Thi Hanh and I moved to Tan Chau village last year. Tan Chau lies on the Thanh Hoa canal, which sings with freedom as it flows into the Mekong River on its way to the sea. Only the wind and the water, which you cannot imprison, are truly free. Even Thi Hanh, my daughter once, is no longer free. Children taken by the wood nymphs never are.
I live alone now. In a one-room hut that squats like a huge thatched toad along the canal, surrounded by mangrove swamps, tamarinds, and oleanders. My hut is very small. An oaken cot, an amboyna wood table, a kerosene lamp, a stove, and three chairs. In the evenings, when you should not go out, I sit by my door, running my hands along the scraggly surface of the table as though stroking a salamander, and I wait for the return of Thi Hanh. Finches chirp in a nearby kapok tree, and grasshoppers ratchet in the hay fields. The monsoons have ceased, and the wet hay smells like the warm matted hair of a water-sprite who has surfaced in the canal now the storm has passed. You say the waters have no spirits? Ask the peasants. In Viet Nam such things are “standard operating procedure,” as the Americans say.
These Americans have many little expressions that stick in the mind. I like that, though my native language is French. Are you surprised Nguyen Minh Long, Third Chief Assessor (Retired) in the Materials Division, Ministry of War, Republic of Viet Nam, speaks French better than Vietnamese? My enemies, Mr. Loc and Miss Huyen, said the only Vietnamese part of me was my “hide,” that anybody who came through the French schools like Lasan Taberd was a plant dying of thirst, whose roots never sprouted in native soil and had to turn back to the surface to survive. And their malice was not confined to me. . ..
My hut measures 576 square feet, exactly. You see I am precise with numbers. I cannot give up old habits easily. When I was an accountant back in Saigon, my numbers were important. Indeed I may say in all modesty that the great success which the Republic of Viet Nam enjoys against the Communist aggressors from the North is due in no small part to the numbers of Nguyen Minh Long. Does that surprise you? Do I strike you, in my seclusion here, as a cog in the wheel? Look at the great river which flows near my village. Is it not made of billions of tiny drops, each one necessary for reaching the sea? And did not Colonel Dinh, my boss, and even the minister himself once, the Honorable Vo Van Muoi, praise my work?
I remember the day well. Mr. Muoi was on an inspection tour shortly before the 1971 presidential elections. I can be precise, of course. It was at 3:03 p.m. on Monday, September 27, and I had just returned to the Ministry from my afternoon siesta. Slackers like Mr. Loc and Miss Huyen cheat the government of their time, but I am always back at my desk by 3:00 p.m. sharp. Light streamed through the high arched windows of the central accounting room. They’d just switched on the ceiling fans after the lunch break, and waves of heat coiled up from the floor like charmed cobras. The air was thick with the fumes of petrol from the courtyard, where I’d parked my Vespa motorbike. It was very hot and I felt a bit nauseous, but I was already hunched over my numbers, working hard as usual.
The minister’s visit was a momentous event. The election was less than a week away, and our careers depended on a “certain result.” The Americans had made it clear that the amount of their aid, a certain number, depended on President Thieu’s getting a fixed percentage of the vote, another certain number. Our great leader’s victory on October 3 in turn depended on convincing the people he had achieved such and such a level of success against the Communists, other certain numbers. Numbers. The Americans are in love with them. I leave the “body counts” to them. Such things are too crude for me. But Nguyen Minh Long is the master of other numbers, and everyone at the ministry knows that.
That is why Colonel Dinh steered Mr. Muoi straight to my desk that day. The minister peeked over my shoulder, to see I was doing my job as well as he’d been led to expect, I suppose, and all eyes turned toward us. Loc’s, particularly, glittered with envy. I was not nervous at all, I remember, even when Mr. Muoi asked me in a commanding voice for the exact number of North Vietnamese tanks sighted in Chau Doc the previous month. Though I knew how important my answer was, I barely glanced at my numbers. They wouldn’t have helped anyway, since they are four months behind. But Chau Doc was a troubled region, so I kept the figure low. I told him ten, and the minister broke into a broad smile and clapped me on the back.
“Excellent, Desk No.—”
He looked about for the number, which is tacked on the side.
“Thirteen, Mr. Minister,” Colonel Dinh spoke up. “This is Mr. Long, our efficient Third Chief Assessor.”
“Excellent, Mr. Long,” Minister Muoi repeated. “Keep up the good work.”
I bowed, for I am a modest man. Mr. Muoi turned to go, explaining he was quite busy just then, caught up in the details of the election, and couldn’t stay any longer. But the precise number of North Vietnamese tanks sighted in Chau Doc province in August was fixed forever in his mind. After that can you say Nguyen Minh Long is a mere cog in the wheel?
