The Robert Watson Literary Prize Story HEARTBREAK GRASS

Spring 2014: Issue 95

Khanh Ha

There was a man who lived in my district and this man had gone South to fight the Americans and when he came back a year and a half later he had no arms, no legs, and he was blind.

I called him Uncle, like us youngsters would address our seniors. Uncle Chung was thirty-one when he returned home as a quadruple amputee. A blind war veteran. I was eighteen and about to be drafted to join those destined for the South. When I saw Uncle Chung the first time I knew why many boys my age grew alarmed of being drafted into the army. Uncle Chung used to work as a machinist. He was once a big man. But the first time I saw him, limbless, he looked to me more like a freak I saw years later in the South, a country boy burned by napalm, so far gone he looked during nighttime like a glowworm, and his father would charge each neighborhood kid ten xu to come into the house to watch the human mutant.

I saw Uncle Chung on a day the herbalist I worked for sent me over to the man’s house with the medicine. The medicine. Always the medicine. And the wife. Each time Uncle Chung’s wife came to the shop to consult with the herbalist, I would hang back from leaving, sometimes to run an errand, so I could listen to her melodious voice and steal glances at her while trying to look busy in the shop. She was perhaps in her mid-twenties but looked older with the way she rolled her hair up and tucked it into a bun, so when she turned her head you could see the long curving nape of her neck. White or pale blue was the color of the blouse she wore. Just white or pale blue. And always the first customer in when the shop had just opened. The early morning light would cast a pallor on her face, and her ink-black eyebrows only made her face paler. Yet despite the anemic white of the undernourished, the unwell look, she was pretty. The city was full of women her age and older. Now and then you saw men—many had gone South and most of them never returned.

One rainy morning I went to their house with the herbal medicine. Down an alley through the standing water floating with trash to a stucco-yellow matchbox dwelling in a housing project. Its green door was left ajar. Stepping in I heard a man’s singing voice:

If I were a dove

I’d be a snow-white dove.

Spring and then summer.

The flowers, the flowers, the flowers.

You say aren’t they pretty

And I say

Aren’t they really.

I looked down at a man sitting on a pallet. The gruff voice stopped, the man turned his face toward the door. His skin, his eyeballs were yellow, the mucus yellow. I couldn’t tell if he was blind, but I could tell those eyes had the look of fake eyes you put in stuffed animals. But his song about the pretty flowers struck me. What would he see now but his own disturbed memories? He kept nodding—I wasn’t sure if he had any control of it—and he had a large head matted with tousled black hair that covered his ears and the collar of his shirt. The old olive-colored army shirt, with its long sleeves cut off, revealed the stumpy ends of his severed arms. You could see the rotten-wood brown of the flesh—what was left of his upper arms.

I told him I brought him the medicine and as I spoke I looked at his full wiry beard. If his wife refused to shave it for him, I thought, it’d one day hang down to his neck. Then his torso. He must have been a big man, aside from his large head, for the only part left of him filled out his army shirt. His torso was as thick as a boar. He wiggled on his rump. “Make me a pipe,” he said as if he knew me, or I were someone he used to boss around.

I stood eyeing him, a squat hunk of meat sitting on two slabs of flesh called thighs. What looked like his shorts were a pair of army trousers shorn at the knees.

“Don’t stand there!” he snapped at me, his voice as viscous as if spoken through a mouthful of glutinous rice.

“I brought you your medicine, Uncle,” I said and bent to put the herb packet next to a water pipe that sat before him. It was a long bamboo pipe in old yellow, and near the end with the bowl to receive the tobacco, the yellow had become stained with black smoke. The pipe stood on an angle, harnessed by a wide bamboo strip that went around the trunk and came down to rest on the ground like a mortar tube on its bipod.

“Make the pipe,” he said. “Then you can go.”

I just shook my head at his authoritative voice.

“Don’t you know how to light a pipe? Boy?”

“I do, Uncle.”

“Then light my damned pipe. And get out!”

