Chapter 20: What Else Do You Want?

Sit down. State your name. Tell me your story.

My name is Duc-Anh. Nguyen Duc-Anh. People always call me Nam Xi.

Why the name “Nam Xi”?

Because I often drink alcohol and I was the fifth child in the family. What else do you want to know? I shift my legs. My fingers start dancing on their own. I’m not nervous: After all, I have taken it this far. And I will be brave enough – just barely enough – to bear the consequence. But those boys –

So, Mr. Duc-Anh, right? What do you know about these two men? The investigator pulls out two pictures – headshots of a man and a young boy in his early 20s. I glance at them and quickly avert my gaze.

Sir, I don’t know.

Surely you must know something? Or you simply don’t remember them?

Sir, I don’t know them.

Mr. Duc-Anh, no, uncle Nam Xi; you do realize by not telling the truth, you are causing more harm for both you and them, don’t you?

Sir, as I said, I don’t know them.

Alright. Uncle Nam Xi, I will just leave you here with a pen and a pad. You can write, draw, doodle – anything you want. I will be back quickly with an iced coffee for you. Will that be alright?

Alright.

The investigator stands up and walks towards the door. As he closes the door behind him, he stresses one last time to me:

You are causing more harm to both you and them, remember? All of it just because you are not telling the truth. Uncle Nam Xi, what is it all for?

Then he slams the door shut. I wait for his footsteps to fade away, then I pick up the pen and begin my story.

“You said you were from Binh Thuan?” The tall, muscular man sitting at the head of the boat shout. His strong accent suggested that he, too, came from Central Vietnam. That part where people always carried poverty on their shoulders. That same part where people were wailing and crying and fighting. For what? I don’t know. Perhaps for a slightly better life, or a slightly safer seaside to hang their fishing net. Perhaps somewhere in the wail, the people want something grander than themselves. Something like a country protected from invasion.

“Yes. So what?” I asked curtly. His strong accent reminded me of the burning heat that sunny day when the people were out on the street, being beaten by the police, yet refusing to muffle their cry. Sticks and stones were everywhere, literally. Among the blurry images in my mind, my daughter was standing there, leading the demonstration that had grown violent too soon.

“How’s Binh Thuan? I heard some terrible news there. I’m no different, you know,” he glanced at me quickly. His nose perked up, sensing my temper rising, “I’m from Da Nang.”

“Is there also a protest in Da Nang?”

“I don’t know,” he said, his eyes glistening with the same painful longing that I had, “I wish I can do something better, you know. At least, something better than these ‘I don’t know’,” he snorted, “My little brother says my mind is just like that of a ten-year-old: knows nothing, sees nothing, hears nothing.” He covered his eyes and ears. I went out of the boat’s hatch, watching the vast rivers and the open landscape before me. It’s weird how life carries itself on its staggering legs after the death of a person.

“I also wish I can do something better.”

“Like stopping the protest?”

“Like saving a life.” He sat there, watching my back silently. Then he drank the rice wine on the small table inside the boat as if to get more courage:

“Who?”

“My daughter. And by the way, that rice wine is mine.”

“Uncle, these types of stories always need a little bit of wine.” He poured himself another cup, ignoring my stare.

“Say, vài xị[1]?”

“What are you, Uncle? A weakling? At least, vài chai.” He laughed. This man really did see the boat as his second home. He looked strangely familiar. Where did I see his hideously good-looking face? I can’t remember.

I pulled out the rice wine bottles that I bought from the market. My daughter would say they are not good for my health; I’m already an old man, withering in my blood bath of blind grievance. But that doesn’t matter. Like this strangely familiar man said, these types of stories always needed a little bit of wine.

Uncle Nam Xi?

Yes, Mr. Officer?

Here’s your coffee. And that’s a nice little drawing. Is that your house? By the sea?

Yes.

And is that your wife? Your daughter?

Yes, and yes.

My daughter would be eighteen years old this coming summer. She was quite a beauty. My neighbors always said that it was lucky she looked just like her mother, not me. Because I was an ugly old man. My skin was only a few shades lighter than the charcoal her mother used to light up the stove. My teeth were crooked and yellow from all the smoking and drinking till morning. But I knew one thing about me that was not the slightest bit ugly: the love that I held tightly in my heart for her. There was an old saying, the snakehead died for its children. I was the snakehead.

