Nam woke to the shaking of the truck bed. Sounds of crates sliding gently on the planking as the old man shouted, Easy boy, easy with em eggs. Then the heavy thudding of boxes. Nam could see in the side-view mirror the old man counting the boxes by jabbing his finger and jotting in a small spiral notebook. Fresh eggs, ten crates. Bananas, five boxes. Pineapples, five. Barley sugar, three. Jackfruit, ten. Persimmon, five. Then the old man who had given him a ride climbed back up onto the driver’s seat. He smelled darkly of cigarettes and beer.
Got a lighter, Daddy? a voice came from behind Nam, from the truck bed.
The old man flicked his Zippo and held it back in the cab’s rear opening. Nam glanced left to see a hand with a wrist bangle hold a cigarette against the flame. The old man clapped shut his lighter. He rides with us till we get there, the old man said. Boy said he ain’t got no money for road fare. Least I got him to help me load em boxes and they ain’t light.
As the truck sped past the market, the noodle smell wafted into the cab and Nam groaned. He tried to sleep, turning his face toward the rolled-down window, and heard the old man. Know what that boy did in that liquor joint?
What? Nam said, grumbling.
Threw a knife to make a living.
I’ve seen it before. Nam stirred, eyes closed.
He kinda aroused my interest, the old man said, cos my dad when he was young that’s what he did. Hustling from town to town taking the whole family with him, my mom, me, my little sis. My mom over the years got used to standing there till Dad’s done throwing the whole set of knives at her. If I remember correctly, twelve of em. They got thin, mean-looking blades, red tassels on the handles. I don’t know why I never thought of him mis-throwing any of em knives and injuring my mom. Now sometimes I did think about it, it kinda gave me the creeps.
The old man ground the cigarette in the ash- and butt-filled tray and turned his face three-quarters toward the back. Hey boy, he called out.
What’ve you got, Daddy?
Where’d you learn throwing em knives?
Just throwing at trees when I’ve got nothing to do.
You’re pretty good at throwing at the backboards. If you’ve got to throw at a human target …You what?
Used to do that, Daddy.
You did? Who’d you throw at?
See only you here.
He’s somewhere else. On my way to hook up with him again.
Nam opened his eyes, turned and looked through the cab’s rear opening. Among stacked-up creels, crates, boxes, he saw a boy sitting with his back against the wooden rails, his cropped-hair head between his drawn-up knees, his hands clasping them. He saw the shimmering bangle that fit snugly round a thick wrist. He no longer felt sleepy. He sat up, watching the road, then turned sideways to look at the new rider and back at the road. Past a small open-air market, he could smell the rich, fatty odor of catfish. It made his stomach grumble.
Oh that devilish smell, the old man said, clucking his tongue. Bet ya it’s one of em flathead or blue cats. Fat and juicy.
You can’t beat that. Carp and cat.
Grill em over the fire till they get that buff color like a sleek skink. Make a bowl of dark fish sauce and pound in all em hot peppers and a fat juicy ginger in there and boy oh boy!
Damn, old man. You’re killing me.
Aint nothing can beat a river catfish. He spoke over his shoulder, How bout you, boy?
Fuck em. I’ll feed em to a dog.
Why? Mommy fed you catfish stead of milk so now you’re just fucked up in the head? The old man roared with laughter.
You ain’t laughing you old fart if a fucking catfish pokes one of your eyes out.
Say what? Whose eyes?
Who the fuck you think? You saw me. Do I have both eyes like you?
That’s how you came to lose an eye, eh? What’d you do? Looking for something where you shouldn’t be?
There was a silence, then the boy spoke again. Was just bending down into this vat looking for a fat juicy cat when this motherfucker jumped up in my face and next thing I knew I sat on the floor and felt my eye and tried to put my eyeball back in.
You got my sympathy, son, now that you confessed.
I wasn’t confessing. Shit. Even if I’m dying, I ain’t confessing to no monk or no priest.
Nam turned to look back and what he saw churned his stomach. Not the damaged eye, nor its sickish blue-white, the color of a rotten egg. He stared at a face, dark-skinned, thick-lipped, a low forehead sharply marked with thick soot-black eyebrows. As he watched the rider’s face, he saw him go under his open-necked shirt and pull up a neck chain. The one-eyed boy held a claw on the chain and scratched his stubbled head with it. Bluish-green tiger’s jade claw. Nam knew the color well. It had belonged to a girl he loved, his cousin.
Hey, he said to the one-eyed boy.
What? The rider stopped scratching his head and slipped the claw back under his shirt.
I heard you’re out of money.
I’ll buy that claw from ya.
What made you think I want to sell it?
Is it a thing from your family?
My thing. He put his hand on the fig carton, fingering a green-skinned fig. How much you want to pay?
My whole week’s pay.
If that makes me rich, may I call you “sir”?
