Spring 2014, Volume 16

Fiction by Khanh Ha

Sleeping Beauty

I drive back to the inn in a downpour, and by the time I reach the inn at noon it begins slacking off. Now the sky is clearing and the breeze carries the heat south, leaving a breath of moistness in the air.

The roadside inn where I live and work is old in the deep south of the Mekong Delta. The owner and his wife of the second generation are in their late sixties. The old woman runs the inn, mainly cooking meals for the guests, and I would drive to town twenty kilometers south to pick up customers. After putting the groceries away I go checking on the old man and see that his wife is bathing him in the bathhouse, adjoined to the side of the inn. The door of Mrs. Rossi’s room is open but I do not see Chi Lan. She came to my inn with her American mother who adopted her in 1974 when she was five years old. She’s eighteen now.

On a rainy day like this, Mrs. Rossi stays home. She came to this region to search for the remains of her son, a lieutenant who went missing-in-action during the Vietnam War.

I go back down and out to the rear. The rain has stopped and the field blazes in the sun. Hazy wisps of vapor is curling over the ground. On the skunk tree a yellow weaver is coming back with blades of grass in its beaks. Dangling on a branch is its funnel-shaped nest, about done. The agave at the base of the tree is flowering for the first time. Strong, broad and fleshy leaves are spiny along their edges. It must have flowered overnight. Now the flowers burst forth in busy bottle brushes and their sunset red strikes the eye against the cactus-green of their leaves. And that was Chi Lan’s impression of the agave the first time she saw it by the skunk tree. She thought it was cactus. I told her the old woman had wanted it uprooted so she could use the area for a vegetable plot. But I said to do it you’d need an ox to pull it up. Chi Lan smiled and said she liked its lone, fierce look. I said to her, “Looks unusual but pretty when it flowers.” And she said, “I’ll photograph it when I see it.”

I wonder where Chi Lan must have gone when my eyes catch a sudden glint of beaded water on the agave bush.

I run down the veranda to the rain-soaked field and find her lying on her back behind the agave. Drenched, her leaf-green T-shirt clings to her skin, her hair matted in strands on her face. Slung across her shoulder is the camera strap, the camera itself in the crook of her arm that flops on the ground. I grab her arm, check for pulses. Her eyes shut, lips parted slightly. I can feel her pulses. There are mud stains on the sides of her white shorts and her legs fold into each other at the knees as though she’s sleeping. No bite marks on her legs. The two prominent bite marks that would have told of snakebite. None on her neck. Then I see a small red bump on her upper arm near the elbow. The red looks fresh on her light skin. I see the stinger. A wasp sting. The old woman got stung once by a wasp and nearly fainted when she got into the house.

I gather the girl in my arms and carry her up the veranda and into my room. She must be allergic to the wasp sting. Certain of that, I lay her gently on my narrow bed and work the camera strap off her neck. Water is dripping from her clothes. The purplish color of her lips makes me wonder how long she has lain in the rain. When I look again at her soaked-through clothes especially her T-shirt, I know I must do something. I snatch a bath towel from the wall hook and after some hesitation begin drying her. Her skin is cold and her T-shirt is so soggy that I stop wiping her wetness and, the towel flung over my shoulder, manage to peel the T-shirt off her body. It drips onto the floor as I drape it over the back of the chair. I pull out a clean shirt in the old mango-wood dresser and, sitting down on the edge of the bed, look at her. Her face pales against her strikingly black hair. My worry for her becomes muted, for I am drowned in the moment. I dry her hair, her face, then her chest. My hands stop. A bright red mole beckons me to her bosom. Its fullness touches my hands. A crimson mole on the creamy white of her skin. Unspeakable beauty. I struggle to get my shirt on her. As if changing shirt for a child that needs care. Or for a woman with whom I have just shared intimacy. My short-sleeved shirt on her is too wide at the shoulders it sags. I want her to wake up. Yet I want the moment not to end. I believe I hear her noticeable breathing now. I don’t know what to do with her mud-stained shorts but I know what I must do right away.

I boil water on the hot plate and while waiting for the water to heat up, I cut some ginger slices and drop them into my coffee mug together with a tea bag. I hear her stir. When I glance over, she is trying to sit up.

Chú,” she says with some difficulty. Her voice is soft with a lilt in ‘chú.’ Uncle.
“Lie back down,” I say, moving to the bed.

She looks down at herself and touches her face then her arm, her eyes unfocused. “I can’t remember what happened.”

“You were stung by a wasp.” I take a cigarette out. “Were you out there photographing something?”

“Yes, chú. The agave flowers.” She looks at my cigarette. “Your cigarette is wet.”

“From carrying you in.”

“It won’t light I’m sure.”

“Maybe it won’t.” I tear the cigarette paper, set it on the bed and point at the brown tobacco. “I’m going to put this on the sting. But first let me pick out the stinger.”

I hold her arm by the elbow, feeling her faint breathing on my forehead, and screw my eyes to look at the tiny stinger left in the reddened bump and pinch the end of the stinger with my long fingernails. The hard stinger comes out. Like a fishbone.

“Is it venomous?” she asks, drawing a sharp breath.

“No. But it can knock you out.” I daub a pinch of tobacco with my saliva and paste it on the lump. “Does it hurt bad?”

“It’s stinging now.” She bites her lower lip, rubbing the swelling. “You said a wasp did this?”

