Fiction from Web Del Sol


Robert Olen Butler

(from the book Coffee, Cigarettes, and a Run in the Park (Wisteria Press 1996); first appeared in GQ, September 1995)

          It was me you saw in that photo across a sugar cane field. I was smoking by the edge of the jungle and some French journalist, I think it was, took that photo with a long lens, and you couldn't even see the cigarette in my hand but you could see my blond hair, even blonder now than when I leaned my rifle against a star apple tree with my unit on up the road in a terrible fight and I put my pack and steel pot beside it and I walked into the trees. My hair got blonder from the sun that even up here in the highlands crouches on us like a mama-san with her feet flat and going nowhere. Though my hair should've gone black, by rights. It should have gone as black as the hair of my wife.
          Somebody from the village went into Da Lat and came back with an American newspaper that found its way there from Saigon, probably, brought by some Aussie businessman or maybe even an American GI come back to figure out what it was he left over here in Vietnam. There are lots of them come these days, I'm told, the GIs, and it makes things hard for me, worrying about keeping out of their sight. I got nothing to do with them, and that's why the photo pissed me off. As soon as I saw it, I knew it was me. I knew the field. I knew my own head of hair. And because you can't see the cigarette, my hand coming down from my face looks like some puny little wave, like I'm saying come help me. And that's the last goddam thing I want.
          I grew the tobacco myself. That's what we do in my village. And up here we grow coffee, too. The first time I saw the girl who would be my wife she was by the side of a road spreading the coffee beans out to dry. Spreading them with her bare feet. And when her family finally let me marry her and we lay down at last in our little house--with wood walls and a wood ceiling in this place in Vietnam where there are hardwood trees and cool nights--she rubbed her hands through my hair, calling it sunlight, and I held her feet in my hands and kissed them and they tasted of coffee.
          I'm not missing. I'm here. I know the smell of the wood fires and the incense my wife burns for the dead father and mother who gave her to me and the smell of my daughter's hair washed from the big pot in our back yard to catch the rainwater, and instead, the USA Today has got me on the run, waving pitifully across a field at a photographer to put the word out to the world, but they don't wonder why I'm apparently not smart enough to walk on across that field and say, Take me back to my momma and my papa and my brothers and my sisters who are living ruined lives in America because I'm missing in action. I don't even have sense enough to get close enough to the road so I can be identified, so I'm the lost child of every family in the country with someone whose body was never found.
          But I walked away. I just walked away. And there was a thousand of them like me. Two thousand. More, I heard, a lot more. In the back alleys of Saigon, in the little villages in the highlands and along the sea, trying to keep out of the way of the killing just like these people who took us in and didn't ask any questions.
          Though I could see the questions all come back in the faces of my people when the newspaper showed up. We all went out to see it. It's the way here. The village is small and our elder is Binh and he knew me from the first, he was the first man I saw when I walked in here in 1970 unarmed and bare headed and I said in the little bit of Vietnamese I had that I was a friend, I wanted to lie down and sleep. He knew what I was doing.
          It was yesterday that we sat on mats in front of Tien's house and she brought us tea and we looked at the paper.
          "It's you, I think," Binh said, and he curved his lower lip upward lifting the little wisp of a Ho Chi Minh beard, a beard that he wore not from approval of the man but with a kind of irony.
          Tri, who had brought the paper, put it before me again now, and the dozen faces around watched me for the final word. I nodded. Thao, my wife, touched my shoulder. She could see it too. "Yes," I said.
          "What does it say about you?" Binh asked.
          "Nothing," I said. "They don't know who I am."
          Binh nodded and he did it slow enough that I knew he wanted me to say more. I waited, though, looking away beyond the circle, across the dirt street to the tobacco drying racks, and some kids were there, two of Tien's boys squatting and looking back at me and Tri's little girl, who stood staring at a dragon head set on a table in the sun. Tien had been working on the head, repainting the green and red ridges in its face, getting it ready for Tet, the new year. When I looked away from Binh, I thought my daughter, Hoa, might be there, but she wasn't. And I didn't want to cast my gaze farther with Binh waiting for me to say more.
          But I'd waited a little too long already. Binh asked, "Does it speak of some other man?"
          "Not one particular man. No. It says some people in America have seen the photo and think it's proof that Americans are still alive over here, men being held by the communists."
          "MIA," Binh said, pronouncing each letter with a flat American inflection that he'd picked up from me long ago.
          "Yes," I said.
