With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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Calling, “Soldiers! Americans!” Luu Mong hurried over the mounds of earth that connected the rice fields of the peasants. His mother’s voice trailed him (“Slow down, slow down”), a reminder that the enemy often left in a bloody heap any man, woman, or child who moved swiftly across the landscape. Luu Mong slowed to an amble, circulated among the peasants, and halted at the edge of the field where Thien and her grandma were weeding. “Soldiers,” he said. “Didn’t you hear me?” He motioned with his arms. “From the top of the banyan tree I spotted them moving toward the village.” He pointed to his lookout tree north of the fields. “They’ll be here in ten minutes,” he said, “maybe less. They seem to be checking the road for mines.”
Ba Ly, Thien’s grandma, vowed daily to protect her granddaughter in any way possible. Upon hearing Luu Mong’s warning, she led the girl back to the village to prepare for the arrival of Americans. In their hut, she retrieved Thien’s gray pants from a basket and smeared the crotch with nuoc mam, a strong-smelling fish sauce. Dark brown, the stain could be mistaken for menstrual blood and might discourage the randiness of soldiers. No girl in the village had been assaulted, but stories of abuse — some of them too obscene to imagine — had circulated from outlying regions. Ba Ly gave her granddaughter the stained pants and said, “Put these on. Hurry. Sometimes you move as slowly as a cow.”
In silence, Thien removed her black pants and put on the pants that might protect her. Moments later, head bowed, she squatted near her grandma and began tearing up leaves of cabbage for soup. They used their hands, no paring tools or knives; nothing suspicious. Ba Ly called it “Good-Luck Soup, Long-Life Soup.” They would boil the cabbage, add a generous splash of nuoc mam, and maybe the pungent smell of their cooking would help keep the enemy at bay.
Behind the stove, Ba Ly peered through a slit in a bamboo wall. The Americans, weighted down with packs, passed within thirty meters of her hut, turned and tramped noisily across the rice fields, and disappeared into the hedgerows to the east.
“Stay put,” she said to Thien. “They might be watching us from behind bushes.”
The girl began taking off her pants.
“Keep them on,” said Ba. “You do everything the wrong way: hurry when you need to go slow, go slow when you need to hurry.” Ba spat and wiped her mouth. “A cow is too fast now. Sometimes it is wise to move like a snail.”
An hour later, the earth quiet except for insects and birds, Ba Ly allowed her granddaughter to change her pants and follow her to the fields.
Luu Mong approached them and waved. He hurried to the paddy where they were weeding, squatted beside Thien, and nearly touched her elbow. “Do you need any help?” he said.
The girl turned away from him.
“Thank you,” said Ba. “We don’t need help, but you’re kind to offer.”
Thien, silent, kept weeding.
“Be careful,” Mong whispered. “The Americans might be back.”
After the boy left, Thien said to her grandma: “I don’t want to marry him.”
“Yes,” said Ba Ly, “you keep telling me. But you will not be the one to decide.”
Thien felt something brush her left ankle in the shallow water of the paddy. She flicked her hand at what might have been a leech, a slender snake, a freshwater crab. Still weeding, she thought of her parents, killed by Americans, and her older sisters, Mai and Yen, killed by South Vietnamese mortars. At least her sisters no longer bled between their legs. She prayed they no longer suffered, no longer felt the burden of eyes, tongues, and mouths that hungered for their bodies. Neither Luu Mong nor any village boy could guess that six months earlier Thien had begun to bleed. She showed Ba Ly her stained pants, and she listened to her grandma tell her of mau co toi, the blood of sin. When Ba Ly answered her question (“No, boys don’t bleed this way”), it somehow made sense. The other sex bled mainly from bullets, bombs, knives, fragments of metal. Her dead sisters had bled in both ways, but now their bleeding was finished. They died of head wounds, chest wounds, but at least could be properly buried because their bodies remained intact. Three days ago, Thien had tended her sisters’ graves at the one-year anniversary of their deaths. Maybe now, if Mai and Yen were lucky, they were akin to air and light, a softness that bore no wounds.