But how could a snakehead raise a child? Ironically, by fishing other fishes. That was what I did before the fight broke out. I went to the sea, fishing for months then came home to her. Since the day my wife died, that was all I cared about. I guessed at the peak of my threadbare happiness, I didn’t care that much about my country. People said the Chinese were taking our lands. People said the Chinese factory was dumping their toxic waste into our ocean. People said a lot of things. And I told them, Does that concern me? Does that involve me and my little poor happy family by the sea? I had this very simple thought. As long as I could still go fishing, as long as I could still raise my child with this little money, then I didn’t care much.

But turned out it did matter. And it mattered a whole lot. They asked me, “Have you seen where we lived, Nam Xi?” I looked around, and all I could see were dirt and rocks. The sun was burning our crops, and the plentiful supply of rocks we had couldn’t grow rice. They told me, “We have a better chance of eating dirt and rocks than eating rice. Can you eat dirt and rocks, Nam Xi?” I held the fishing net in my hands. Just two days ago, our fishing boats were attacked by the Chinese warships on the open ocean. Our ocean. My Vietnamese mates were drowning under the dark Vietnamese ocean, and the non-Vietnamese attackers were laughing in my ears, “You are lucky to be alive.” I closed my eyes and asked myself, Why should I feel lucky to be alive? As I opened my eyes, I saw the Vietnamese sea being poisoned, the Vietnamese land being stolen meter by meter. The corpses of my fishing mates were floating by the shore; their hollow eyes stared at my stupefied ones.

And in front of the pile of corpses, the officers stared at us amidst the wails and the cries, asking coldly and calmly, “We told you not to fight against the foreign warships. What else do you want?”

Have you seen your comrades died before your eyes, Mr. Officer?

I haven’t. I bet my father did. He was a soldier. He had seen lots and lots of his comrades died.

But you haven’t? I smiled, gulping down the dark, flavorless water that he called “iced coffee.”

Yes, I haven’t, he repeats, and is that important?

It is, I say, wiping my tired eyes, It is the most important thing.

We wanted no foreign warships in our ocean, officers. We wanted no fishermen’s corpses on the seashore, officers. And most important of all, we didn’t want to die, officers.

“And still you sail out to continue fishing, despite knowing that the foreign warships are controlling of the ocean?” The man asked, gulping down more rice wine.

“There’s no other way. If I can’t get them fishes, then where else can I turn to to get some money? And,” I drank the rice wine from the bottle, slowly mistaking the vast rivers ahead for the immense ocean where the corpses of my daughter and my fishing mates lay, “who else will protect our ocean when even the officers refuse to care?”

“Those damn officers. What’s inside their heart? You think the country should be inside their heart, but turns out it doesn’t. Our country has evaporated, I tell you, and the only thing left standing in its place is the monuments. They are not my people. They don’t feel any pain. And if they can’t feel any pain, what use do we have for them, uncle?”

And he was right. The monuments did not protect us. The Party told us to stay away from the ocean. The Party stood there, silently watching the corpses of the Vietnamese fishermen killed and trampled upon by the foreign warships, and did nothing. They saw us dying, and they said, “We hear your trouble. What else do you want?”

“What else do we want, Uncle?” The muscular man said in his drunkenness, “They mean to say, ‘Besides all the brutal beating, all the coward lying, all the empty promising that will never become true, what else do you idiots want?’ They look at you and me, Uncle, on their high horses, and they see nothing but a bunch of marionettes who are willing to go where they lead. Because we have no real power, and the little ounce of courage we have left in our hearts is washed away by their brutality. What else do we really want, Uncle?”

And what else do you want, uncle?

It’s simple, Mr. Officer. We wanted a home. We wanted a family. We wanted a safe sea where we could go fishing to our heart’s content on the shore. We wanted a decent life. A life where a Chinese warship was a Chinese warship, and not a “foreign” ship, and they could not kill us. A life where the officers were not spewing half-truths and dirty make-believes. Perhaps in that life, my daughter would not have to lead a demonstration against the government to protect our land. Perhaps in that life, she could go to a normal school. It didn’t have to be a good school; an average one is good enough. She could wait for me at home. She could cook a warm meal for me. She could do everything that a child her age anywhere in the world would do instead of lying under eight feet of dirt and rocks. But hey, that’s too much to ask for, right?