To me it’s a lot, friend. I work like a dog. Seven days a week.
Work like a dog, fuck like a dog. Do I give a shit?
It’s one hundred and five thousand đồng.
You’re a fucking laborer ain’t ya?
What if I am?
That all you’ve got on you now?
If I’ve got more, so what?
Fuck it then.
Nam turned back, leaning his head hard against the headrest. The sun was too bright. It hurt his eyes. He closed them, holding his breath, then slowly exhaling until the rage simmered, quaking now in the pit of his stomach. For two long months he had been searching for the two brothers’ whereabouts. Drifters. Raped girls they came upon in their wanderings. He found his cousin at a creek; she’d been dead for two days. No clothes on. Raped, sodomized. Her neckchain was gone too. That heirloom was a tiger’s-claw-shaped jade pendant hung on a necklace. They said it kept demons away.
They got into town mid-afternoon. The old man brought the truck to the rear of the cinder-blocked market. The shanties’ back end was a cement court for delivery.
Why don’t you wait out front, the old man told them. I gotta collect the payment first.
The rider eyed him as if he was having second thoughts. Yeah, he finally said.
When the old man went inside to look for the fish dealer, Nam stepped down from the truck and headed into the market’s stalls. He walked down the noisy, smelly aisle, slimy and flecked silver with fish scales, until he saw what he needed. He talked a woman fish vendor into selling him one of the short knives she used to slit and scale fish. It had a wooden handle and a six-inch-long steel blade. He wanted something to wrap the blade, and she gave him a cleaning rag. He took it outside, walking to the last shanty, where there was a water hose that fish vendors used to wash down the floor at the end of each day. He soaked the rag, then washed and wrung it repeatedly. He shook it and smelled it. The stink was almost gone save a faint metallic odor of fish in the rag’s fabric. He squatted down, laid the knife on his thigh, and rolled it inside the cloth until the blade was wrapped tightly. He stood up and stuck the wrapped blade under the front of his pants, then dropped his shirt over the knife handle.
It began to rain. They climbed onto the front bench seat. The one-eyed boy sat in the middle with the soda can wedged between his thighs. He’d eaten half a loaf of bread he’d bought while the old man was gone. As he chewed, he swept the crumbs from his lap onto the floor.
Get there sometime after dark, right? he said to the old man.
If I drive straight, which I’m afraid I won’t, the old man said, stepping on the gas pedal as the truck hit an incline.
I can take the wheel for ya, the one-eyed boy said. Whenever.
Can I trust you? the old man said, eyes on the road.
I trust myself, the one-eyed boy said through his mouthful.
I hear you. The old man looked quickly at the two riders. You boys both from Ô Sang?
I didn’t say that, the one-eyed boy said. I said I wanted to find work there.
Work? What kind?
Any kind. Chauffeur. Bodyguard. Pimp.
The old man chortled. You’re a colorful boy, you know that? And what bout you, mister?
Ô Sang might be your kind of place. Has a fishing hamlet.
Nam said nothing. As long as it was a small town, he felt good. Even if it’d take weeks, he believed he’d find the other brother. He leaned his head back, narrowing his eyes, taking in what he hadn’t had a chance to see with his eyes, so they could remember the face: this face now inches away from his, this wiry black hair, the ears that had no earlobes and stuck to the side of the head, a black birthmark shaped like a small sickle outside the corner of the healthy eye, the short, stiff bristles that were his sideburns. But it was the good eye that he knew he must be cautious about, for it hid behind itself a cunning mind that seemed to take nothing at face value, that soured quickly on anything that ran afoul of its predatory nature.
He kept his thoughts at bay as he stretched his right leg to ease the pressure of the wrapped knife blade pressed against his thigh. The cab’s vinyl dashboard had sun-bleached cracks. It stank of stale pipe tobacco even with the windows rolled halfway down.
The old man jerked his chin toward the glove compartment. Can one of you boys get me my pipe?
Nam leaned forward and opened the compartment. It was jammed with maps, vinyl folders, rolled-up sheets of paper, napkins, two pairs of sunglasses, a black baseball cap. He cleared them with his hand and saw the pipe and a pistol. He picked up the pipe just as the one-eyed boy reached for the gun.
Leave it alone, the old man said in his dead tone.
Nice toy, the one-eyed boy said.
The pipe still had fresh tobacco in its bowl. As he drove with one hand on the steering wheel, the old man lit his pipe with a lighter, moving it around the bowl and giving it several quick puffs until it glowed evenly and a redolent smell filled the cab.
Nam looked out the window and saw a hillock, brown and dripping from the blades of sedge and long drooping leaves of stunted date palms. The truck wound its way between the hill and the woods, rising and dipping, and the rain blew the leaves onto the windshield, where they lay glued to the glass and the wiper passed over them.
The old man slowed the truck down and brought it to a stop on the roadside.
