Chapter 18: The Diary of Hai the Reaper

The following events are collected from Pham Van Hai’s diary, which is considered an important piece of evidence for the case. Judging from the content of the diary, the investigators in charge of the case firmly believe that he was the partner in crime of Nguyen Van Nha and acted as the main culprit in helping the criminal escaped.

Tuesday evening, night shift.

I go home when the sky was littered with stars. Nha is sleeping on the bamboo cot in the living room, if one could call the part just inside the metal door a living room. He mumbles his stupid complaint in his childish sleep. Looking at his innocent sleeping face, I hear the distant voice of my ancestors telling me to kick him awake. Not that I know who my ancestors are, but their instruction sounds tempting.

However, I decide to push my ancestors off the bed instead of him. I had business to do. And some businesses are meant to be done in the dark.

Can someone tell me again why I pick this useless piece of meat up from the gutter?

Friday evening, afternoon shift.

New toothbrush: 3. New toothpaste. Shampoo: 2 strings. Rice: 2 kg  5 kg 2 kg. Not enough money. Why is there never enough money? Next time, when he asks you to buy more rice, remember the kind words: “Go fuck yourself.”

Sunday morning, day shift.

He goes to the café. To see me. That fucking idiot with a ten-year-old brain thinks he can go anywhere he wants because nobody knows who he is. He stands by Ms. Sau’s doorstep, smiling, showing all teeth. He must have thought he was the most handsome man in this countryside, showing his hideous face around with pride and joy. Now it won’t be my fault if he gets caught, I tell him. The idiot had the courage to laugh.

“I know it won’t be your fault,” he says, “nothing is your fault. But Hai, if you die of starvation now, who will call my Ma and my sister for me?” he tries to say it with some sort of gentlemanliness and hands me the lunch box, grinning. He must know that I hate his smile; that’s why he’s showing it so damn much. Just to spite me, is all.

Then he suddenly gets all serious, “Got some change with you?”

I glare at him, shout a thousand times in my mind the magic phrase “Fuck Off.” He seems to hear it by some magical channels and shrugs, “Just asking. ‘cause you know what? Your 5-kilogram bag of rice turns out to weigh only 2 kilograms. You have to buy more rice, you know.”

Go fuck yourself. That I didn’t say. How I wish I had enough courage and rage in myself to say it.

Tuesday evening, night shift.

The customer calls. Because it’s a different type of customers, you don’t save their names as the contact. This practice is getting old with you, even when you are no longer in the city. Everywhere: the same old dirty trick. As you venture out into the unfathomable night, you remember the time he whispers sweetly into your ears, “You are so much better than all of this mess.” You laugh, because you are not better than anything. That’s all you have to remember to keep walking on the dark road leading to the worn-out motel near the village’s market.

Thursday evening, night shift.

What’s money for? For living a decent life under the light of the sunny day. Ever wonder about what people do to get that money at night under the shadowy bridge? I don’t think he does. Is it better if he does? Is it better if he doesn’t? But Hai, what does it matter?

He stays up pretty late tonight. I see the dim yellow light through the small window, and I think, How strange. Since when can the light of a small lightbulb make you cry?

I stand in front of the thin metal door, silently wiping my tears, praying to my anonymous ancestors to do something – anything – to stop the tears. As it always happens with my luck, my ancestors always disappear whenever I need them most. Everything you need always disappears when you need them most. I hear his footsteps and I turn to run. But he is quicker. He has that special talent of being extremely excellent at what he does when nobody needs him to be. “Yo, what’s up?” he asks. “Nothing much,” I reply, lowering my head, trying to slip through his underarm to get inside the house.

Nothing much, Nha, just spend my life whoring to get the damn money for living a decent life.

Sunday morning, day shift.

Shower gel: 2 strings. Laundry detergent: 1 bag. Fabric softener: 1 bag.

Remind me why I’m the one who take care of everything in this damn house, please. The day is scorching hot and my evaporated brain can’t remember why I bother to live this decent life at all. Walking by the phone store, I notice that they are having a big promotion for the coming Independent Day. Now I don’t care much for the Independent Day. It is not relevant to my decent life. But the promotion is relevant. Maybe if he has a phone in his hand, he can reach that dream he so often has at night. Should I buy him one? Should I not? What if he asks me where I get my money from?