          At this, Binh turned his face, in respect, away from Quang who sat next to him. Quang was almost as old as Binh, clean-shaven, with skin the color of this dirt street moments after a rain. But I glanced at him briefly, and there were others from our little circle who did, too. He was holding the newspaper spread tight in his two hands as if trying to stretch any wrinkles out of it. He was looking at my image there, and I think his mind now was on his own lost son. Most of the people of a certain age in my village have dead children from the war. But Quang's boy is missing, still, after more than twenty years, and he worries about where the body might be, the spirit lost and hovering around it waiting for rites that would never come.
          My village believes in spirits. Last night we all burned incense in our kitchens for the god of the hearth. Such a god lives in each of our houses and seven days before Tet, he goes up to heaven to report on the family. A family is very important in Vietnam. We work and we care for each other and we live under one roof and there is no ending for such a thing. My wife's mother and father slept on straw mats in our house until the day that each of them died. I will sleep on a straw mat in the house of my daughter until I die. That is my wish.
          Perhaps that's why I'm so frightened now to see this image of myself in an American newspaper. Why I looked again across to where the children were, more of them now, gathering to watch us and wonder, and I looked for my daughter and I wanted to see her in that moment, a brief glance even. We are meant to protect our families in all their linked parts like we protect our bodies. And the god of the hearth takes special note in his report of how careful we are about that. And how we respect the spirits, the spirits of our family gone to the afterlife before us and the spirits of all the others in the air around us. And we must respect the gods, as well. The minds and wills that animate the universe. Look where they have brought me.
          And Hoa appeared. My daughter is tall now, her body changing from a girl to a woman, and her hair is the brown of the dried tobacco, not black but the color of what we grow and prepare here, and I don't know why I was caught by her hair at that moment but it is long and it has this color that belongs to no one else here, not my wife, not me. And she stepped behind Tri's daughter and she looked to me, briefly, and then at the little girl staring at the dragon.
          Binh still had something on his mind. "Do you think some people in America will look at this picture and remember?"
          "There will be many who do that," I said and my eyes moved to Quang, and I was thinking of the grief he was drawing from the paper in his hands even then, and Binh knew what I was saying. But I also understood him. He meant: Do you have other people in that past life of yours who will recognize this son or husband or brother of theirs and suffer from this?
          I felt my wife stir beside me. She heard this beneath Binh's words, as well, and grew angry at him, I think. It made her fear another woman. I should speak, I knew. But I looked again at Hoa and she was bending to the table and she picked up the dragon head and turned to face Tri's daughter and I could see Hoa's face for a moment there, caught full in the sunlight, and in this light the parts of her body that she had because of me seemed very clear, the highness of her brow, the half expressed roundness of the lids of her eyes, the length of her nose, the wideness of her mouth, her hair neither dark nor light. And I had a twist of sadness for her, as if she had gotten from me imperfect cells that had made a club foot or an open spine or a weak heart.
          She lifted the dragon high with both hands and raised it over her, and she slowly brought it down: her hair, her brow disappeared into the dragon, her eyes and her nose and her mouth, my daughter's face disappeared into great bright eyes, flared nostrils, cheeks of blood red and a brow of green. And Tri's daughter clapped her hands and laughed and the dragon head angled down and opened its mouth to her as if to cry out.
          I looked at Binh and he was waiting for me to speak and I looked at the others and then at Thao. Her face was slightly turned to me but her eyes were lowered. I thought, It's been nearly twenty years since I first lay down with you and touched those places on your body that were smooth and soft and that are coarser now, and I love them still, I love them more for their very coarseness. I do not wish to open the past either, my wife. But this is my village and I was seen across a field by millions and the eyes of that other country turn this way.
          I let a little of the past back into me then, and I did not know what to say. A house with a wraparound porch and maple trees and a grass yard cut close and edged each week in a perfect line along a sidewalk: things unknown in this place. Things that I could see without pain only when they sat unpeopled in my head. Things of a family that were worth keeping only from a summer day when the maple leaves did not stir and when no one from inside this house was visible, no sounds could be heard from inside. How to say that for these Vietnamese who sensed --always--even the dead spirits of a family? Who in this circle could imagine that only this was good in that past life of mine: a maple tree and the smell of fresh paint on the porch, just dried into a Victorian green and smelling like something new, and the creak of a chain on a swing there, my feet touching and pushing, lifting me as if I was flying away.
          And these thoughts frightened me. I was thinking about these Vietnamese now from a distance, how they could not know me, and I wanted to blame this distance on that other self that was creeping back in, but it was hard now entirely to do that. After all, this was my past and the haunches it crept on could find strength only from me. And Tri's daughter shrieked and laughed across the way and there was a faint, muffled roaring that I recognized as my daughter's voice and I knew not to look. I could not look at that.