Light your own bong! But I stopped short of ridiculing him. I didn’t pity him. At first sight, he struck me as freakish. An overbearing freak. Then I thought I’d better set the tone for myself.

“You’ll see a lot of me, Uncle,” I said to him politely, “as long as you need Chinese medicine. And I don’t take orders. Not from strangers.”

“You a prince?” His voice twanged. “Some sort of a pampered shit?”

“If I were, Uncle, I wouldn’t be here bringing you this measly medicine.”

“Did your pa teach you manners? Or is he too busy making drugs?”

“My ma and pa died a long time ago.”

“So you’re an orphan. No wonder.”

“I can behave, Uncle.”

My calm voice had him lost for a moment. He rotated his jaw then said, “How old are you?”

“Eighteen, Uncle.”

“You be joining the army soon, eh?”

“Right. The way things are.”

“You know what I did for a living before the war?”

“What did you do, Uncle?”

“I was a foreman in a machine shop.”

I thought of lathes and mills. Those shops must be busy during wartime. Hearing nothing from me, he leaned his head to one side as if to determine in his mind where I was. “In the army I was a senior sergeant,” he said. That fit him, I thought. Some were domineering just by their nature. He went on, “Used to do all the things myself. My woman didn’t need to lift a finger. Now, now, the world’s turned upside down. Man has to beg from a woman’s hand. When you’re down and out, you’re worse than a mutt. I can’t even piss or shit unless she lets me.”

His voice was flat. In it I sensed no self-pity. Like he was telling me about the weather. I thought of walking out but I changed my mind. I could see the pipe’s bowl had no tobacco. “Where’s your set, Uncle?” I asked him.

“Look around,” he said tonelessly. “Set shaped like a persimmon.”

The bare room had two metal chairs. Under one chair sat a lidded pot. It looked like his toilet pot. The only piece of furniture was a black-wood cupboard. The ornate flowers embossed on the cupboard’s doors gave it a vintage feel. It must have belonged to his once-proud past before the war ruined him.

“Can’t find it?” he said, keeping his head still as if to listen for a sign of my presence. “Used to have things everywhere around here. But she’s done sold most of them over the years. Now you can hear the echo of your voice.”

Through a thin flowered curtain that sectioned off the inside of the house, I saw a bamboo cot draped with a mosquito net. The net hadn’t been rolled up. I went through the curtain looking around. A gas stove sat against the yellow-painted wall next to a standalone narrow cabinet, its black-wood glass doors opaque with smoke and dust. On the wall were hung rattan baskets dyed plum red and peach yellow. A wooden table sat in the center of the room, and on the table I saw the persimmon-shaped caddy painted coal black.

The caddy made of fruitwood had a keyhole. I brought it to him. It was locked. I told him.

“Damn woman,” he said.

“She kept the key?”

“Damn she did.”

“She forgot?”

“That woman? Never. Never forgot anything.”

“Well, Uncle,” I chuckled. “What’s with the key anyway? Even if she’s left it for you, I mean.”

“I’ve got help.” He jerked his chin toward the entrance. “Door’s always open.”

“Your neighbors?”

“Them louts. Sit at the door every day. Gawking and giggling.”

“Ah. Kids. They help you, Uncle?”

“Some do. Some I have to bribe.”

I wondered what he bribed them with. “Where’s she now?”

“Out. Business.”

I shook the herb packet for him to hear. “What’s this medicine for, Uncle?”

“Stabilize the yin and yang in my body. That’s what your pa, eh, the herbalist said.”

“Your yin and yang?”

“This body,” he said, pressing his chin to his chest to make a point, “still has a piece of shrapnel in a lung. The metal junk messes up the balance of yin and yang. So I heard.”

“How’s that?”

“I puke blood whenever it gets bone chilly.”

“They didn’t take it out of your lung?”

“If they could, it wouldn’t be in my lung now, eh?”