Buying the phone anyway. Coming home from my day shift, I throw the phone to his face (no, literally, but I miss the target by five centimetres). He asks exactly what I thought he would ask.

“Where did you get the money?”

“Nothing much.” My evaporated brain says. Shit, a simple ‘thank you’ would have suffice, Mr. Genius.

And there’s no more to say about that.

Tuesday evening, night shift.

I’m getting used to the dim yellow light of the lightbulb by the small window in the middle of the night when I come home from my usual business.

And by ‘getting used to it’ I mean that I no longer spend the whole hour standing in front of the metal door only to cry. No. Now I spend it to overthink, too. It might take a few more times until I can face him and answer him in that normal cheerful attitude that is my signature. I don’t even know if that day will come.

But we must hold onto hope, mustn’t we?

He opens the door, and again, ‘Yo, what’s up?’

I avert my eyes with the usual, ‘Nothing much,’ and go inside. Uncle Hai already went to bed. “Did you wait for me?” I ask. “I’m afraid,” he grins, waiting for me to reply.

“Afraid of what?”

“I’m afraid that without the light, you won’t know the way home. In the dark, it’s easy to get lost.”

He lies down on the bamboo cot. His face turning to the red brick wall. He says the red brick walls remind him of home. Why is home so fucking important? I think I know, but I don’t think I understand it. But the important thing to me now is, Does Nha know what I’ve been hiding in the late night?

Sunday morning, day shift.

Sugar. Salt. Cooking oil. Remember the meat. We are making spring rolls. Do we still have rice paper at home? Why does everything keep running out?

Sunday night, staying home.

The spring rolls turns out okay. Not delicious, but okay. He says he makes them the way his Ma always made them when he was still at home. Boy, I doubt his Ma’s cooking skill, and it is not right to doubt a mother’s cooking skill. He says, “Just add the seasoning of home into it, and it will taste better.” Perhaps my ancestors will believe that adding invisible seasoning can make a dish better. That’s why they’re dead.

A customer calls suddenly just when I start to chew the first spring roll. Maybe that’s why the spring rolls are no longer delicious, who knows. I text him a simple message telling him to wait for me at the motel. Nha watches me, chewing the spring rolls noisily with strange intention. Uncle Hai seems to not notice it, or he does notice it but decides to ignore it anyway.

“Where are you going?”

“Meeting a friend at work.”


“After I finish washing the dishes.”

“Can I tag along?”

“Definitely no.”

“What for?”

“Nothing much.”

He puts down his bowl and continues staring at me, or more precisely, at my hair, since I keep lowering my head, almost to the point of sticking my face to the bowl.

The chewing noise gets louder and louder; as if he thinks that under the force of his weird staring and loud chewing, I will spill the truth.

It doesn’t happen. Same old trick my madam used to teach me: Don’t look them in eyes, because the eyes have the power of spells. When you are under the spell, you won’t know what atrocity you commit. Like telling a certain idiot what you’ve been hiding in the night when you come home late from ‘work’.

That night, the light is still on, but Nha is no longer waiting for me. Or he is waiting for me, but he doesn’t want me to know. When I walk in, his back is facing me. He gives out a big grunt to let me know that he acknowledges my presence. My being here. My being a whore. My being not caring for him. My not telling him the truth despite what he thinks we have between us.

And I slither under the thin blanket as a way to acknowledge his acknowledgement. That I know despite knowing all of that, he still choose, in the end, to be by my side.

Because of that, I spend the whole night biting my finger, crying.

Monday, coming home in the small hours.

The lightbulb shines on tirelessly through the night. Seeing the dim yellow light by the small window on the way home amidst the cheerful song of the bullfrogs, I feel like I’m some sort of exiled king. Is this what home feel like? When you know that someone is waiting for you, and your heart can’t help palpitating to the rhythm of happiness. Because you know that someone is waiting for you somewhere.

Nha stands there in front of the thin metal door. He doesn’t make any noise but I can still hear his loud chewing in my ears. It sounds a lot like judgement. So he knew. How long did he know? Why hasn’t he say anything? Is this what he meant by ‘getting lost in the dark’? But Hai, what does it matter?

