THE WRITERS POST
VOLUME 4 NUMBER 2
UYEN NICOLE DUONG
The ghost of Ha Tay
(Dedicated to the soul of my aunt)
--“TELL ME ABOUT HER,” HE SAID, ROLLING THE “R” OF THE LAST word, the refined European accent alienating him from the chipped, nineteen seventy-ish furniture of my incense-filled, run-down workshop in mid-town Houston. I was pressing my elbows onto my humble veneer desktop, hunching my shapeless five foot three body over it, when the towering tall white man handed me the rumpled, stained name card that spoke of the long journeys and hard trips so different from the first class cabin of international airlines. I thought, instead, of slow, sleepy trains and noisy, rusty buses crawling across Southeast Asia, carrying inside them compartments and wooden benches where people and chickens competed for the same narrow space, stopping along rest stations where peddlers waved dusty white rice cakes in the haggard face of tired passengers.
I glanced at the black bold type face that was supposed to identify my unexpected visitor and found, instead, the name of a woman:
Paris. London. Milan. New York City.
I recognized the name of the international law firm, which brought me back to my days at the University of Saigon in the early 70s, when I was once famous enough to be blacklisted by the government as an anti-war student, draft evader, and anti-government columnist. Back then, I had heard of the French-founded, oldest law firm in America, which sent its lawyers to Saigon to serve the needs of American businesses -- from the international adoption of war orphans to the acquisition of supplies and materials and the hiring of local labor for defense contractors.
I looked into the deep blue eyes underneath curly lashes and thought of the Mediterranean sea I once dreamt of as a boy growing up in Vietnam. The square angle of the jaw line spelled beauty on a man not more than thirty five years of age, reminding me of all those French movie stars who lived in Loire castles and symbolized my childhood fantasies about travelling to old Europe. Those days, I had dreamt, too, of the gleaming body of the Seine on one autumn day, when yellow and red leaves flew in the air, dancing to the vibrant music of Berlioz.
“St. Exupery and His Little Prince, that is your type,” I said. For a moment, he frowned, perhaps genuinely surprised, before nodding his curly blond head. I saw before me the ardent, innocent, and watery eyes of the grown up version of the Little Prince, tall and lanky, already aging and tired of life at 35, yet still looking for his rose. One Jasmine Khai.
He had introduced himself to me as Jean Paul Lambert, formerly with Agence France Presse. I prided myself on belonging to the same breed of men – the journalistic type.
“You must know her,” he said almost pleadingly. “She said she used to live here and would return here.”
He had not forgotten the primary purpose of his visit. He was a man desperately looking for a woman. In a split second, all cultural barriers collapsed, and I saw so distinctly the faces of all the Vietnamese men who had come to me looking for girlfriends or mistresses in the old country. They all looked alike, bearing in their soul and on their face the despair of a lover.
I grabbed the old business card he had handed me with what was left of my right hand, three banana fingers to be exact. The missing two fingers had been donated to the American dream, I always bragged about memories of the earlier days of my immigrant existence. Straight out of a refugee camp, I ended up in Houston as a meat chopper for a slaughter house. Occupational hazard led to my fond memory of the ambulance chaser attorney – the first white man I knew in America, who advised me to give up workers compensation in exchange for a lawsuit settlement that helped me set up my workshop. My workshop was the price of the two missing fingers.
I was waiting for my visitor to inquire about the missing fingers, but no question came my way. He stirred anxiously in his chair, oblivious to my famous trademark – Uncle Ten’s missing banana fingers, that was. He was a lover all right, completely absorbed in the reminiscence of his woman.
“A lawyer?” I probed. “Avocat de cours?” I added in French. “Coudert has never had any office in Houston.” I waited for a reaction. There was none. I continued, “Maybe it’s just a woman….”
“She isn’t any woman,” he wasted no time cutting me off, his beautiful accented voice sounding rush and impatient. I took one more look at his boyish face. Perhaps he wasn’t just any man.
I had been in this workshop for twenty years and no white man had set foot in my territory, let alone one that took me back to my own boyhood dreams, typical of middle-aged Vietnamese men who loved and hated the renaissance culture of Indochina’s colonists, just as they had embraced and, at the same time, rejected the entrepreneurial spirit of America. It was 1999 and the big boys of Texas who once occupied their high-rent offices in uptown and downtown Houston had gradually moved into the Vietnamese neighborhood mid-town, tearing down old buildings and putting up stucco facades for overpriced condominiums and offices. They helped change the face of Houston that way. Yet I had held steadfast to my own little shop, refusing their offers to abandon the sanctuary that land-marked my Vietnamese neighborhood. Outside my front gate, I put up a pole with the South Vietnamese flag. On the window, I imprinted a drawing of the ying and the yang, symbolic of my Taoist philosophy. I put no sign or name plate on the unobtrusive wooden door, protected by thick, black iron fences and the intercom system that forced my unexpected visitors to announce their names before they could gain entry to the square hole where I practiced my trade. And art.