I’m gonna take a leak, he said, reaching over to open the glove compartment for his baseball cap. After putting his hat on, he patted the one-eyed boy on the shoulder. Take the wheel, will ya?
The one-eyed boy just nodded with a blank look like he’d just come back from an astral journey. The old man stood in the rain peeling off the leaves on the windshield and then headed into the woods. Then the one-eyed boy jumped out and Nam saw him leap over the small ravine and disappear behind the trees. Nam let out a sigh, then got out and relieved himself into the weedy ravine, hunching up his shoulders as rain pelted the back of his neck. Dark gray masses of thunderheads built toward the lower horizon. In the cracks of thunder, he could smell the windborn truck’s exhaust and gasoline. He walked around the front of the truck and was climbing back in when he saw the one-eyed boy come running out of the woods and dashing back to the truck. The other boy was dripping wet as he slumped in the driver’s seat, the door still open, and grabbed the wheel with both hands, panting.
Nam looked back into the woods. Where’s he, he asked the one-eyed boy.
The boy grinned, his face wet with rainwater.
Nam took another quick look toward the woods. When he turned back, he saw blood on the bangle and on the back of the one-eyed boy’s hand. You killed him? Nam shouted. You sumbitch!
The one-eyed boy took a deep breath and, arching his back, drew a knife from the waistband of his jeans. What he held was a hunter’s knife covered in a camel-colored leather sheath. There were bloodstains on the knife’s nickel-silver finger guard. He opened the glove compartment, tossed the knife in, and yanked out a handful of papers.
One of these pieces of crap must be his contract, he said, shoving them into the boy’s lap. Find the delivery address. Then he snatched the pistol and weighed it in his hand.
You didn’t have to kill him, the boy said. You fuckface!
If I knew this, damn, if I knew this . . .
Listen, golden boy. We’ll come in as partners. We’ll deliver the goods, sign the paper, grab the money, and get the hell out. You keep your trap shut and I’ll give you my neckchain. And some money.
I want that neck chain. Now.
Easy. You’ll get it when I’m ready to give it to you.
You think it’s up to you?
You do like I say. Now read the crap.
Why don’t you?
I don’t aim to read contracts for pleasure.
So you don’t know how to read?
What the fuck’s wrong with you?
The one-eyed boy fished out a map and dropped it in Nam’s lap. Look it up, he said. Nam turned it around until he could read the names of the towns they had passed through. By his estimation, another hour. The one-eyed boy caressed the pistol’s barrel with his fingers. That’s about what I figure, he said. With this stupid rain.
The boy put the folders back in the glove compartment. He stared at the hunter’s knife, the bloodstains now dark on the finger guard. He pulled himself together and shut the compartment.
The one-eyed boy glanced up in the rearview mirror, raised his rump up, and worked the pistol down behind his waistband. Fucking heaven’s gift, he said, grinning. I always wanted a toy like this. Wouldn’t trade it for my life.
Not even for your lost eye?
I can see fine with one. He put the truck in gear and soon it picked up speed descending a slope. The tires made wet hissing sounds on the blacktop. They passed another hillock and the country road became winding, with no divider to separate the lanes. The one-eyed boy hit the window glass with his fist.
Damn, just forgot his watch.
What else you take from him?
Everything except his watch and his balls.
And now his gun.
And his truck. Next subject?
Everything on you were things you stole, eh?
You got a problem?
Where’d you get that neck chain?
Not from anyone you know. So don’t ask.
Nam ran his tongue against the inside of his cheek, then across the inside of his lower lip until he felt calm.
He died quickly didn’t he?
If he knew he died.
You believe in the afterlife?
I believe in hearing no more shit from you.
Nam said nothing afterward. The rain followed them south, letting up briefly, then falling heavily again. The road was washed out in places, and when the truck hit the standing water it skidded and water splashed the windshield like going through a waterfall. There were few cars on the road. Once, a motor scooter tried to overtake their truck, but it hit a puddle of water and died. Nam could see the motorcyclist trying to push it off the road in his yellow raincoat.
It was getting dark quickly. The one-eyed boy flexed his neck now and then and tapped the steering wheel. The bangle jangled against the wheel. In the cab, dimly lit by the dashboard light, Nam could see bloodstains now black on the back of the one-eyed boy’s hand. He didn’t want any part of getting to the destination, and now as he heard the cracks of thunder and the drumming of rain on the cab’s roof, he imagined how he could get to Ô Sang if he had to start from here.
Hunger gnawed in his stomach, but it was like an afterthought. His guts suddenly tightened. No, he wasn’t to kill this boy in the truck. That ought to be outside like how this boy had taken the old man by surprise.
Then, as the truck was coming down an incline, the headlights picking up sheets of rain that blew across the road into a deep ravine, he saw another road merging with the road they were on at the bottom of the incline. The one-eyed boy rode the brake to nudge the truck onto the shoulder of the road. He put it in park and opened the door.