So what did the criminal tell you? Did he provoke you to fight against the State?

No, as I said, Mr. Officer, I don’t –

Uncle Nam Xi, you and I, we both know what happened. Don’t make this harder for me than it already is, the old investigator takes back the pen and pad, then proceeds to sit down opposite me, ready to write down what I say.

“Uncle, you and I, we all lost the things that were most important to us. Everyone is losing everything in the fight. But why do we have to bear the cruelest pain, Uncle? Why does it have to be us?” He mumbled amidst his snoring.

Yes, why does it have to be us? I sometimes asked myself that question. It popped up in my mind more and more often since the day the corpse of my daughter was returned to me by the police. They caught her leading the demonstration, they said. They suspected she was the one who encouraged everyone to turn it into a violent protest, they said. They left her alone in the interrogation room and she committed suicide, they said. Half-truths and dirty make-believes. Now you tell me, Mr. Officer, what can an eighteen-year-old girl do to turn a demonstration into a violent protest? What hideous thing can make a happy, patriotic young girl commit suicide? And if you did leave her alone, Mr. Officer, why are there bruises on her frail body? This I did not ask. I did not have to ask. Because the truth from her pale, lifeless body stared at me blankly in the face. They killed her. And at the end of it all, they dared to ask me, “We warn you to not gather around, what else do you want?”

Uncle Nam Xi, not all of us is like that.

Yeah, I bet, I laugh in his face, The same way not all tigers eat meat, right? Sometimes they eat vegetables, too.

Uncle Nam Xi, don’t you want peace? The investigator sighs while twirling the pen between his fingers.

Peace? By being silent?

That’s not what I mean, but –

No, Mr. Officer. I don’t want peace, I lift up to look at him, feeling my throat tighten, I only want my daughter back.

“So you know what I want, Uncle? I want him dead. I want him painfully dead. I sneaked out into the night, chased after him, threw him off his motorbike, and fucking killed him. Now that’s what I want, I told him, that’s my equality. My justice. But he can no longer hear me. He stared at me from under that dark bridge as I ran away in the night. I asked him, laughing at his battered face, What else do you want. Uncle, this I know: If no one can save us, we will be our own Saviors. And there’s nothing wrong with that.”

That was also what I did, Nha. I nodded to his unintelligible mutter, knowing now why his face was familiar. The runaway murderer. Both of us. I sneaked out in the night, went to the interrogator’s house, asked him, “Did you kill my daughter?” He snorted and sneered,It’s her fault for going against the Party. What else do you want?” But I didn’t wait for him to finish his sentence. I struck him down with a machete I always carry with me on the fishing boat since the day the Chinese cruises attacked us. I struck his face, his chest, his legs, the places that he had struck my daughter. Seeing the blood slowly covered the brutal face, I struck once more at his heart. The comrades had no heart, they said. And perhaps it was true. Because inside his chest where his heart should be, I can only see a dark hollow. He had sold his heart to the “foreign” country. And the Vietnamese earth refused to sing him to sleep. I walked out of his house amidst the loud screaming of his wife, feeling peace and calm rush over me. The people opened up a road for me, and the earth beneath me carried my feet with tenderness. Just like that, I walked out of the village and went to live on these vast rivers. I want my daughter back. But the killing cannot bring her back. The bloody face of the interrogator cannot bring her back. The loud screaming and the pain of the interrogator’s wife cannot bring her back. Now you tell me, Mr. Officer, my daughter’s already dead. What else do I want?

Uncle Nam Xi, I’m sure we feel the same way about the unfortunate incident of your daughter, but –

No, I shut him down and drink the last drops of coffee, You don’t feel the same way. Heck, I bet you even have a daughter who was killed by the people you trusted the most. You can rely on your uniform and your power, Mr. Officer, but I cannot. I don’t have anything to lean on, to bounce back, to do anything for this, as you put it, unfortunate event to be less painful.

So you helped Mr. Nha escape?

I look him squarely in the eyes. Then, as if the coffee had done some magic on me, I slowly nod.

Yes, that’s why I helped him escape.