The next day, eating lunch with her friend Nhi in the shade of a tamarind tree, Thien said, “Luu Mong likes me, but I wish he didn’t.” She popped a roasted jackfruit seed into her mouth. “He follows me around, tries to get my attention.” She cracked the seed with her teeth. “I don’t want a husband; I don’t need a husband. Maybe when the war is over I will be ready to be a wife.”
“By then you’ll be old,” said Nhi. “No one will want you.”
“Hair white as clouds,” said Nhi. “You must let someone marry you while you are young.”
Nhi spoke of village boys: The handsome, the homely. The ones least likely to hit a girl. The ones who were polite, well-mannered. And the ones who might yell at you and hit you for not having enough food to serve to guests. “Nam’s my favorite,” she said, “but he’s my cousin; our mothers won’t let us marry. I don’t want to marry someone mean.”
Thien touched Nhi’s shoulder to quiet her. On the road at the north edge of town, a shape rose, billowed, drew silently forward. For a moment Thien thought it was a tank, a crew of Americans. But a tank would roar, rip holes in the road, and the peasants would have heard it long before anyone saw it. Maybe a spirit, a thing covered with mist, had sailed down on the road north of the village. Cloud-colored, edges humped and rounded, it followed the curved path as if it were a human traveler with human boundaries. The grayish mass thickened, a cloud gathering rain, and then it halted. An appendage rose from the great bulk, shaped itself into a tentacle, and reached for a branch of a tall bamboo. Thien’s mouth clamped shut, then yawned wide. “Con voi,” she said, “con voi” (elephant). She abandoned Nhi, who hid herself behind the trunk of the tamarind. Deaf to Nhi’s warnings (“Careful, careful!”), Thien dashed for the road. The leviathan, swaying, was about one hundred paces away.
Silvery gray, with splotches of pink on its ears and trunk, the elephant dwarfed every water buffalo in every field. On its neck sat an elder, a figure so slight Thien at first mistook him for a child. Up close, she saw white hair on a saggy chin and loose skin beneath eyes as wrinkled as the skin of the elephant. She greeted him the way she’d been taught to greet all elderly men, “Xin chao, Ong” (Hello, Grandfather), and she asked if he was hungry.
The man said, “I’ve eaten, thank you. And as you can see my companion rarely does anything else.”
The animal grazed bamboo leaves. Thien noticed its whitish toenails, a tuft of silver hair at the tip of its tail. Maybe the old man could move safely over the earth, go wherever he pleased, because the Americans had respect for the beast, its pale color similar to their own, the enormity of its body. Maybe American soldiers studied and admired its quietness because they could move neither themselves nor their machinery without pummeling the earth, alerting the heavens. Thien wondered if the elephant man had somehow layered the animal’s feet with cushions. Each footfall, not much louder than hers, made a faint, rubbery sound. The girl edged close enough to sample the smells on the elephant’s body: water, river mud, road dust, bamboo leaves, and something acrid — maybe bark. She skirted around the moving elephant to verify that it was a cow, a female. Smooth between the hind legs, the ovals of flesh merging into a fold.
“Does she have babies?” said Thien.
“She had one,” said the man, “but it’s gone now. She’s been childless many years.”
The girl pictured a small elephant resting in the shade of her mother’s body. Maybe the mother had used her trunk to offer her calf fresh leaves and twigs, or maybe she had nursed her from the wrinkled breasts sagging between her forelegs. The calf was most likely killed by an explosion, a burst of metal and fire, but Thien forced these thoughts from her mind. She pictured the baby elephant alive, twitching her tail. Thien stepped closer to the mother, the giant who could protect any child. She tried to convince herself that the beast, her body as great as a mountain, had been spared the misery of loss.
Peasant boys left the fields and gathered near the road. Luu Mong, standing near Thien, said, “White elephant,” but in her mind she corrected him: Cloud-colored. Pink. Ashen. Old women and children emerged from huts. Most of the adults had seen baby elephants in the markets of Tay Ninh and Cu Chi, but no one had seen an adult elephant three times the size of a bull buffalo. The beast raised her trunk and snuffled the air. Thien wondered if she smelled water, the nearby river. “Here,” she said, “this way,” and she led elephant and rider along a path bordering the north edge of the fields.