I ignored his rude remark and looked around. The slatted side door opened into a common garden. Rain was falling steadily on the leaves of herbs and vegetables and the morning light glinted on the rain-wet leaves. I knelt on one knee, looked at the water pipe, then at him.  “You smoke often, Uncle?”

“Often as she lets me.” He grinned a crooked grin then yawned. I could smell his rancid breath. I tapped the caddy, thinking, until he cocked his head to listen to the noise. “I can make a pipe for you, Uncle,” I said. “But I’d have to pry the lock open.”

“I don’t give a damn about the lock. But I know what she’d do if the lock is busted.”

“What then?”

He let his head nod again, like he was following his thoughts. “Once I lay here in my piss and shit the whole damn day till she decided to clean me up. Otherwise the house would stink and that’d ruin her dinner.”

“What started it?”

“Like I told you. I only piss or shit when she lets me.”

“So she wanted to condition you, didn’t she?”

“You’re wrong, boy.” He frowned. “I mean, young man, she was talking business with this man in the alley. Talk. Talk. I yelled to her. Damn did I yell. Then everything burst out of me. When she came back in I doubt she bothered to look at me. Then when the smell couldn’t be ignored for heaven’s sake, she just left the house.”

Listening, I recalled her to my mind and still I couldn’t reconcile what I just heard with what I’d carried inside me ever since I saw her. He wiggled on his rump and the nylon sheet that covered the pallet squished. “If I can have me a drink,” he said. “Hell, if I can have me some rice liquor.”

“Where does she keep it, Uncle?”

“That woman won’t waste money on that kind of stuff.” He wrinkled his nose, snorting a few times to clear it. “We’d been drinking, me and some old friends. They brought a bottle with them and after they left I began having chills and shaking like a dog. She came in and saw the mess of cigarette butts and ashes and unwashed cups and started yelling at me. I cursed her, so she sat me up and screamed in my face, and it was then I threw up. I believe I just let it gush out all over her blouse.”

“You vomited on her? Why?”

“To spite her? I’m not sure. She emptied the bottle into the drain. That’s far worse than hearing her curse me or let me rot on my own.”

“I’ll get you some liquor the next time, Uncle.”

“I have no money on me. To pay you.”

“I know.”

“I’d appreciate it, young man. You drink?”

“A little.”

“That won’t hurt. You going into the army soon. So. I used to get high while we stayed for months in the jungles. Ever heard of dog roses?”

“They told me. Them wild roses that crave blood to bloom?”

“Hogwash.” He blew his nose with a loud snort. “But them wild roses have a subdued fragrance, not as strong as garden roses. And their leaves when crushed have a delicious smell. We cut up their fruits too and add them to the tobacco. Them rose hips give an added authentic kick when you’re high.”

His mouth hung open with an amused smile as he stared into space. Those eyes made me think of yellow marbles. Quietly I looked at his limbless torso, the wiry beard that covered half of his face, and a thought hit me: how would I carry on if I ever became like him? This man seemed to survive the way a creeper did, by latching on to living things nearby. He wanted to live.

 

I went back to Uncle Chung’s house a few days later. This time the herb packet I brought contained finely cut leaves of yellow jasmine. When the herbalist wrapped them up, I asked him what they were for. For hemorrhoids, he said. For external swelling and pain. But never take them orally, he said. It’s fatal. I asked if the wife knew about it and he nodded. She didn’t want the ointment, he said. She wanted the leaves and the seed pods. Much later when I was fighting in the South I would occasionally come upon this vine in the jungles. At first glance you could mistake it for honeysuckle. Then I found out that the vine—any part of it from its root to its leaves and flowers and fruits—was toxic if taken by the mouth. I also learned the words the Americans called it: heartbreak grass.

I bought half a liter of rice liquor in a bottle. Uncle Chung was lying on the pallet, sleeping on his side like a big baby. I woke him and helped him sit up. He kept squirming.

“Hemorrhoids bothering you, Uncle?” I asked him.

“Like hangnails,” he said. “Just a nuisance. You said you’ve got the spirits?”