My fucking bladder is about to burst, he said, stepping down without looking back. He ran around the truck, across the headlights’ illumination, and turned sideways as he skidded down the ravine’s slope. From the cab, Nam could see a stand of trees at the bottom of the ravine. Shoving his shoulder into the door, he came stumbling out in the rain.
Through the soles of his sandals the earth felt slick as he slid down the ravine. His eyes stared into darkness, and he held his arms out to the sides to balance himself. He hit the bottom of the ravine. Shapes of rain-blurred trees twenty feet away. He saw the one-eyed boy, a black figure, standing to relieve himself at a tree. Nam pulled out his knife. Just as he made for the trees, his feet stepped into a rivulet. It was pebbly and muddy. He slid and fell.
The one-eyed boy turned around. He couldn’t have been more than ten feet away. Fuck it. Nam got up quickly, but his sandals were stuck in the mud. He wrenched up one foot, then the other. They plopped free. He swung the knife in an arc, regaining his balance. Then he saw a flash, a loud pop, and his legs buckled. He fell backward into the stream. A pain flared up somewhere in his leg. His mouth fell open. He could taste rain. Before he could pull himself up, the one-eyed boy was already over him.
Motherfucker, the one-eyed boy said, lowering his pistol at the opened mouth, shaking his head. Pray so I don’t kill ya … He relaxed the hand that held the pistol just as the boy freed his arm under him and drove the knife up the one-eyed boy’s guts. His hand slipped off the handle and went over the blade. The body fell on him. The knife handle hit his chest, and he heard a gurgling sound in the one-eyed boy’s throat. With a push, he shoved the other boy to the side and rolled over on his good leg. He felt a heaviness in his thigh the moment he crawled out of the water. He sat on the bank, both legs stretched out on the ground. At his feet lay the one-eyed boy. He was on his back, half of him in the water.
Nam felt his left leg. The pain pulsed. With his fingers, he could feel a hole off to the inside of his thigh, a finger length above the knee. He didn’t know if he could walk. He clenched his teeth and pushed himself up with his hands. He stood wobbly looking up the ravine and saw the small lighted shafts the truck’s headlights made in the night. He walked back to the body, biting the inside of his lower lip. He must tie up that wound. The body in the stream. His shirt would do. The hand still holding the gun lifted up from the body and Nam kicked it, knocking the gun to the ground.
You’re still alive, he said, crouching down beside the body. The face below him was dark, except the shape of the opened mouth that was drawing in air and rainwater. A weariness seeped through his bones, the hatred in him gone. He remained on his bent knees, hearing the wind gusts, the clattering rain on the leaves, the occasional gasps coming from the gaping mouth that held his gaze. Rainwater coursed down the sides of his face and fell drop by drop onto the one-eyed boy’s upturned face, into his mouth. He could see the chain around the boy’s neck. He felt for the tiger’s claw under the boy’s shirt, squeezing it in his hand. Then he bent down a handspan from the other boy’s face.
You know this thing? he said slowly, lifting the tiger’s claw. Do you know this thing? He saw the eyes flutter like they wanted to stay open but couldn’t. This thing belonged to my cousin. Yeah. Before she died. You know how she died? These two brothers raped her then killed her then dumped her body in a creek. I guess they just did it for fun. Fun. I don’t know how many girls they’d raped. But I’d thought about this for a long time. You know what I’d thought about? About those girls they raped. And their families. I figured that some of them just went on with their lives. Just have to live on, you know, cause what choice do they have? And I thought there’re some who’re not as strong. So what was done to them really screwed up their minds.
He licked rainwater from his lips, looked down at the face. The eyes had closed, the mouth remained opened but no longer drew in air, the windpipe gone silent. Even in death, the face was still rough, violent-looking. He wondered where the soul had gone to.
It took him a while, but he managed to cut off both sleeves of the boy’s shirt and then wrapped his thigh with them, one after the other. He wiped his face with the back of his hand, turned the body over, and took out the wallet. The bills he removed from the wallet were damp. The money belonging to the old man was a decent sum. He found the pistol a few feet from the boy. He wiped it against his trousers and jammed it down behind his waistband. Then he walked up to the clump of trees and hurled the knife into the woods.
He got into the cab and turned off the headlights and then the engine. He left the ignition key in, closed the door, and walked down the road. Each step he took sent shooting pain up his crotch. He moved off the asphalt and walked on the grassy edge of the road, wiping his face now and then to see better. After a while he was able to ignore the pain in his leg, like it didn’t belong to his body. Halfway down the incline he saw a light coming down the merging road. It moved so slowly he thought it wasn’t moving at all; it couldn’t be a car. By the time he reached the grassy triangle where the two roads came together, the light appeared brighter. As the light drew closer, there was a tinkling sound. It was a horse wagon. He could see that it didn’t have the thin rubber wheels of a carriage, but two large tires fitted on an automobile axle. Under the carriage’s overhanging roof sat a man in a hooded raincoat. Nam waved at the man as the wagon came near, the little bell tinkling under the horse’s neck. The man halted the wagon; the clinking stopped. The bay horse stood stamping its forelegs, its wet, black mane matted on its neck. The man peered down, taking the cigarette from his mouth. Yeah, he said, baring his gapped teeth as he nodded at Nam standing drenched in the rain.