Ba Ly called to the elephant man, “Keep that animal from our paddies.”
“Grandma,” the man answered, “that’s what I’m doing. Your rice fields will survive.”
The old man’s bare feet tickled the beast behind her ears. Thien, walking close by, asked questions (“What’s the elephant’s name? Will she have more babies?”), but he ignored her. His attention focused, he kept touching the elephant’s ears with his feet, apparently to guide her, prevent her from entering the fields. The beast seemed to be smelling things — rice grass, weeds, yellow flowers — but she kept to the center of the path. Three water buffalo stood still and gaped. A bull grunted a threat, but did not lower his head, stomp his hooves, or advance toward the giant who loomed above the fields.
In loose procession, the villagers trailed the elephant toward the shoreline. Luu Mong darted past Thien and touched the elephant’s tail. When the beast unfurled her trunk and suckled the air, the girl breathed deeply through her nostrils. Near the shore, the elephant accelerated until her master, massaging her ears with his feet, whispered, “Stop.” The animal took two more strides and halted. “Good,” he said. “Now kneel.” His feet slid downward along the creases of her ears. “Slow and easy,” he said. “Down, down, down.”
Thien noticed a package tied to the rope netting on the animal’s back. The elephant knelt, back legs first, then stretched forward on her belly. The old man untied the package of provisions, lowered a rope ladder down the animal’s side, and began his descent. Halfway down he handed Thien his food supply: rice cakes and roasted corn, bananas and mangoes, a few oranges. “Go on,” he said. “Please help yourself to fruit.”
He stepped stiffly onto solid ground, unfastened a strap around the animal’s girth, and freed her of constraints. Trunk raised, the elephant ambled to a cove of the Sai Gon River. Flapping her ears and snorting, she entered the shallows. She sucked water into her trunk, raised the tip to her mouth, rocked back, guzzled. The beast gorged herself — eleven trunkfuls, eleven long drinks — before she began to shower. She waved her trunk and sprayed her back with water. She sprayed her sides, and then her trunk curled in a hook shape, straight above, and brown water rushed down over the dome of her skull. Luu Mong and his cousin Nam and his friend Qui called, “O hay! O hay!” The beast raised her right foreleg and let it fall with a splash, repeating the action until the shallows became a mudhole. She billowed, swayed, knelt down, rolled onto her side, and thick waves combed out across the cove. Immersed in a watery mire, she lolled about with the languor of a queen.
Luu Mong, yelping, bolted from Thien’s side and ran up and down the riverbank. Showoff, thought Thien. What are you trying to prove?
The elephant wallowed to the shore and sank her trunk in the moist earth. She slurped mud, waved her ashen trunk, and sprayed herself the color of rain clouds. Village boys, buffalo boys, shouted their joy. The elephant was much like their buffalo: a water creature; a mud creature; a creature who invited the soil onto her body. Luu Mong and his cousin Nam ventured within five meters of the beast. Thien, more silent, came within three, and squatted to muddy her hands and forearms. She suppressed the urge to wallow in river mud, plunge herself into the mudhole. She looked over the elephant’s back at the nearby coconut palms, their sunlit crowns. She felt at home near the mud-spattered animal, the river, the trees, and could have been happier only if the elephant had showered her with mud.
The beast let out a trumpeting scream. Luu Mong and Nam jumped back, their bodies swift as eels. Thien, mouth open, inched closer. The animal’s voice, the reverberation, filled the girl’s lungs.
Ba Ly said, “Where’s your village?” and the old man gestured to the north: “Ben Cat.”
“The soldiers didn’t stop you? Check your belongings?”
“They did as they pleased,” he said. “Stopped us, searched us. Had the elephant do tricks every other kilometer.”
“It does tricks?” said Thien.
“Picks up a log,” he said. “Drops it at my feet. Raises her trunk. Stands on her hind legs. The usual.”