I’d like to think of my home-made, one-man-show newsletter, and all that came with it, as a genuine art. The art of reading my people and making that mystical connection to a former homeland. Mine was the one and only Vietnamese publication that recounted the unusual stories of a culture in exile, all those extraordinary tales no one could verify, disprove, or refute. I once typed all my stories and corrected typos with an ink pen, photocopied my original on an old, beat-up Xerox machine, and distributed copies at Asian grocery stores all over town. The format and appearance of my publication had improved through the years, as I replaced the old IBM self-correcting typewriter of the 70’s with a desktop computer connected to a laser printer typifying the late 90s. I also purchased a better Xerox machine. The content of my newsletter, though, had maintained its essential characteristics. There were Vietnamese who thought of my work as gossipy trash. Others regarded it with awe, calling it the borderline between science and spirituality. My fans were always conscious of my name -- I was the famous, infamous Uncle Ten, Cau Muoi, former journalist in the old country, self-made entrepreneur, one-man publishing house, Houston’s only Vietnamese psychic, private eye, and Jack of all trades. All Vietnamese businesses in Houston, regardless of size and type, had been my advertisers at one time, supporting my leisurely lifestyle and the growth of my one-man newsletter – the Vietnamese appetite for the bizarre and misfit. The publication was almost as old as the history of Vietnamese resettlement in Houston, Texas, since the communist takeover of Saigon in 1975.
Uncle Ten’s workshop could mean different things to Vietnamese, but it had never been the visiting place for a white man. Until this day.
“Burn an incense stick,” my grown-up Little Prince urged. Obviously he had heard of my routine. He had done his homework.
--“WATER, PLENTY OF WATER, CHRYSTAL CLEAR, I CAN SEE THE bottom of a stream, all those smooth pebbles and white gravel lying silently, witnessing, “ I said, squinting. All blinds had been closed. Sun ray had no place in my hours of meditation. In the film of incense smoke, the white man’s face had lost its boyish grin. The gravity of his expression confirmed I was on the right path.
I went on to describe the epitome of a perfect Asian woman. Waist small enough to fit in some white man’s stretch of a hand. Eyes wetted with self-sacrificing tears and almond-shaped, like boats that carried midnight dreams. Mouth too demure to become nagger of criticism or complaints. A leaf-like stature willowy in the wind but stoic enough to take the abuse of man and fate. I was describing my own dream version of Madame Butterfly.
--“Orchid. Mauve pink is the color of lips and flesh,” I blurted out, and my visitor’s face became whiter than a sheet.
--“Blueberry fields,” I added, and watched him close his eyes. I told him what happened when mauve turned violet, and rose lips and flesh turned purple. They all blended in with blueberry fields. I might have seen a tear dropping from the lash curtains covering the blue eyes of an emotional man. If his eyes were the sky, it had turned stormy at the sound of my words. All due to the deep, purplish color of blueberry fields.
--“So you know her,” he said. I deliberately stayed quiet, neither refuting nor affirming. I was Uncle Ten, man of cosmos. I was supposed to know everything. That was understood.
When the lash curtains unveiled and he opened his large blue eyes to stare at me again, I saw the turmoiled emotions of memory relived, and knew it would be his turn to speak.
“IT WAS MY FIRST TRIP TO INDOCHINA AND I FOUND IT TO BE A strange land. My daily thoughts and images were registered in my mind like an express train traversing a stormy night, cutting through thunder and rain. Even the plush, yet somber furniture of the newly renovated Metropole had that flashback effect on my mind -- I felt constantly in a dream, especially at around 10 o’clock at night, when I floated through the hotel lobby toward the music bar. There I would review my notes for the day over a glass of after-dinner liquor, widely awake as an observer, yet dream-like as a participant.
“I had never been able to rationalize, dissect, or understand that dream-like state.