          And I rose up from where I crouched and I said, "I'm sorry," and I stepped out of the circle and I did not look at my wife and I did not look at my daughter and I hesitated only for a moment and I knew that no one here would ask me again to speak of this and that was their way and I looked along our village street, down a little slope to a closing of the trees, the road I had followed when Binh first saw me weary and ready to sleep. And I took one step now in that direction, toward the trees, and another step, and I walked away.
          I walked for a long time and went up, into a piney wood, and this was an American smell, as American as it was Vietnamese. There were two tall pine trees in the yard behind the house with the wraparound porch and it smelled just like this and there was a chill that made me tremble briefly, tremble in the chest, in the heart, right then, passing through the shadow of a great isolated pine in a little clearing and open to the wind, and the nights in the highlands could be American, too, it could be cold at times here in Vietnam, even in this country of rice paddies and water buffalo.
          And I stopped and I sat on a knoll and I looked at my hands darkened by the sun, not as dark as my wife's skin or Binh's or any of the others in the circle I'd broken but as dark as the skin of a Vietnamese child, that dark. This could be the skin of a Vietnamese child. Except for the blond hairs on my knuckles, and I looked at my arms and there was a forest of blond hair on this dark arm, and I was on the porch swing, in the very center, and my arms were taut, my legs were just long enough now to touch and push and lift and my arms were rigid grasping the lip of the seat, and for a moment there was only the cry of the chain above me: I pushed and the chain cried out, over and over, and it seemed painful to this thing for it to carry me, and I rose but always came down again and I never did move from the porch, and I stopped and I sat and still there was silence from the house but I knew I would go in. Against all that I desperately desired, I would go in.
          Binh was asking me to go in. They all asked me that now. Just to have me speak. I was to walk into the great bland jaws of that house and what I feared was this: perhaps a family even scattered to the other side of the earth did not truly cease. Once I went in again, perhaps I could never return to Vietnam. I sat now and waited and trembled and nothing came to me to do.
          But I could not sit in the woods and I rose and I went back down to the path and I walked again into the village and I went past the vegetable garden and there were three women there in conical straw hats and I knew their names and I knew their children and I passed the house of Tri and the house of Quang and the houses of others whose names I knew, whose children I knew, and I stopped in front of Tien's house and there was the smell of wood fire from her kitchen and the smell of incense and the dragon's head was sitting in her doorway now and smelling of paint. There was the smell of fresh paint in her doorway and they all came, gradually. Tien first and then Binh and then the others, all of them came, and my wife came and Hoa was with her and about to go away and I shook my head no and then nodded her to the circle that was forming.
          Hoa crouched beside me and Thao next to her, anxious still, I knew, and my daughter turned her face up to me and then away and I leaned near and her hair smelled of the rain, smelled of the water that we gathered in a great stone pot, as is our way here, and we believe that the spirits of our ancestors come close to us and need our prayers, the prayers in our houses with the smoke of incense rising, and I understood how odd and wonderful the air of this village was now because I came here and married and made this child. The air here was filled with the spirits of Thao's coffee farmers and tobacco farmers and woodcutters but also filled with the spirits of my clothiers and newspapermen and bankers, all drawn into this place, into my house, by our incense and our prayers, all brought together by my child, the confluence of families who were, in that invisible realm, astonished to find themselves together.
          And I said, "Each new year when I was a child, the god of the hearth went to heaven from my house in America. He came to the council of the gods and he said, There are children in this house and they sleep each night in great fear and they have places on their bodies that are the color of the sky in the highlands of Vietnam just after the sun has disappeared. And they pray, even the youngest of them, a boy, for escape and when they love each other, these children, it is to pray that each of the others escapes. And they know that this will happen for them, if at all, one at a time. And this house is empty of incense. And this house sees no spirits in the world."
          And I stopped speaking and the faces in the circle lowered their eyes in deference for me and they understood and they said no more and we all rose and we went away and that night I lay in the dark on a straw mat and my wife lay awake next to me. I could hear her faintly jagged breath and I said, "There was no woman in that life." And my wife sighed softly and her breathing grew as smooth as her body when I first touched her and I closed my eyes.
          And I thought of this place in Vietnam where I lay and how it grows coffee and it grows tobacco, and in that other life there was a time in the morning when I could slip out of the house and there was no one around but me and I knew that one day I would escape, and inside they drank coffee and smoked cigarettes and read the newspaper.

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