Can I ride with you into town? Nam said, looking up at the gray-bearded man.
Tell me what town you have in mind.
What’re you doing out here at this hour?
Someone gave me a ride. But he didn’t go to Ô Sang.
What happened? The man looked down at the boy’s legs with a jerk of his chin.
Was an accident.
You got blood all over yourself. Need to see a doctor?
What doctor? The thought didn’t strike him and never had in his life.
In the town. But it’s late now.
I think I’m okay.
Outside the town, he got off and stood watching the wagon turn around and head up the dark road. When he could no longer hear the clinking of the bell, he turned to look at the tavern that sat back from the edge of the road. There was an oil lamp hung by the door but it wasn’t lit. Perhaps he could ask for a glass of water.
In the stillness came the sound of a flute. It lilted in the air. He lifted his face, listening. The sound soared until it thinned out to a sudden silence. Suddenly it took off gliding like all of its crystal-clear notes were materializing out of the white mist. Something in him stirred.
The road was wet after the rain, and as he walked on toward the sound of the flute, he could hear his sandals squelch on the blacktop. For a while there was nothing around but sawgrass and bulrush and bushwillows growing wild and thick along the roadside. His legs were tired; his head, his throat were burning. He ran his hands along the wet bushes and licked the beads of moisture off his fingers. He could hear the flute somewhere behind the mist, behind the clumps of bamboo and fruit trees. As the road bent, canopied by a pond apple tree that leaned out, thin and gray-trunked, he saw a light ahead. It was a graveyard.
He followed a low stone wall to the entrance, which was framed by two stone posts. Hung on one post was an iron-wrought gas lamp. He leaned against the post, listening to the flute soaring and dropping. The trees and the gravestones swayed with its soul-aching lilt, and then his mind started swimming away.
He did not hear the flute any longer. He yearned for it deep in the black pit of his mind. Suddenly he woke to grab a hand that touched the gun tucked behind his waistband.
Hey, a voice came from above him.
A dark, damp smell of earth got into his nostrils. He kept his cheek pressed to the wet ground, his hand securing the butt of the pistol.
He wanted to answer but couldn’t. He felt bodiless.
You got shot?
He said yeah, but only he could hear it. Then with determination he pushed himself halfway up on his hands. His eyes were blurry, his throat sand dry. You have water? he said to the figure kneeling beside him.
I’ll get you some. C’mon.
Looking at him was a boy about his age with a head full of curly hair. His deep eyes gleamed. Then he rose. Can you walk, he said.
The moment Nam willed himself to rise to his feet, he felt his leg give. Blood had soaked through the wrappings and wet his fingers as he touched them. He knew it was fresh blood. He stood bent, wrecked with the clawing pain in his thigh. Putting both hands on the wrappings, he told himself not to faint, repeating it in his head until the voice said, You’re so fucking busted. Okay, here.
The stranger gripped him under the armpits and propped him up. The dirt path going through the graveyard was just a dark line in his hazy vision. Rows of gravestones, dimly lit, sat under huge canopies of tree foliage and in their velvety black harbors the fireflies pulsed in myriad green and yellow dots. Bone tired, he felt like sitting down but his mind refused to. He hadn’t gotten very far when the stranger said, You’re burning hot. Sit down. And wait here.
Nam dropped down on the dirt path and sat on his rump with his bad leg straight out to ease the pain. The stranger had gone down the path and disappeared into the blackness of the graveyard. Is this where he lives? His eyes closed, he tucked his chin against his chest. He could smell his own shirt, dank and musty. It was so quiet that he could hear the sawing of insects deep in the earth, the croaking of frogs among the weedy graves.
The sound of wheels woke him. The stranger was coming up the dirt path pulling a wooden handcart. It was painted rusty red with two spoked wheels. The stranger swung the cart around and dropped the back end to the ground. Get in, he said.
Nam lay down on his back on the tilted cart and it trundled down the path. A fish odor hung in the cart. When the cart stopped, it was in front of a cluster fig tree in a corner of the graveyard. On one of the tree’s low branches was hung a burning kerosene lamp.
He propped himself up on his elbow, fixing his gaze on a car, black as an otter, that sat under the tree. The derelict car was doorless, seatless, sitting on the four tires completely flat. He leaned his head against the side planks. You have any water? he said.