“The dream-like state stayed with me even in broad daylight when I rushed through the small alleys of sleepy Hanoi, in and out of rundown government buildings and villas where Ho Chi Minh portrait smiled his paternal smile upon his socialist-bureaucrat descendants. It was Uncle Ho’s same signature smile, in war and in peace.
“The dream-like state persisted when, at sunset, I ran along Hanoi’s misty, pacifying lakes and rustic temples, capturing into my pupils the vestige of France in what was left of old Indochina. You see, I was born in Paris, in 1965, son of an aging father who married late and had spent time in Indochina. The colony to me was once a set of black and white photographs, which turned into life only after I began my international assignment with Agence France Presse, all happening at a time when France had just returned to her favorite colony by buying and renovating what she once owned almost a hundred years ago: the landmark Metropole Hotel in central Hanoi.
“I made my home in the Metropole and learned my routine quickly, accepting my hypnotic, dream-like state as part of what Indochina had instilled in me those days.
“Every Wednesday night, the music bar of the Metropole had a special quartet that featured the piano, the flute, the violin, and the cello in an array of popular classical and modern pieces. The quartet played everything from Pachebell’s Cannon in D to Le Docteur Zivago. The young, skinny classical musicians of Vietnam who became Metropole lounge performers impressed me with the way they held their instruments against their slender frame, much more profoundly than with the sound they made. The poignant dignity they portrayed could only be matched by nostalgic Indochina herself.
“One such Wednesday night became memorable, when I looked up from my notes and found a young woman singing with the quartet. She looked so out of place, dressed in Western clothes – a long, black, clinging knit dress and matching cardigan. She was not exceptionally beautiful, especially in a country full of beautiful and slender women moving like butterflies in their graceful, body-fitting ao dai. I didn’t find them particularly attractive. Too fragile and naďve, like the young limbs of children or vases that could easily break. I didn’t want to handle anything with that much care, especially in my constant dream-like state.
“MY MIND THOSE DAYS WAS LIKE THAT TRAIN PASSING THROUGH the night with its rhythmic motion, amidst thunder flashing against a distorted, blackened horizon. She was the only real thing in that horizon of dream. We used to meet every Wednesday night after her performance. She showed me her American passport and gave me the business card you now hold in your hand. She told me she was a lawyer travelling from Houston, Texas, to Hanoi, Vietnam to re-establish an office for Coudert Brothers after its nineteen-year absence from the country. What was a Coudert lawyer doing in the Metropole Hotel, singing Vietnamese music? I once asked, and she answered with a question. What was a young French newsman doing in a music bar at eleven o’clock at night listening to Vietnamese love songs he could not understand? Le cauchemare, mon pere, et L’Indochine, I could have said, but of course she had no business knowing about my nightmare or my father, and I had no business telling. Agence France Presse and Coudert Brothers brought us together, she said, and I readily agreed. We were two adults from two separate places, intertwined by history, roaming an exotic place for a past of which we knew nothing, she added. Again, I readily agreed.
“It was such an odd feeling to have this stranger, a Vietnamese woman you just met, hold the key to your room, open it, slip in, and stretch herself down on your bed. From that point on, she became the steam from an herbal tea pot, colorless yet distinctive. She permeated into the air, filling my space, my soul, unable to break, neither yielding nor conquering, never letting go. Making love to her was like descending into myself, without seeing a path. I returned to the center of me, in a web I could not understand.
“Naturally, there came a time when Wednesday nights in the Metropole became the core of my existence in Hanoi, and being without her meant being engulfed in a total void. My former life in Paris seemed so far away it existed no more. In that state of mind, I discovered one night how she had always held more than just the key to my hotel room.
“I followed her once from the Metropole hotel out to the cemented alleys of Hanoi. We walked under Hanoi’s moonlight, with her running ahead of me, laughing backward, in the same clear voice that sang those incomprehensible songs during our Wednesday night routines.
“Move on, Jean Paul,” she said, and I moved toward the trace of moonlight that shone onto her heels. We walked on, with me following her, as though the whole night had just begun.
“WEEKS WENT BY. MY LIFE MOVED ON AND I RETURNED TO MY Hanoi routine with wire service assignments and my transient newsman’s existence at the Metropole Hotel, except that she no longer came to me on Wednesday nights. The quartet was still playing in the music bar, but she was gone. I waited and waited for any kind of news.
“The news finally came when a handwritten note was delivered to my room one day. I was to hire a car and a chauffeur and she would meet me for a day trip to the mountainous areas west of Hanoi. Her job in Vietnam was finished and she would soon be returning to Houston, Texas. The handwritten note contained all of the necessary instructions for my driver to follow.