“I bought half a liter.”

“Let me smell it.”

I opened the bottle and held it under his nose. He leaned forward to have a full whiff of it and nearly toppled. I held him up. He grunted, his face contorted into a painful scowl. The hemorrhoid must be bad enough, I thought.

“You want to lie down, Uncle?”

“What for? Wish I had arms to hug this bottle here. Eh?”

I found a cup and poured him some of the clear-colored spirit and brought the rim of the cup to his lips. He sniffed, then inhaled deeply, his nostrils flaring. He held the drink in his mouth and kept nodding. Then he thrust his head toward the cup, said, “Give me.” He made a loud sucking sound, lifting his chin in a great effort to imbibe the liquor. The spilled liquor dripped from his beard.

“A smoke, Uncle?”

“Got no key to that caddy.” He burped. “You know that.”

“I got you cigarettes. Here.”

As I lit and puffed on a cigarette for him, he sniffed like a mouse. “You’re a prince, young man,” he said, and his lips curled up into a wide grin. “If I die tonight, I won’t regret a damn bit.”

I plugged the cigarette between his lips and let him drag on it like he was out of oxygen. When the ash curled and broke, I caught it in my palm and went to the door and let the rain wash it from my hand.

“We need some sun.” I sat back down. “To air things out.”

“Rainy day like this, you just want to sit and sip liquor and cuddle up with a pipe. Eh?” He tilted his torso to one side and I could tell that he wanted to ease the pressure on his hemorrhoids.

“This stuff for your hemorrhoids,” I said as I jiggled the herb packet, “has it helped?”

“What?” His dead-fish eyes looked blindly at me.

I gave him another shot of rice liquor and he took a healthy sip from it. Then huffing he said, “Something like . . . opium. Might help.”

“Opium? You can’t afford it, Uncle.” I lit another cigarette and put it between his lips. “You said it helps? Against pain?”

“Kills pain. When I was all busted up by a mìn cóc, they gave me opium. Damn. It worked.”

“What’s mìn cóc?”

He described it. Leaping Frog mine. Gruesome destruction. The kind of mine that jumps up when triggered and explodes two, three feet above the ground. Severs your legs and worst of all maims your genitals. Bouncing Betty. That was the name I later learned from the Americans.

I asked him if he lost his limbs from a Bouncing Betty, and he said yes, nodding and snorting. Smoke from his cigarette didn’t bother him, his dead eyes open unblinkingly, as he asked me, “Which would you rather lose: both of your legs or your penis?” I couldn’t help chuckling and said that I would never ask myself such a question, for it was a warped sense of morbidity that should have no place in a sane mind. He chewed on the cigarette butt leisurely and said, “Soon you’ll ask yourself such when you start having phobia of losing your body parts.” I told him I never treated one part of my body more favorably than another. If it happened, I’d live with it. One older guy in the army said the same thing to me, years later when I was in the South, that your body parts are like your children and you don’t favor one over another. Now, out of curiosity, I asked if he still had his penis and he laughed, spitting out the cigarette, and the ash was scattered on the nylon sheet. I brushed off the ash and waited until he stopped cackling and put the cigarette back between his lips. He shook his head, so I took the cigarette out and he said, chortling, “Still with me, young man. My treasure is. So I don’t have to pee through a tube. And am still a man. That’s what it’s good for. Don’t ask me about my woman though. I don’t blame her.” I mused on his remark as he asked for another sip. Afterward he said there was this thing called “crotch cup,” which had gained popularity in the South among men in his unit and others. It started out when this guy custom-made a triangle cup-shaped piece that he cut out of an artillery shell, and through its three sides, he drilled holes to run three twines and looped them around his torso to hold the piece in place against his crotch. He became the butt of every joke told among fellow soldiers. Then when more and more men fell victim to Bouncing Betty mines, many having been cut below the waist, their genitals pulverized, blown and stuck to their faces in pieces of skin and hair, they grew so paranoid they started finding ways to protect their manhood—and their lineage. The crotch cup became their holy answer. As I tried to absorb the horror of  the war’s realness, twinged with the painful knowledge that I too would soon be a part of that reality, he told me he chose not to wear a crotch cup because it was unwieldy and uncomfortable. Then, snickering, he said some fellows in his unit at one point decided to take a break from wearing the crotch cups, and the next thing that hit them was Bouncing Betty mines. What he never could forget was the crotch pieces of the army trousers all shredded and glued to fragments of white bones, unrecognizable lumps of the genitals found on the ground, some still with skin, some with hair. Without sight now, he said, he imagined those scenes day and night. I listened and decided to take a sip of liquor. I wasn’t afraid, but the gloomy pictures he painted for me to see had affected my mood.