A strange noise startled me. Someone was coming down the riverside. The flashlight was flickering fast on the bank. I looked at the sleeping drunk man beside me. The Vietnamese earth cannot cover for us anymore. But I can do something. If no one can be our Saviors, then I can be his. I stood up, dragged him to the edge of the boat, and hurled him down the river.

Amidst the loud barking of the police dogs, I saw my daughter smile a gentle approval.


[1] T/N: A measurement for Vietnamese liquor.

Chapter 19: Only You Know

Sit down. State your name. Tell your story.

This will be a little bit personal, Sir.

Yeah, but will it be relevant to the case?

That I don’t know, Sir.

Then tell it anyway.

Are you saying that you have the authority to judge which ones of the evidences are relevant to the case and which ones are not, Sir?

We will see to it.

I was lighting up the rusty yellow bulb in front of Uncle Hai’s wretch of a door. Hai was late. He was always late.

Like the other day. Uncle Hai told him to come home at 7, ‘cause dinner won’t wait for no one. Or yesterday, when he told me he would be home by 5 ‘cause the café was emptier than the word “empty” itself.

Or like today, when I tugged on his wrist, asking him to come home by 7. “I don’t know, ‘cause dinner won’t wait?”

“Nha, Aunt Sau includes dinner in my employment.”

“‘Cause the café is empty anyways?”

“Only when Aunt Sau doesn’t fire the phong long paper.”

“It never works.”

“Who knows. Maybe today it will.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Then how can you be so sure?”

“’Cause – “

“Nha, we’ve been through this before.”

So you have been through this before?

Yeah. Whatever that was, we definitely have been through it many, many times before. Me putting out the questions. He refusing to stay. All of it all of it. So familiar.

And yet you were still putting out the questions?

‘Cause why not, yeah? Ain’t costing me nothing to try.

I let go of his thin wrist and thought about how the pale green veins lingered on my curious mind. The same shade of green of diluted watercolour, mingled with the feathery purple on a peacock’s tail. All of those forgotten beauties, hidden under the thin, cold human skin. A glimpse of the cold rejection from his hand made me forget my most stubborn reasons.

“‘Cause I’ll be waiting?”

 “You can sleep first, Nha.”

 “‘Cause the night is cold?”

“I have a coat.”

“You know damn well I’m running out of reason here.”

“Then try harder.”

“Say, what to do when one runs out of reason?”

Hai laughed. He put on his long-sleeve T-shirt – his so-called “coat.” Then, he fiddled with the buttons, brushed his short hair, and looked at himself in the mirror for the last time. Maybe he was waiting for me to said it. The right reason, dropping at the exact moment he walked one step out the door. I can imagine his light footstep, hanging on the door frame. And I wonder, How strange. How curious it was.

The way the smallest actions in the most ordinary setting can chip away at my heart.

“I don’t know, ‘cause I’ll be lonely?”

And were you lonely?

Why are you asking?

Because I think only lovers would feel that way about each other. But you were quite adamant in your interrogation in saying that you and him are not, as quoting here, “lovers.”

I don’t know. Is “lovers” the only choice?

Well, I don’t guess there is. But for the sake of convenience, we have to make do with one.

Then for the sake of convenience, we are not lovers, sir.

“Is that a statement or a question?”

“A statement?”

Hai didn’t answer. Of course. Even me, the owner of the embarrassing questioning statement, didn’t know how to answer it. But in a perfect world, he would say that I was right. That loneliness was always a good reason for someone to stay. That no one should never leave a criminal to his own solitude. He would say –

“You know that’s not helping. Loneliness is never a good reason for anything.”

Then he walked out the door. Leaving me waiting for him under the rusty yellow bulb in front of Uncle Hai’s wretched door.

Sometimes, it’s devastating to know that the only thing we can do for the one we care is nothing.

I took down the broken guitar I inherited by accident from Teo, my drinking buddy. The melody was never in tune. But like an old marriage, me and the guitar tolerated each other. And like how any old marriage turned out to be, we tolerated each other quite well.

In other words, the strings had stopped broken and my fingers had stop bleeding on the metal.

I strummed the strings to the melody of Hai’s recent obsession. He had these healthy obsessions with the not-so-healthy depressing songs. I had no right to judge. Though thinking back, I secretly despised the dreary melody of all the bad break-ups, the unrequited loves, and the raspy, sweet-nothing whispers that the singers sang to Hai’s ear each night.