The stranger walked around the tree and moments later came back with a can of water. Nam drank, lifting his chin until the can was empty and then sat panting, holding the empty tin can that had once held condensed milk. The stranger bent to look at the bloodstained wrappings.
You got shot, bud? he said, glancing up.
Tell you what. I can put something in there so you won’t bleed to death. Eh?
Take off em wrappings.
The boy pulled up his leg, untied the shirt sleeves, and then held them up, now damp with blood, so the stranger could look at the wound. The stranger felt around the thigh and put his finger on a hole in back of the pants. The bullet got out, he said. Then he went behind the tree and returned with a pail in one hand and a round canister in the other. He washed the bloody shirt sleeves in the pail, wringing them several times. Here goes all my fucking rainwater just for you, bud, he said. You mind telling me your name?
Nam. Your drinking water?
Shit yeah. Best water there is.
And what’s your name?
Phát’s the name. The curly-headed boy handed him the washed sleeves and opened the canister to pick up a handful of crushed leaves. Then he spread them over the blackish, mushy holes of the wound and patted them down. He stood back and wiped his hand on his trousers.
Nam rewrapped his wound. He felt a heaviness in his eyelids and unbearably hot in his body. Only he didn’t sweat, and he knew it was because he had lost so much blood. When he was done wrapping his thigh, Phát said, Tell you sumthin. You stay here and you’d probably never wake up again tomorrow.
I hear you, the boy said resignedly. I’ll be going.
That’s another three kilometers. You aint talking in your sleep are you?
I think I can hold up. What’s that stuff you just put on me?
Some leaves. It ain’t help to know the name, but it’d help so you won’t get infection.
I thank you. I just feel awfully hot that’s all.
I know em fever. That’s why you can’t stay here. And I aim to take you to the abbot.
He helped fix me up when I got bit by a snake. Here in this fucking graveyard. Or I woulda been in one of these graves here you’re looking at.
Who’re you talking about?
The old head monk. Lives in the pagoda yonder. Phát put away the canister and came back. He got himself between the pull bars and said, Hold on tight, bud. Nam felt the cart trundling away again, creaking and bouncing over the dirt mounds. He lay flat on his back, his legs dangling over the back end’s rim. He looked up at the sky, so low with a rising mist it seemed to skim the treetops. A nightjar called in a tree. The empty road echoed the dull sound of the cart’s wheels, past sandy hills thick with pond apple trees, and before long he could smell seawater in the breeze.
Hey? he called out to Phát again.
You play flute?
Been known to.
I heard you play. You’re good. How long you been playing?
Since I started having pubic hair.
How come you ended up staying in the graveyard? They let you squat there?
So I can keep an eye on em ghosts at night.
But why a graveyard?
Cause it’s the only place that took me in.
Nam turned on his side, propping himself up on his elbow, and looked at the figure clad in a black polo shirt and dark colored jeans. The boy thought of the coolies who pulled carts where he came from and knew why the thought came to him. He felt grateful to the stranger.
He had been under the old monk’s care for two weeks. He could walk now without much pain from the thigh wound, and during the convalescence he got some new clothes and personal items that he bought by asking a novice to go to the town. He cut his hair and shaved his beard. In a small cracked mirror above the wash basin he looked at his naked face. It took him awhile to accept it.
One night, from the pagoda, he heard the flute again. From the edge of the back garden rimmed with whistling pines and wide-canopied rain trees, with their tiny leaves folded after dark, he could see the graveyard below where the hill dropped into blackness. The lamp at its gate burned like a yellow, wakeful eye.
It was a long walk from the pagoda to the graveyard, yet the downward slope of the winding road eased the strain on his legs. He passed knolls that suddenly shuddered, a twitch in the sand from a darting skink. Some nameless living thing, deep in the trees’ horse-tail-shaped leaves rustled the dried pine cones. The wind sung softly through the wispy gray twigs that harbored a dark scent as old as the earth.
The squatter’s kerosene lamp was burning low on the tree limb. Nam stood watching the derelict car and the shadows the wind made on the blue cloth that hung down from the sides to cover what used to be the doors. He listened to the nocturnal sounds, constantly sawing and chattering, that came rising up from beneath the earth, from clumps of saltwater grass and mats of creeping devil’s grass. Scattered in the night were flickering lights, placed on the graves to keep watch, to keep demons at bay. The lights would burn until dawn, coming and going behind the windblown grass.
Nam turned up the lamp wick. Shadows paled, fading from the cloth-covered doors. Phát was asleep, sitting up, leaning back against the car. He woke the moment the lamp brightened.
Hey, you, Phát called from inside the car.
I heard your flute, Nam said. Thought you might’ve been up.
Do I know you? Phát crawled out.
Phát walked to the lamp and lowered the wick. Hey, he said, don’t fucking play with my lamp.
Was a little dark when I came in.
Didn’t you see me sleeping? Are you from around here?