 

For more than a month I had not visited Uncle Chung and neither had I seen his wife coming to the herbal store for prescriptions. One late morning when the weather had cleared up, I went to his house. The door was closed but wasn’t locked.

Inside the house, dim and cool, there was a moistness in the air. It was tinged with a fermented sourness of liquor that had been spilled. On the pallet scattered with clumps of cooked rice, Uncle Chung was lying facedown, the seat of his cutoffs damp-looking. Just as I sat down on my heels, his voice came up, “That you, young man?”

“You awake, Uncle?”

“No. I never sleep,” he said with a deep-throated chuckle. “Just airing out my rump.”

“Wet your shorts?” I peered through the curtain. “Where is she?”

“Be back in the afternoon. She closed the door, didn’t she? Should have left it open for fresh air.”

“It smells in here, Uncle. Want me to open it?”

“Well, don’t chance it. She closed it for a reason.”

“What?”

“Bunch of them kids were coming here this morning. Some were new, I could tell. So she yelled at them, ‘You want to peep at him? Do you? How about pay him? That’s right. Pay him and I’ll let you ogle at him, pet him. Long as you like.’ They just broke off and ran.”

I eyed the stain on his buttocks. “She meant it, didn’t she?”

“It came out of her mouth. So.”

I thought of her. Just briefly. The pretty face. The pleasant voice. “Want to sit up, Uncle?”

He twisted his head toward my side. “My back. Can you scratch it?”

I pushed up his army shirt, paused and brushed off pellets of rice stuck to his back. A warm, sweaty smell rose from his body, and for one brief moment I stared at his back, its bare flesh speckled with black moles like someone had sprinkled raisins on it. His voice drifted sleepily, “She kept telling me . . . those black moles I was born with were flies . . . flies . . . crushed into my skin.”

As I scratched him, he squirmed. His stomach groaned. I wondered if he had eaten since the night before. “Get a towel in there . . .” he said. “Check the kettle. Might have some hot water in it. That’ll take the itch away.”

I found a dish towel hung between the rattan baskets. I reheated the water in the kettle and wet the towel and wrung it as steam wafted up. I saw a bowl with some cooked rice left in it, sitting on the table. A few cubes of fermented tofu lay on top of the rice. Next to the bowl was a glass with some water. But it wasn’t water when I sniffed it. Liquor. I took the bowl and the glass with me and came back out. The hot towel seemed to help him feel better against the itch after I had scrubbed his back until it turned raw red.

“That damn monkey meat,” he slurred.

“What monkey meat?”

“She brought back some monkey meat yesterday. I ate some.”

He tried to turn onto his back. With my help he rolled over. It struck me when I looked down at him. His left cheek had a cut and several scratches. Red, raw, they looked fresh. Since I last saw him he had lost much weight. I could tell from the hollowness in his cheeks and from the slackness given by his shirt. “Let me sit you up,” I said. He let me pull him up, grunting. An ammoniac smell hung about his face. I winced. “Your face, Uncle,” I said, “smells of piss.” His nostrils twitched. “Yeah. From my head to my butt, eh?” His beard, longer now, felt like a woolly wad when I wiped his face. “Woman’s piss,” he said and shook his head.

