their name from the fact that you could stand on the front porch and shoot a shotgun straight through to the back porch and the buckshot would pass through every room in the house. It occurred to me that this was the perfect design for a man in my situation. These houses were probably invented by an architect with a butterfly wife. He wanted to make it easy to draw a bead on his rivals. Just as I was about to answer this with the observation that a shotgun was not my style, something struck me about a shotgun house.
Doctor Joseph said I was to throw the bladder over the house. I had a ranch house or cape cod or such in my mind, a place where I would stand near the front porch and throw the bladder over the peak of the roof and it would roll down the other side and the task would be done. But the shotgun house is very long, stretched out deep into the lot. I could not throw the bladder that far. I was not a good thrower to start with, and this was just too far. Would the magic work if I threw the bladder over the house from one side to the other? Ha's place sat very near to the house next door and there was a fence in between.
It was a high, solid fence, I noticed, so that the neighbors could not see into his bedroom window where he met his lovers. This thought made me very angry and I looked at my watch and I had only two minutes to figure this out. I grabbed the gym bag from the back seat and stepped out of the car. Over the house, I thought. Over the house. If it goes over from side to side, it is still over the house. Surely that's all right, I thought. And I was lucky that Ha's house was on a corner lot. I could not deal with the narrow passage and high fence, but the other side of the house was open to the street and I walked briskly around the corner.
On this side there were three large trees, side by side. They seemed to block the house, but looking closer, I could see that there was a space of a few feet between each one. I looked at my watch and I had no time to waste now, only a matter of a few seconds. I set the gym bag down at my feet and drew out the bladder, long and dark gray and with a bandana of Buom's silky hair. I placed myself between two of the trees and the alarm began to beep on my watch and I did not know how to hold the bladder, how to move my arm. Overhand or underhand? The alarm beeped on and I felt panic like a frightened goat running around in my chest and I chose to use an underhand throw. My arm went down, I kept my eye on the peak of the roof, and I flung the hog bladder as hard as I could, just as the alarm stopped beeping.
The bladder flew almost straight up, hooking just enough to crash through the leaves of the tree to my left and drape itself on a branch. I won't tell you exactly what it looked like to me, this bulbous skin doubled now and dangling from the limb of the tree. Yes I will tell you. It looked like a monstrous set of testicles, and it made me crazy with anger at Tran van Ha and I knew it could not remain there. Hanging there like that, it would probably work magic that was the exact opposite of what I'd intended. I decided that the bladder had been flung at noon and in a real sense it was still in the process of going over the house. The trip had no time limit on its completion, I reasoned, so I went to the tree, which was an oak with some large lower branches, and I began to climb.
As with many small men, I am very agile. I have not had much experience climbing trees, but the sight of the bladder above me and the thought of Ha and his desire for my wife drove me up the tree in a trance of rage. The bark scraped, the leaves grabbed at me, the gulf beneath me grew larger and larger, but I went up and up without a look down or a single thought of my own safety until I was nearly as high as the top of the roof and I'd drawn opposite the bladder. At this point I reached for a limb to steady me but it was dead and cracked off and clattered down onto the roof and my head snapped back with a little shock of understanding. I was in a tree and high off the ground.
But the bladder was hanging just beyond arm's length now and the peak of the roof was only an easy toss away from me and by the High Heavens I was going to complete this curse on Tran van Ha. I wrapped my arms and legs around the limb before me and began to inch my way out to the bladder. The little twigs along the limb clutched at me and I made the mistake of letting my eyes wander from my goal and I saw the distant earth and felt my breath fly away, leaving my lungs empty and my heart pounding. But I closed my eyes for a moment and when I opened them again, they were fixed on the hog bladder filled with the hard earned goat pellets and I inched farther along, just a little more, a little more, and finally I reached out my hand and grasped the bladder.
And just as I did, I heard a voice from below. "What the hell is this?" the voice said. I looked down and it was Tran van Ha with his shirt unbuttoned and in his bare feet, like he had thrown his clothes on hastily. His face was turned upward to me and when I looked down, he must have recognized me, because his mouth gaped open and he staggered back a step. "You," he said.
"Yes, me," I said and the bladder was firmly in hand. I wondered what would happen if I threw it over the roof now. Would the earth crack open and swallow him up? Would he disappear in a puff of smoke? For a moment, I actually felt personally powerful up in that tree, like I was a B 52 opening its bomb bay doors. I was ready to make one more defense of my wife, my honor, my manhood. But then I heard a woman's voice, and Tran van Ha lowered his face and looked toward the sound.
"Don't," he said to the voice. But already there was a figure gliding across the lawn, a woman, her hair long and black and silky, and the face lifted to me and it was Buom. It was my beautiful butterfly of a wife and she, too, gaped, not expecting to see me. And I didn't feel powerful anymore. I was a small man up a tree holding a hog bladder full of goat pellets while my unfaithful wife stood beside her lover and watched me. This is what I'd come to. The man who once could bring fire from heaven now could only bring shit from the trees. I glanced at the peak of the roof and then I looked down at the two upturned faces and I knew I had to work my own magic here. But just as Doctor Joseph had prophesied, I was visited by my third opportunity to deny my wife. As beautiful as my wife's face was, it had only brought me pain, I thought. The hand with the bladder moved out away from the limb, hovered over this face, and I thought of how this woman had tormented me. But am I truly the right man for a woman this beautiful? Could I truly blame her? I looked at Tran van Ha and there was nothing redeeming at all in his face and I raised my arm not just to drop the bladder but to propel it. This I did, squarely at the amazed forehead of this man who had tempted my wife. I am glad to say that the bomb found its target. Unfortunately, this accuracy was obtained at some cost, for I followed the bladder out of the tree and I now lie in a hospital bed with both legs in traction and my left arm encased in plaster and folded over my chest.
But I am still more than I may seem to be on the surface. Every day I have been in this hospital, my wife has come and sat with me and held my right hand with her face bowed. Then this evening she brought her sewing and pulled her chair close to me, and before she began to sew, she asked what thoughts I had about the ways the Vietnamese in America were becoming part of American society. What did history have to say about all of that? she asked. I have many thoughts on that subject and I spoke to her for a long time. I spoke to her, in fact, until I dozed off, and I woke only briefly to feel her adjust the pillow behind my head and gently cover my good arm with the sheet.