Was that jealousy?

Is that jealousy?

Usually we would call that jealousy, yes.

And is jealousy only applicable to lovers?

There are many kinds of jealousy.

Then again, for the sake of convenience, let’s assume that this kind of jealousy, my jealousy, is not the lovers’ one.

Like the one I was strumming on the damned guitar. Ta-ta-ta-ta, ta-ta, ta-ta-ta-ta-ta.

Maybe one of these days, I will learn to love it.

Only you know where the oceans still have desires

Only you know, each and every night, I’m awake

“What are you doing with that broken guitar?”

I looked up at the source of the voice. I thought about how the angels on Heaven would sing to mortal men. For they have sinned. They have sinned from the day they figured out their only purpose in this life was –

“Drowning in this mess.”

“What mess?”

“Nothing. Just a song.”

“A song you can’t play?”

He asked me jokingly, unbuttoning his coat-T-shirt. He meant for me to fight back. And I was meant to be drowned.

“What song is it? Sounds a bit familiar.”

“I don’t know. That thing you played each night on repeat and you forced me to listen.”

“Oh. You have to narrow it down.”

“The one that goes, Ta-ta-ta-ta, ta-ta, ta-ta-ta-ta-ta.”

“Oh, that one. You’ve learned how to play it?”

“Yeah. Hear this.”

I strummed the string again, murmuring, Ta-ta-ta-ta –

“That’s not how to sing it. It’s more like this, One early morning, the sun shines through the leaves, and the wind yearns fervently – “

“Right. Don’t ask me to do the impossible.”

“Come on. Your singing couldn’t be any worse than your guitar skill.”

He signaled for me to continue the tune while he sang the first line of the chorus again. His eyes followed my crude fingers on the broken guitar. There was no tune or melody at all, no matter how hard I strummed the two strings left on it. All I could hear was Hai’s voice, leading the pack of flat, tedious sounds, turning the tuneless ta-ta-ta to the bad break-ups and the unrequited loves that I hated.

I watched his lips dance to the soundless music. My lips formed the same words of the lyrics again and again. In all of the impossibilities I could think of, our eyes met.

“So what’s after that?”

“What?”

“The song. How will it go after that?”

“Oh. Let’s see. Where are we at?”

“The second part. It starts at, Waiting for you – “

“Nah. I don’t remember that part.”

“Well, then what’s in your little brain? What can you remember? And don’t ta-ta me.”

He asked in that naturally provoking tone that I was so used to hearing. Anger didn’t work well with that tone. I threw him against the wall once, and it ended up making him more provocative.

But I knew what can work with it. I knew the things that can hang him on a rope, tighten his throat, and carve a beautiful scar on his thin neck. And I also knew I was not meant to use them.

But I used them anyways.

“I only know two lines from the song.”

“Well, go on. Sing it then.”

“Don’t laugh.”

“Promise.”

“It goes, Only you know –“

Only you know where the oceans still have desires

Only you know, each and every night, I’m awake

I suddenly realize I have lost in a strange place

I knew I was singing. But I wasn’t singing. I dropped the tender pain festering in my heart on the paper walls around Hai’s soul. I wasn’t singing. I spoke the words from the old folklore about the prince’s pining for another prince, who was getting married.

I wasn’t singing. It was but a raspy whisper from the despicable singer, which Hai used as an illusion of a lover’s lullaby on his sleepless nights.

I wasn’t singing. All I did was hurting both of us, because I was too much of a coward, and he was too much of an idiot.

“You should sing it to your lover,” he turned away, “you sing that part beautifully.” His long bang covered his face again, and he can’t see it. He can’t see my desire to break through that curtain of darkness and steal those eyes for myself.

Just like how I can’t clearly see him crying. All I did was imposing a feeling of sadness upon him. Maybe he wasn’t crying then. Maybe he never shedded a tear for all it took.

Maybe the saddest part of all my singing, all my acting, all my fervent yearning was just that – his love for me was not high enough to sink the pain in his soul under 8 feet of water, just for him to shed a tear.

“I don’t have a lover.”

“What do you have then?”