“Can the animal do buffalo work?” said Luu Mong. “Field work?”
“No, forest work. She can lift a hundred-kilo log, haul it from a forest.” He glanced at the beast. “Now there’s not much left, a few scrubby trees. Today all she has to do is carry me and herself down the road to Cu Chi.”
“Too far,” said Thien. “You won’t arrive by nightfall.”
“Nine kilometers,” he said. “A few hours.”
“The road’s dangerous,” said Ba Ly. “You could stay with us and leave for Cu Chi in the morning.”
“The road will still be dangerous.”
“Less so than at dusk,” she said. “And you’ll be rested.”
The old man shrugged.
“Can you keep the animal from tramping across our fields?” asked Ba Ly. “Can you promise us there will be no damage to our rice?”
He appraised the beast, then nodded. “At night I shackle her near something she can forage,” he said. “She might eat a few bushes while I’m asleep.”
Thien leaned toward her grandma, whispered something, and then invited the elephant man to their hut for a bowl of cabbage soup.
That night the elephant began eating the jackfruit tree. Thien heard its branches bend and break, heard the elephant’s teeth tearing at twigs, leaves, strips of bark. She lay with Ba Ly on a mat in the rear of the hut. The elephant man snored, suckled the air, but she was comforted by the ebb and flow of his breathing. Earlier Thien’s grandma had arranged the man’s bedding: a floor mat between the ancestral shrine and the rice bin that contained the scant remains of their best rice — nang thom. This had been the father side of the house, but tonight it was occupied by a grandfather, an elephant-keeper, whose snoring was nearly as raucous as the tearing and breaking of branches. Ba Ly dozed and woke, dozed and woke, and finally collapsed in an exhausted sleep. When her breathing steadied, Thien inched away from her, rose quietly, walked past the ancestral shrine and the snoring grandfather, and out into the night.
The elephant, now motionless, could have been a hill or a small mountain: a roundness rising behind a tree, a dome balanced upon pillars, four supports rooted in a valley. But Thien did not smell the stones of a hill or mountain. She smelled wet earth, riverbed, and shoreline. She smelled nearby waters that reeked of what swam through them (carp, cod, eel, crab) and what bathed in them (elephant and buffalo). She had never before appreciated sour smells. Jasmine for her, lotus for her. But in something sour, a smell the opposite of flowers, maybe there was safety. If Thien’s own body smelled of river earth, Ba Ly would not stain her clothing. And if Thien could cast her shadow wide, compress the earth with each footfall, even the most ignorant soldier would understand she was dangerous. A giant, she thought, a smelly giant. I would frighten not only the Americans, the day ghosts, but Luu Mong and all the boys.
She watched the elephant snake her trunk over a wide branch. The animal leaned back, pulled, and the branch broke from the tree like kindling. The elephant ate the forest. A browsing beast, she filled herself with leaves, twigs, bark — whatever her trunk could reach. The girl came closer and whispered, “You’re strong, you can eat everything. Our buffalo just chew the grass.”
Flapping her ears, the beast looked at Thien. She sniffed the girl’s neck, then lowered her trunk and stripped leaves from the fallen branch. Thien looked up the wall of the elephant’s body to the crown of the tamarind tree, the bright stars between the branches. She said, “Dung lo” (Don’t worry), and lifted both hands to the animal’s body. She rubbed the back of the left foreleg, the side of the belly, the tip of the trunk. She touched the soil, the river mud pasted over belly wrinkles, leg wrinkles, the leathery texture of the skin. As the elephant bent closer to the earth, Thien stroked the flap of her left ear, a rubbery slab the shape of a giant leaf. The girl thought, You’re a forest, a moving, breathing forest. She massaged the ear, the outer side first, and then the underside that lay against the neck, the skin there as thin and smooth as human skin, the veins warm and branched like trees. She whispered to the animal, “Eat, keep growing, survive.”
“Giant” is part of a novel, Buffalo Boy and Geronimo, which is forthcoming from Curbstone Press in February 2006.