“Here’s the proof.” I hold up the stinger. “Could be a digger wasp or a great black wasp. Those I’ve seen around the inn.”

After I bandage her arm, she pulls up her soiled legs and rest the bandaged arm on her knee. She massages the swelling. “I don’t recall what happened to me.” She leans her head to one side, her eyelids fluttering. “Well, maybe I do. I felt something very painful on my arm. I took a couple more pictures then suddenly I felt dizzy.”

“It’ll take a day or so before the pain goes away.”

The water boils. I walk over to the table and pour hot water into the mug. Blowing on it, I bring it to her. “This will help ease the sting.”

She looks down at her knees, not taking the mug from me. “I’m wearing your shirt, chú.”

“Yeah.” I keep my voice even. “You were soaked through. Have a sip of tea.”

She says nothing, keeping her head down. I wait. The mug breathes curling vapor. She takes hold of the mug with both hands but avoids meeting my eyes. Her face reddens. She hides her expression behind the mug tilted up, only her eyes glimpsing at me then at her T-shirt flopping and still dripping over the back of the chair. A tiny black mole dots the corner of her left eye. I think of the red mole. My gaze makes her drop her head. She shifts on her bottom. The bed creaks. Its white sheet is wet and stained black.

“Your bed is messed up,” she speaks to her knees. “I’ll clean it up, chú.”

“Will you do the wet floor too?” I grin at her nervousness.

She giggles then winces and touches the bandaged bite. Her mussed-up hair, still wet, gives her an untamed look so pale so raw that for the first time I feel a man’s desire for her.

“I’m surprised,” she says with the mug still covering half her face, “you could carry me in from out there.”

“I had to.”

She watches me wipe dry her camera with the towel. “Thank you, chú,” she says, peering across at me. “Did you buy the tobacco today? My Mom said she’d do what you’ve told her to.”

“Yeah. Then you can soak her socks in the tobacco water. Make sure they have enough time to dry before she wears them in the morning.”

I’d told her mother the cure against leeches in the forest.

Chi Lan caresses her bandaged forearm. “Are you sure it’ll take the sting out of me, this tobacco treatment?”

“I’ve done that myself. For wasp sting.”

“You got stung by a wasp?”

“It knocked me out, like it did to you.” Picking up the torn cigarette off the bed, my hand brushes her foot. “I was a North Vietnamese soldier then.We were behind the lines, deep in the jungle.”

At that time, I tell her, I was deserting my unit and for the whole night I kept moving not even resting my feet. By morning I came upon a trail. Just when I took to the trail I got stung by a wasp. It left its stinger in my forearm. I pulled it out and kept walking and felt miserable with that numbing pain like someone had punched a hot needle into your arm. The trail took me to a graveyard in a clearing. Then everything suddenly went black before me. When I woke, I was lying facedown and around me the earth was red. Red dirt, red humps of  graves, red-stem taros with their giant elephant-ear leaves flopping like red fans, and just as the vision of red struck me that I was dying I heard a shoveling noise. I sat up. Nearby a man in a visor cap stopped digging and looked over at me. He was an old man. I said I passed out after a wasp stung me and he began doctoring my sting with the cigarette tobacco. He told me he took care of the graveyard. He thought I was a corpse and he was ready to bury me. He said he buried corpses just about every other day when trucks brought in bodies from the front line. Or he buried the remains of those mauled and eaten by tigers that ran out of the regions destroyed  by the American bombing. Sometimes he buried the deserters’ corpses.

She lowers the mug and her face looks calm again. “That must’ve been a bizarre encounter. I wonder what’d happen if you didn’t wake up soon enough when he was set to bury you.”

I chuckle at her remark. “I wouldn’t be sitting here telling you this.”

She gives a small laugh. “I would’ve been dead if it were a poisonous snakebite.”

“Yeah. So be careful when you’re out there.”

She sips, then offers me her mug of tea.

“Just one sip.” I receive the mug from her, cupping my hands over hers, and sip.

Rubbing her arm, Chi Lan says, “It hurts, chú.”

“I was worried when I saw you lying out there.”

“What if someone here got bitten by a poisonous snake?”

“The old woman has antidote. There’s a jar in the refrigerator. It has a label in both Vietnamese and English.”

She laughs. “Chú, I won’t mistake it for the cooking broth.”

A water bead rolls down the side of her face. She hunches up one shoulder and dries her cheek with the shoulder of her shirt―my shirt. Breathing in sharply she keeps her face tilted at me, smiling. “Now I smell of tobacco just like you. From wearing your shirt.”




BIO: Khanh Ha is the author of Flesh (2012, Black Heron Press) and The Demon Who Peddled Longing (November 2014, Underground Voices). The winner of 2014 ROBERT WATSON LITERARY PRIZE IN FICTION, a finalist of the Tethered by Letters Journal’s 2013 FALL LITERARY AWARD, a three-time Pushcart nominee and a two-time Best of the Net Award nominee, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Waccamaw Journal, storySouth, Greensboro Review, Permafrost Magazine, Saint Ann’s Review, Poydras Review, The Underground Voices, Moon City Review, The Long Story, Red Savina Review, DUCTS, ARDOR, Lunch Ticket, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Sugar Mule, Yellow Medicine Review, Tethered by Letters Journal, Drunk Monkeys, and other fine journals.