“Where did you go?” He grits.

“Meeting a friend at work.”


“Late at night. Every night.”

“What for?” He bellows.

“Nothing much.”

He stares at me in utter silence. No reproach. No yelling. He simply stares at me. Don’t look them in the eyes, I repeat my madam’s teaching. Don’t let those spellbound eyes make you commit the atrocity of telling the truth. They are the eyes of the man who waits for you to come home every night, who lights up the little lightbulb by the small window because he was afraid that you will get lost – and you did got lost. This is the man who brings you lunch boxes on your day shifts, despite knowing that he might get caught. This is the man who always asks you “Yo, what’s up?” because he wants to know how your day went. This is the man who tells you in your struggling sleeps that you are better than all of this mess.

Look at him, Hai. This is the man you love. And every night you whore yourself to others. To whoever that is not him. But Hai, what does it matter?

“You know what, Hai?” I look up as I hear my name, “I really hate your ‘Nothing much’”.

“Why? It’s just words.”

“Because it hides too many things under its pretty petticoat. Each time you say ‘Nothing much,’ I’m reminded of how useless I am. Look at me. Look at this murderer, living on the money of a young innocent boy who sells himself for salt and sugar.” He laughs, wiping some clear substance from his eyes.

“And rice, too. You forget the rice.” I mock, but my voice comes out soft and trembling.

“You are so cruel, Hai. Are all prostitutes that cruel?”

“You bet. It’s in our blood.”

“Don’t do it. Just don’t ever do it again.”


“Promise me.”


“Oh Lord.”

He chuckles, then pulls me close for a tight embrace. Feeling the warmth of his chest by my cheeks, his wet tears on my shoulders where he buries his ravenous head, and hearing the loud beating of his heart, I know what will happen.

My ‘Alright’ has replaced my ‘Nothing much,’ and strangely, we both agree to it.

Letter to M., #4

Dearest M.,

Do forgive me for putting these words into verses

Which will just complicate things and

None of us will want to see; but M.

Is there anything on this Earth that is ever


Dearest M.,

I had a dream.

I don’t even know if it was about the me and you

Or someone else – someone more unhappy and

More painful, filled with undeserved sufferings, but

The man was confessing his love and

The woman says, That’s good, but I want to hear it again 100 years from now.

But darling, none of us will be alive

100 years from now.

He smiled at her, his loving anew with longing and solitude,

But there’s one thing you could do:

Just die before me.

You make that sound so simple, the woman giggles innocently.

Her beauty was in between and everywhere.

The man tucked her strand of hair gently behind her ear, and with sadness in his weary eyes, he said:

Darling, nothing in this world is ever that complicated.

And the dream ended.

I don’t remember the first half of it, but I presume

Like all things had happened, that it must have been a happier scene:

Where the lovers were not so old and

Desperate and hopeless.

Dearest M.,

If it’s not visible in the retelling of my dream

It must be visible here:

I just don’t want 100 years from now,

I had to mourn the death of my love for you

In front of a grave that cannot speak and

A soul I cannot see.

Whatever I ever said and

Whatever I wanted it to be between us

Will disappear.

Because M., none of us will be here 100 years from now,

And nothing in this Earth will be that complicated.

Freeze the Time

To my unknown lover.

I want to freeze the time, I say,

one evening in May as you walk out the front door.

You put your coat on, one shoe on your right foot and

one shoe is falling off.

How, you fumble with the broken clasp, frustrated and

angry and

I don’t know at who or what thing

those feelings are aim towards.

I want to freeze the time, I repeat, you know,

like putting it in the freezer and who knows,

Ten years from now, twenty years from now,

a hundred years from now –

whenever I need it, I can just open up the freezer and

there it is – the time: the you and me, one evening in May,

you are walking out and I stay in our apartment,

young and filled with nothing but faint hopes and useless disappointments.

You won’t be alive one hundred years from now, you laugh,

as if you think I was joking.

Of course, to you, I am alway joking.

Some mischief to relieve you of the tiring day and

the breathing life.

Say, when did you last take a breath?

Not a breath where you need to do it to survive,

but a breath where you truly see why you need to breathe.