‘We must have a proper farewell away from Hanoi,’ the last line of the note said.
“The car passed through the red dirt hills near the dam Yen Phu overlooking the Red River, onto the bridge of Phung Thuong, and stopped at the green foothills of the Tan Vien range, where the dirt road leading to the foothills could no longer accommodate four-wheeled transport. She was standing by the dirt road waiting for me, dressed in black satin pantaloons and a white silk blouse like a proper Vietnamese girl of the olden days. A black silky shawl covered half of her face and draped over her shoulders. I could hardly see the flow of her hair on such a hard, windy day.
“It was the second time I saw her in broad daylight.
“I got off the car and she held my hand and led me into the hilly range ahead of me, almost reddish against the mid-afternoon sun. She told me we were in the province of Ha Tay, land of freedom fighters and poets. An ox-pulled cart sluggishly passed by us, stirring up the red dirt, competing hopelessly with curious moped drivers who bumped their vehicles up and down the road, their head turning backward for a glimpse of us as an odd couple – a tall blond Westerner and a Vietnamese girl dressed in a traditional countryside outfit. The villages and hamlets of north Vietnam spread themselves before my inquisitive eyes and I followed, again, the dancing heels of my companion. I moved in a trance in the foreign landscape of wet farm land, dotted with little, brown-faced people who bent their skinny back over green rice paddies.
“We kept moving until I heard the sound of a waterfall.
’There, Jean Paul,’ she pointed, pulling her scarf down to show me her face.
“I looked at the oval face accented by those mauve colored lips I had come to love, just in time to see the pair of dark eyebrows raising in a mysterious expression of challenge. I followed the tip of her finger toward the horizon afar to catch sight of the body of water, sapphire clear underneath the reddish sun. It was just a pond or a stream, not a waterfall after all, although the melody of cascading water passing through rocks jingled in the air, mixed with the pleasant chirping sounds of singing birds. Beyond the sparkling water was a purplish, deep blue forest, standing against a pale blue horizon crisscrossed with darting arrows of reddish light streams.
“It was a breathtaking sight.
“A perfect place reserved for love. Hers and mine, I thought.
“She was much shorter than I and, tilting on her toes, she reached for my face, her arms wrapping around my neck. The mauve orchid lips quickly touched mine. Vaguely I tasted the tangy sweetness of blueberries.
--‘Watch, Jean Paul, the blueberry fields. Vietnamese blueberries. The Sim Tim,’ her sweet voice engulfed my ears.
“She let go of me and walked toward the purplish blue of the horizon.
’Jasmine,’ I called her name. She stopped and turned and the sweet voice continued along with the chirping birds:
--‘The girl’s name was Khai, Jean Paul. She was washing clothes by the stream. Near the blueberry fields.’
“I moved. She let go of the scarf. It flew toward me. Backward, against the wind. I could hear her words in all that thin air.
‘Three French legionnaires found her. They tore up her clothes and held down her limbs. They took turns, Jean Paul.’
“The scarf hit my face. Gently, so gently. Yet, I bent down in pain.
‘They could just have left her there. But one Frenchman raised the rifle.’
“The scarf was covering up my eyes and I could no longer see her face. I heard her words still.
--‘Blood spurted from her forehead and she fell backward. Into the stream. The water was once so clear before it turned brutally red. Her lips, bruised and cut, were still the shade of mauve pink.’
--‘No, Jasmine,’ I cried out in vain. Through the scarf, I saw her face. It was growing larger and larger, out of proportion. From the corner of my eyes, her lips looked purplish blue.
--‘The villager found her two days later, floating down the stream, toward the blueberry fields. Her lips had turned purple, Jean Paul.’
“I scraped the scarf off my face and let it fly. I looked into the horizon of blueberry fields and no longer saw her face.
‘Farewell, Jean Paul,’ I heard her voice for the last time.
“I SPENT THE NEXT THREE YEARS OF MY LIFE TRAVELLING ALL over Vietnam looking for the owner of that scarf. I longed for the familiar shade of orchid pink in lips that turned lavender and then purplish at nighttime.
“I never found her. Nor those vivid colors and shapes that haunted my memory since then.
“FIND HER FOR ME AT ANY RATE, S’IL VOUS PLAIT,” MY GROWN-UP version of The Little Prince said to me, his blue eyes searching urgently for a promise.
I was Uncle Ten, man of cosmos. I should have made such a promise. But I didn’t.
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