“What?”

“She pissed on me.” He grinned as if amused while I felt disgusted. “I had a seizure last night. That came after I ate some monkey meat. Good thing I didn’t die, ’cause I woke up and she was sitting on my face and watered me with her holy water. For heaven’s sake I felt all cold sober after that.”

I told him perhaps her quick thinking might have bailed him out of danger. He nodded. For the first time I noticed in his jet-black hair the gray hair had started showing through here and there. I could hear his stomach growl again. “I brought you leftovers—rice and liquor,” I said. He asked me to dump the leftover liquor into the rice. Obliging him, I stirred the concoction, the sickly yellow tofu cubes going round and round with the rice clumps, a tart smell of stale liquor and tofu hung about. I spoon-fed him. He slurped and swallowed. He didn’t even chew. I asked him how he could eat anything like this, and he spat out some rice and said, “There comes a time when you’d eat anything given you. In the South once we had no salt for weeks so we ate ash. Not a bad substitute.” He hiccupped. “Be adaptable, young man.”

“Where’d she get the monkey meat from?” I asked him.

“From a baby monkey, fallen off a tree and drowned in a flood. Well, she and this guy were up across the Viet-Sino border on opium runs. They got caught in a flood and had to eat bamboo rats.”

I recalled the man he mentioned coming to the alley and talking with her. “What if she gets caught by the border police?”

“I’d know when that day comes.”

He told me she had given him the black pellets of opium whenever he had a bout of pain—the hemorrhoids, the lungs. The pains would go away. Since then the seizures had come more than once. If she was home, she would give him liquor that seemed to blunt the fit and, sometimes with much liquor, he would fall asleep.

“I cursed her for giving me the monkey meat,” he said. “She yelled at me, ‘You’re a dunghill. A dunghill for me to risk my life just to earn some cash to keep all your perverted sicknesses at bay.’” He raised his brows, his eyeballs like still yellow marbles. “That woman has a sharp tongue. But she spoke the truth. Said, ‘Who’s going to make all your pains disappear? Doctors? Your crummy pension? That? That goes out the window in no time just to pay the helpers to clean up your filth and buy you liquor so your opium fits won’t kill you. Monkey meat, hanh? Last time you crashed, was it monkey meat? Or was it opium? I’m an expert now on how to kill your obscene pains when you convulse on the floor like a leech, your eyeballs roll into your head, your mouth foams like baking soda. And next time when you bang your head, find a sharp corner. Hanh?’”

It dawned on me about his facial cuts. “You banged your head? During a seizure?”

“Broke her cactus pot and got their spines all over my face.”

As I put the empty bowl away, the fermented sourness made my nose twitch. He cleared his throat, his sticky voice becoming raspy as he told me he had done his part around the house, and yet she never appreciated it. When it did not rain for days, he twice managed to crawl out to her vegetable patch and urinated on the spinach, the purslane, the fish mint. He could tell by their smells. And she could tell of what he had done sometimes by the sight of the cigarette butts lying among the patch. The fish mint leaves would smell repugnant when she chewed them, then she would spit them out and daub the paste on his forehead. He would curse, shake, to get rid of the slimy gob and she said, “You get what’s coming to you. It smells like your piss, doesn’t it?”  She loved her garden patch. Nights when it rained, the air moist and cool, he could hear raindrops pinging on the cement steps and the moistness in the air seeped through his skin. He liked the rain, for he knew rain would soak the soil in the vegetable patches. At first light the soupmint’s downy hair would spark red, the crab’s claw herb would glisten, the thyme, the basil would be gorged with moisture. He could tell that one of her pet plants, the yellow jasmine vine, was coming out in clusters. She’d watered it every morning from the time she brought home the seeds, allowing the pods to dry first before breaking them open, and nursed the seeds with much watering until one morning he could smell something fragrant and that was the first time it flowered. He might hear her cheerful voice, for a change, when she plucked them at dawn.