“An unrequited love for someone who loves me.”

“That so? I better get going.”

Hai stood up and hurried out the door, leaving me inside our make-believe world of thatched-roof and red brick walls. And by doing so, he protected me from the demons outside while crushing my soul and my existence at the same time. I talked to his fading shadow heading towards the darker side of the small village:

“I wasn’t singing, Hai. I was confessing a love that could never be.”

Was that relevant to the case, Sir?

I don’t know yet as to whether it is relevant to the case or not, Nha, but there is one thing I am sure of now.

And it is?

That this sounds more like a love story than anything I have ever heard of during my years of duty in this line of work.

I laugh. I can already see Hai protesting to the detective’s words, just as in his nature. But not me. Not this coward me. Not this spineless me. Not this criminal me, who the only wish now is just to see his face passing through the windows.

And I will sing to him, on the last of my day, my dearest, dearest little prostitute,

Only you know –

Chapter I: At My Age

“You know, people at my age often forget how their life ends up in a nursing home,” I scream as I climb down said nursing home’s gate. My voice, muffled by the beating rain of the coming storm, gets lost in the wind and the uselessness of the nursing home’s guards. “Or worse,” I don’t give up, “they are all dead. So what’s there to worry about?”

I make the final jump in front of the resounding round of applaud of the imagined elderly crowd and take a bow. “Buh-bye,” I wave at them and run away into the darkness of the (also) imagined stage. Behind me, the guards are screaming my name. Sorry sons, no encore this time around. With the small backpack on my shoulders, I leap through bushes and earth, and rock and wind and rain like the thief all my old friends dream of being. I’m stealing the crumbling remains of my withering life from the hands of – I don’t know – of some villainous guy who I never see eye to eye, Old Age. The gate opens. The flood of nursing-home-guard chases after me along with the infamous flood that occurs every damn rainy season in Saigon. Some guards speak to their walkie-talkie, demand for more guards and even the police to come over. But I don’t care.

The only thing I care about is to run. And run I do. Against the flood. Against the wind. Against the rain. Against the shaking legs and the crackling bones.

I run down the hill to the street. I chase after the invisible Freedom and try to catch that thief before he’s long gone. In my fervent pursuit, I jump into the signature green taxi and shout, “RUN!”. The driver startles from his sound sleep and looks at me befuddled. The guards are coming on to the car’s trunk like a wave. I shake the driver’s soul back into him, “RUN! GOD DAMMIT, RUN!”. He pushes the accelerator, and the car finally sprints forwards into the rain. I laugh like a mad man at the commotion behind me while the driver’s eyes tear a hole on my wrinkled face.

“You don’t look like the age for adventure, sir.” He says, not fully grasps the whole two-cent-drama-action-horror-adventure movie scene.

“Nah. You know what they call my age?” I ask, wiping rainwater from my face with a damp towel from the soaking backpack.

“What, sir?”

I grin at him, roll down the windows, and scream at the commotion of guard-wave behind me:

“It’s THE AGE OF NOT GIVING A FUCK! ADIEU!”

With my final laugh, the taxi merges onto a dimly lit street and disappears into the night. And that is how I miraculously escape Old Age. Hearing this story, the taxi driver says, “My Ancestor always says that there’s never a madness that’s the same as other madness.” And I tell him it’s true. “You must hear the story about the guy who is my roommate,” I say as I squeeze the rainwater from my shirt.

“He also escapes?”

“That’s the tricky part, son. He never escapes anything. Not Old Age. Not the nursing home. Not the solitude that is closing in on him like a vacuum bag. He never escapes, and guess what?”

“You tell me, sir.”

“He died. Last week. So you tell me what’s the moral of the story?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“The moral is, we are all dying, son. But dying without at least trying to escape? Nah, not me. Not this glorious bastard.”

“May I ask how old you are, sir?” The driver looks at me through the rearview mirror.

I grin at him. “This is not very appropriate but,” I lean back on the taxi seat, “ I’m currently not-giving-a-fuck years old.”

He is silent. It seems he has to think hard about my age, about the two-cent-drama-action-horror-adventure movie scene, and about the dead old man who used to be my living roommate. Then, with a solemn gravity, he says:

“My Ancestry is right. There’s never a madness that’s the same as other madness.”