Damn. You took me up to the pagoda and you forgot?
Phát pushed the lamp toward the visitor and brought up the wick. What the hell, he said. It’s you, bud.
The boy looked around for a place to sit. Then he sat on a gravestone, beyond the sphere of light. The stone was a weathered, worn marker, defaced of its inscription. So what’ve you been up to? he said.
Same, same, Phát said. You still up there?
Yeah. Probably not for long. He watched Phát search for something in the tree-mounted bin. He drew out a pack of cigarettes.
Phát lit a cigarette with a match and blew it out. You moving around pretty well now ain’t ya, he said.
Getting there. Hey, thanks.
Never asked you before, but hey where ya from?
Ain’t it a long way from here unless you got some business to do.
He grinned, eyeing Phát. The other boy’s profuse, curly locks dangled over his brow. Phát stood up and went back to the tree bin, speaking without turning his head. I’m hungry, are you?
I thought you already ate before sleep.
Is that what people do? Phát turned around and held up two Styrofoam cups of ramen. Well, you want to eat or not?
Phát brought out a crate and a brazier. He set the brazier on top of the crate and lit the coals. His match went out before the coals were lit and he tried again, letting the match burn to his fingertips. The coals rose in tiny blue tongues of flame. He went behind the tree again and came back with the condensed-milk can and set it on the brazier. Then he sat down on one of the tree roots, hands clasping his ankles.
So where’re you bound to? Phát said, squinting at Nam with his deep-set eyes.
Maybe to the fishing hamlet.
Don’t tell me you’re a fisherman.
Don’t see why not.
I know somebody down that way. Might help ya out.
What did you do before?
Was hauling fish they brought in. Tons of em. Took em to their trucks fore they went off to fish markets.
You retired now? the boy said with a small laugh.
Yeah, yeah, retired and rich. Phát grinned. His teeth were very white.
The boy remembered the fish odor in the handcart. You got that cart there from them? he asked Phát.
That? Yeah. Traded for it.
What sort of things did he trade with? The can boiled, puffing up steam. Phát peeled off the paper lids on the cups and, wrapping his hand with a piece of cloth, lifted the can and poured boiling water into each ramen cup. Then he resealed the lids.
Here, he said, giving Nam one of the cups and a plastic spoon.
They ate. The brazier was burning red and the wind scattered its smoke in the air. Don’t you want to put it out? the boy said, spooning up noodles.
It keeps out the fucking mosquitoes, Phát said, then slurped up the broth and licked his lips. Hey, you still want a job down there?
That’s what I aim to do.
Look up the foreman. Tell him I sent you.
I will. Thanks.
When you get the job, remember me.
I will. He wiped his lips with the heel of his palm. How come you quit what you got?
Fish stink. Phát burped. I fucking hate it. Besides I’m not cut out for that type of work. There aint but three things in life I don’t do. I don’t work for nobody. I don’t want nobody to stand on my shadow. I don’t take a bath.
Hate feeling wet.
The boy gathered noodles and bits of carrots and peas onto the spoon. Phát leaned against the tree, cupping his hand over the cigarette. Where’d you get that gun, he said.
The boy narrowed his eyes at Phát, thought, and said, From the guy who shot me.
I remember. You killed the dude. Where’s it now?
Phát cracked a grin. I want to buy it from you.
You need a gun for what? Shooting ghosts?
I have enemies.
I ain’t selling no gun to nobody.
Would love to shoot it. I’ll buy you ammo. Would you let me shoot it?
I’ll think about it.
Where you shot him at?
Nam just shook his head. Crazy sumbitch.
Where? Pow pow eh.
You’re nuts. Now I can see why you sleep sitting up.
Aint nothing wrong with it, is there?
You tell me.
I used to have all kinds of fucking bad dreams, that’s why.
Phát nodded. He ran his fingers through his hair, paused and scratched the top of his head. You ever slept with a blindfold over your eyes? he said arching his eyebrows. Even that wouldn’t help. Kept seeing em comin.
Who were coming?
Why’d they come?
To fucking get even with me, that’s why.
For something you did? To them? The boy, dipping his head slightly, peered across at Phát.
I figure that much myself.
Nam rubbed the underside of his chin. Maybe you can ask the old monk.
Did. He said it’s my conscience that bothers me. He he. My conscience is me. Why’d I want to bother my old self is what I can’t fucking put together.
What did he say to that?
He didn’t say nothin cos I didn’t tell him none of what I thought bout it. Long as I keep that lamp there burning I could sleep alright.
You keep it on all night?
Not all night. It’ll burn out.
Then they’d come?
Nah. But sometimes she did.
The one who died in that car. Phát leaned his head toward the derelict car.
That car, Nam said in a disbelieving tone.
In real. First time she came like in the fucking dark of the night, I thought this girl was some looney. Know what she said? Wouldn’t want nothing but stay in the dark with you, said I’ll come back, and before morning she’s gone.