   

I didn’t visit Uncle Chung for a while until one morning I saw his wife coming into our herbal store. She was wearing a white blouse and a red scarf around her neck, and the red was redder than hibiscus. She asked for a cough prescription. The herbalist asked her if Uncle Chung was having a cold or flu and if he had a whooping cough. She smiled, said it was for a sore throat. I could hear someone coughing outside the store. A man was smoking a cigarette, standing on the sidewalk with his hands in his pants pockets. Lean, dark-skinned, he was about Uncle Chung’s age. His slicked-back hair was shiny with pomade. He glanced toward the store, coughed, and spat. When she met his gaze she smiled. She had that fresh smile that showed her white teeth. Even, glistening.

I thought of that smile when I went to see Uncle Chung afterward. He wasn’t on the pallet. Him sitting or lying on that pallet had been a fixture in my mind. That gave me pause. I went through the curtain and saw him crawling like a caterpillar toward a corner of the room where the bathing quarter stood behind accordian panels. He bumped a chair, stopped, wiggling his head as if to get his bearings. I called out to him.

“Young man?” he cocked his head back, his hair so long now it looked like a black mane.

“Why’re you in here?” I went to him.

“Water.”

“Water? Where?”

“Where she bathes.”

There were no pails, not even a cup, in there. Her black pantaloons were the only item hanging on a string from wall to wall. I could see water still dripping from the pantaloons’ legs. Before I said anything to him, he gave a dry chuckle. “That’s my water.” I pictured him worming his way to where he could catch the dripping water with his mouth.

It took a while before I could move him back out onto his own pallet. Though he said he hated water, he drank some from the kettle, which I poured directly into his mouth. He asked for a cigarette. I told him I was out of cigarettes and promised him when I got money I’d buy him a pack and some liquor. I brought the black caddy to the pallet.

“I’ll make you a pipe, Uncle,” I said, tapping the caddy.

“It’s locked. You know it.”

“I’m going to break the lock.” I thought of her, her smile to the man she had been with, and I could feel my resentment.

“Go ahead.” He grinned.

Surprised by his encouragement, I clucked my tongue as I twisted the blade of my pocketknife inside the keyhole until I felt it snap. “I saw her at the store,” I said to him casually, folding the pocketknife.

“She breezed out of here this morning and I swear I could smell perfume.” He tried to clear his throat, for his voice suddenly sounded strained. “Make the pipe. I need it.”

Inside the caddy a jackfruit leaf lay on top of the tobacco. The leaf was no longer fresh, the blade having gone a dark yellow. He listened to my movements and mumbled something about the leaf left in there to keep the tobacco fresh. Without it when you smoke, he said, the tobacco lacking moisture would burn dry in the throat. He asked me what she wore. I told him. Then remembering her red scarf I told him that too. “Damn,” he said. As I lit the pipe he brought his lips to the opening of the pipe, paused and said, “I remember her wearing that scarf, that red scarf, only once in her life. On the day we got married.” He took a heavy drag, the water in the pipe singing merrily, and then he tipped up his face and blew a cloud of smoke toward the ceiling. “Wish I had eyes to see that scarf on her this morning. Damn it. Was she with somebody?” I told him she was, adding that he must be her business partner. Uncle Chung grunted with a twisted grin at the words I used. I could sense his muted pain and at the same time my still simmering displeasure toward her. “But my woman. Oh my woman. Whenever she bathes in there, I still feel that urge just to caress her full calves. Know what they remind me of, young man? The wax gourds. Those fleshy ripened gourds to sink your teeth in.” He stopped snickering and drew a healthy drag, kept the smoke in his mouth as long as he could and his eyes became slits in his own bliss. I repacked fresh tobacco in the bowl, thinking wishfully of a rice liquor bottle, because I wanted to get drunk, very drunk, with him. I took one big drag with the fresh tobacco, my head buoyed, tingling, as he slurred his words, “Know something else, young man? In the South when they amputated my limbs they said, ‘Don’t cry now, Sarge.’ You know why? We got no anesthesia. So I had someone press her picture on my eyes and I imagined her in that red scarf and I sucked in the pain until her picture shrank with the pain and I passed out.” He nodded his head up and down like on a spring, said he understood her and even felt grateful to her still being with him. Chuckling, he told me the night before a female cat was yowling in heat as it wandered off the garden and into their house and his wife left her cot to come out, turned on the light and saw the cat push its bottom against his stumped leg, rubbing and purring, and his wife said, “Look at it, oh will you look at it,” and he said, “She’s horny. Aren’t women like that when the moon is full?” and she just howled, “How can I sleep with its obscene squealing? Now, now will you look at its obscene way of showing itself?” He said, “How obscene?” She told him that the cat was lying down, twitching its tail and then flinging it to the side and there it was: the pink slit of its genitalia, pink and swollen. Before going back to her cot, she said she was going to stuff the cat’s mouth with lá ngón, the yellow jasmine leaves, if it didn’t stop yowling. He made a snorting sound as he laughed, said it took a long time before things got quieted down, the cat now gone, but the sound of her cot creaking beyond the curtain kept him awake into the night.