Then do you know why you need to breathe? you ask me, finally putting on

the remaining shoe and opening the door.


And what is your reason?

I look at you,

your broad back,

your worn coat, tattered at the shoulders,

you black suitcase,

and the sunset shining its remaining light over

your disappearing face.

I want to freeze the time, I say, as you finally walk out,

and close the door.

Eyes for A Lover

Đời em đã khép đi vội vàng
Tình ta cùng lấp lối thiên đàng
Như cánh chim khuất ngàn, như cánh chim khuất ngàn

Mắt Lệ Cho Người Tình, Từ Công Phụng

On the sleepless nights and the gramophone of old age and

pains and

tears and


keeps on pouring out these soft, sorrowful tunes into my ears,

I cry for your blue eyes.

Oh my darling, oh my darling, do you still remember,

the summer of the older days

when I caught the pair of blue eyes from your silky face

as you smiled at me like soft lace of love

spreading over a river of hate.

I say, Maybe we should be moving on.

You say, Wait, we still have time.

And that is enough, my darling, that is enough

for me to hold on,

to live,

to breathe,

to continue suffer from whatever they diagnose me with.

As I spend more days in the hospital,

the blue in your eyes grows a deeper shade of sadness and

the memory of us grows a fainter shade of love.

Eyes for my lover, I sing, I have eyes for my lover,

whose love I did not choose but rather,

was bestowed on me in raindrops of kisses and gentle caresses on skin;

whose life I borrow as a beggar on the street and as a beggar,

I don’t get to choose the life I get to pay back, somehow, some days.

What day is it, I lift a strand of hair from her brow

and tuck it behind her ear –

the hair that reflect back all the light of the sun

and the moon

and the star

and hopes.

Hush, she whispers, you don’t need to know what day it is,

she gently covers my eyes with her bony fingers.

Her nails painted pink, a shade that blooms little flowers on the tips.

Yes, I say, I don’t need to know.

She smiles at me, her gentleness falls in between

and everywhere.

Your eyes are so sad, I sing,

and we both are so sad.

I know, honey, I know.

And the next morning, she gets up,

she gets married.

#conversation starter

You asked me over the phone if I had been well,

and if I had been able to get over my

eating disorder.

You didn’t specify exactly which type of eating disorder

because we both know better than diving deep into the matter at hand.

I asked you about your loneliness,

your job as a personal trainer,

your one bedroom apartment with no chance of escape from your reality.

Of course I also know better

than diving deeper into the matter at hand.

For example, which city you are at,

what kind of personal trainer you are,

are you living then, or are you just breathing through.

You laughed at my silly Japanese and said, Maybe you should come by

and visit me sometimes.

It was 10 p.m. at your place,

and it was 8 p.m. at mine.

Between us are this strange 2 hours distortion of time,

a wide ocean,

a plane ticket,

and our excellence at miscommunication every word, every sentence, every phrase.

I said I love Leonard Cohen,

You said you love Norikyo.

I said, Nevermind, because after all,

they are after the same thing.

You hung up, and after hearing the silence on the speaker for a long while,

I asked you the question that would never be whispered into words,

Hey, when do you think we can see each other again?

#2. Melancholy

I should really stop that habit

What habit?

Falling in love with everyone

And anyone

Who shows a little bit of interest in me.

I should try to stop being so lonely

And melancholy.

I guess this is what you meant

When you say love’s not for me.

I don’t know since when the audience stops cheering me on,

And instead of humoring them,

My every step would just hurt them more.

Let’s leave the stage, you say,

Let’s move on to a better place

Where love falls on you like the first snowflakes of the season:

You cry for its beauty

But the moment it touches your hair:

It’s gone.

And honey, if I had given into temptation,

I would have jumped –

Instead, I’m here,

Holding onto the you and me,

Holding onto the will to live

By a thin thread

Woven from too many sleepless nights

Where I lie awake, chasing my thoughts.

Darling, do forgive me, forgive me –

I whisper breathlessly on your milky-white skin.

I always wish I could be something greater than an idiot

Who is both deaf and blind.

You look at me with the same set of eyes

Someone uses to look at a stranger:

Take the pills, honey, take the pills.



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