Gone, Nam said with a frown, gone where?
No fucking where. Just gone. Stepped out of that car and gone.
She told you she died in that car?
Did. Her family had it towed here next to her grave.
Nam looked where Phát pointed but couldn’t make out which grave beyond the rim of the lamplight. They don’t mind you staying in that thing? Nam said, jerking his chin toward the car.
Never seen none of em. That thing must be at least fifty years old if they still making any fuckin road wheels like that.
That’s half a century and how old is she? This thing, I mean, that girl … well.
She ain’t somebody just died in town and got buried here, that’s all I said.
She told you that also?
She told me she died in that car and that’s what I told you, cos I didn’t bother with nobody long fucking dead and she kept me spent till she left every time.
Fucked me, that’s what she did.
She must’ve been taken by your flute, I imagine. Nam laughed, shaking his head.
Phát clasped his hands on his chest, slid down resting his head against the grave marker. He began to whistle. The boy didn’t recognize the tune. Yet he felt taken by its melody. Head bowed, hands locked between his knees, he sat nodding to the tune.
When he looked up, he saw a green snake slithering its way down the mistletoe-trailed trunk of a rain tree. Phát watched it, too. As the snake crept up on the grass, Phát tore one of his cigarette stubs and rolled the tobacco shreds between his thumb and forefinger. The snake raised its head, darting its tongue with a hiss. Nam watched, tensed, and Phát flicked his thumb, sending a tiny wad of tobacco toward the snake. Quickly the snake struck it with its jaw. Phát flipped it another wad and the snake struck it again. Moments later he snapped his fingers and waved the snake off. It didn’t leave right away, but posed its triangle-shaped head in midair for a moment before deciding to withdraw.
The boy watched the snake glide up the tree trunk, following a leafy branch where a wasp nest hung at a split, and then disappear in the black-green foliage.
How did you get em snakes hooked on tobacco? he asked Phát.
I aint no snake charmer. Them sumbitches just came out one night and tasted the leftover rice liquor. By and by they tried the cigarette stubs. You just have to know how to turn enemies into friends, that’s all. He paused and belched. Whew. I’m burning hot. Maybe just get me em fruit over there and I can sleep for fuck’s sake.
Em fruit. Look like berries. Taste like berries. They just sting your tongue that’s all. Eat a few of em and your tongue goes numb and then you start seeing things, ghosts and demons and weird creatures coming out of the bowels of the earth. Eat a handful and you be a lovely corpse if you’ve lived fast.
How often have you tried?
As often as losing sleep.
Even sleeping sitting up?
When my time comes, I won’t need but some signs in the sky.
Things like circles round the moon, or a dark haze over it when you don’t even see a damn cloud in the sky. Evil things. Just looks real spooky. Rainbow at night. Yin and yang are fucking out of order. Comets and shooting stars. Misery falling on you.
Damn. When did you turn out to be a prophet. Nam sighed, scratching his head with the pointed tip of his neck chain’s claw.
Just keep your eyes open, Phát said, turning his face toward the boy who sat on the fringe of lamplight. Say, where you got that thing.
What thing? This? Mine.
Phát screwed his eyes to look. Shit.
You fixed to buy anything you lay your eyes on ain’t ya.
I don’t want it. My bro he has one just like that.
The boy stopped scratching. He did?
Exactly like that.
And where he got it from?
Shit, if you ask me.
Phát grinned. No, paid for it on credit.
Yeah. Where is he now?
Shit if I know. We kinda split up cos of our different interests. I suspect he’s bound to show up around here sooner or later.
Which one of you is older?
Just you and him?
We’re buddies. Orphans like us we kinda bonded together. Went everwhere together.
You’re not twins?
Fuck no. I’m much better looking than him.
What bout him?
What does he look like?
Ain’t look nothing like me. Phát sat up, lit another cigarette, and blew the smoke into the palm of his hand. He ain’t so lucky you know. Stupid enough to stick his head in a vat of catfish and got struck in the eye. He got just one eye and was mean like a catfish.
Nam rubbed his face, his head feverish. He stood up, looking away and back at Phát. The turbulent feeling was neither hate nor rancor. But it didn’t go away.
I better get going, he said.
I’ll be here, bud.
Khanh Ha is the author of Flesh (2012, Black Heron Press) and The Demon Who Peddled Longing (November 2014, Underground Voices). He is a three-time Pushcart nominee and the recipient ofGreensboro Review’s 2014 Robert Watson Literary Prize in Fiction. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Waccamaw Journal, storySouth, Greensboro Review, Permafrost Magazine, Saint Ann’s Review, Moon City Review, The Long Story, Red Savina Review, DUCTS, ARDOR, Lunch Ticket, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Sugar Mule, Yellow Medicine Review, Little Curlew Press, Mount Hope, and other journals.