Now he blew the smoke out of the corner of his mouth and a light breeze coming through the front door carried the smoke toward the back door. I saw a pot on the doorsill, a tall wooden stake rising from its bottom, and around the stake twined the yellow jasmine vine. Uncle Chung’s wife’s pet plant. I could tell by its pretty yellow flowers.

  The next morning a boy from Uncle Chung’s alley ran into our store and asked the herbalist to come quickly to Uncle Chung’s house. The herbalist was like a doctor in our district, where western medicine and its physicians weren’t trustworthy. I went with him, the boy running ahead of us before we could ask him. Inside the house I saw Uncle Chung lying facedown by the back door where the pot of yellow jasmine sat. It took me but one look to see that he had plucked nearly all the fresh leaves of the vine and some of them were in his mouth still and some of them lay scattered over the doorsill. White foam coated his mouth and his head full of long black hair lolled to one side, and in the morning light I could see the gash and the scratches on his cheek.

I knelt down, looking at his eyes, still open like yellow marbles. I ran my hand over them, and the eyes stayed open. Like dolls’ eyes.

 

A year later I left the North to go South to fight the Americans.

Many of my friends had gone South. Nobody had heard anything from them since. I asked people why none of them ever came back, and they shushed me. Most of them my age tattooed their arms with four words, “Born North Die South.” Like it would boost their morale. Most of them died—true to their tattoos—and there was no news sent home. You can’t win the war with damaged morale suffered by the people at home. The messengers of death weren’t telegrams, but the returning wounded who eventually reached the unfortunate families with the tragic news.

The first day on the way South on the Hồ Chí Minh Trail I saw camouflaged trucks heading North. It was raining. Rain fell on our nylon raincoats, fell on the open beds of the trucks. We stopped, exchanged greeting words. I saw human bodies, alive and packed under the cover in mottled shades of green and brown. The wounded. Some had no legs. Some burned by napalm so severely they looked leperous. Rain dripped on their limbless bodies as they slept. After the trucks came the stretchers. Sticks, bamboo slapped together. Lying on them were the blind. Some had no faces. We couldn’t greet them. They couldn’t see us. They all moved past us, huffing and puffing. Rain-smeared sallow faces. Malaria-wrecked skin. They were all bones. So they headed home. Up North. I looked at them. I wasn’t afraid. Just queasy. We stood off the muddy trail, letting them pass.

I thought of heartbreak grass. One day, I thought, someone going South on this trail would look at me heading North. I might not then have a face. Or limbs.

The thought was like a thief hiding itself in my head to steal away slivers of joy once lived. I bowed my head. Inside I cried and thought of all the mothers whose lives ebb and flow with hopes that their sons would someday be found, what’s left of them, so they can hold them again, with the limbs intact, like they did on the day their sons were born.