It was not for any little inaccuracies in my reports that I was asked to leave the ministry the next year. Even though Mr. Loc, who coveted my job, and Miss Huyen, whose advances I spurned, spread the rumor that people died because of my numbers. That is the kind of malicious talk a man like me has to put up with. Is Nguyen Minh Long responsible for the ambush of a regiment in Tay Ninh in June of 1972? Or the hasty retreat from the Central Highlands of General Truong’s troops a month later? I am a statistician, not a tactician. My numbers never lie. Colonel Dinh knows that, and put me in for promotion to Second Chief Assessor even as the helicopters flew back from Kontum. Surely he would have told me had I been at fault. . . .
No, other rumors, equally false and malicious, forced me to retire. My enemies accused Thi Hanh of keeping company with spirits. “Possessed,” I think the term is. They did not call them “spirits” exactly, but I knew what they meant. They said she once stared into the beating heart of a charcoal basket fire at a meatball vendor’s and read in the pulsating coals the name of a man doomed to die that night. Tran Van Be. And that she discovered the name of another victim, Nguyen Thai Vinh, by groping inside the torso of a decapitated pheasant at the Marche Central and yanking out the liver, whose texture she then read with her fingers, like the blind. And sure enough, the next day’s newspapers carried the obituaries of Tran Van Be and Nguyen Thai Vinh. . . . Or so they said.
I was above such talk, but you will quickly believe how Mr. Loc and Miss Huyen used these absurd tales to discredit me. Long’s got a mad one in the family. Probably in the blood. That land of talk was mainly Loc’s. Huyen was still trying to get me to notice her, sidling by my desk every morning with her ao dai slit higher than usual, displaying a thin square of thigh flesh soft and pink as a newborn pig’s. . . . But after I “turned a cold shoulder on her,” she began to suggest things worse than spirits, that perhaps Third Assessor Long’s daughter was not really mad and that something more sinister was behind all those sudden deaths. . . .
As for Hanh herself, of course there was nothing wrong. Nothing at all. It’s true I didn’t see her much after she started night classes at Van Hanh University, and that we hardly spoke after her mother died in a crossfire during the Tet offensive in 1968. She felt I had no business being away when the Communists attacked, that I must have known something was up. I reminded her Colonel Dinh had ordered me to Dalat after I suggested I check in person on the numbers I was getting from the Highlands. But when Hanh gets like that, she is as unreasonable as Loc or Huyen, so I have always been closer to her brothers, Hai and Truyen. You must not misunderstand me. Of course Thi Hanh and I love each other. All children love their parents. But a man is closer to his sons. Still, all this talk about possession was absurd.
But once a successful man arouses the envy of his associates, they will stop at nothing to destroy him. About a month before my strange talk with Colonel Dinh my young assistant, Thanh, who worships me, told me people in the office were discussing how “remarkable” it was that the combat units of Nguyen Minh Hai and Nguyen Minh Truyen never did much fighting, that they always ended up assigned to places like Bien Hoa or Vung Tau.
“They say it’s not mere coincidence, Mr. Assessor,” Thanh whispered, confidentially. He glanced over his shoulder, and I knew at whom.
“That is outrageous,” I replied, though secretly flattered to think Loc and Huyen believed I had the power to influence troop assignments like that. “Scurrilous!”
“They even say,” Thanh went on, “that the Fifteenth Division. . . .”
He stopped and looked flustered. The Fifteenth Light Armored Division is Hai’s. I bristled.
“They say what, Mr. Thanh?” I snapped.
“Well. . . ,” Thanh hesitated, glancing back again. “They say—”
“Why do you keep looking over your shoulder? Come on. Out with it.”
“Well, Chief Assessor.” I like it when Thanh calls me that, and I bowed.
“They say the Fifteenth is afraid to fight and stays in Vung Tau because it knows the Communists will never attack the coastal resorts.”
“What!” I shot up from my desk but quickly remembered what I owed to my position. I glared in the direction of Loc and Huyen, then eased back into my chair.
“Thank you, Mr. Thanh,” I said stiffly, grabbing a paper and pretending I didn’t have time for such nonsense. “But you must not believe everything you hear.”
I dismissed him with a turn to my numbers. It is not wise to encourage subordinates in this land of talk. As for Loc and Huyen, for the time being I would do nothing. We have a saying that it is beneath the dignity of the buffalo to swat at flies. I could deal with them later.
A monsoon breeze fans the palm trees lined like sentries along Pasteur Street. Past old French villas dark and silent in the pre-dawn, swirling among the fronds, twisting in and out of trunks and over and around walls, mindless of the curfew it ignores with impunity. Seven spirits of the night, out following the breeze, also have no curfew. Carrying things as material as ropes and grappling hooks, they vault the watt at No.217 along with the wind and drop down on the courtyard on the other side. Even spirits divide by gender and four male and three female, young, permeate stone and darkness unsensed by man or animal. They bend their attention on a certain window on the second floor just off a balcony festooned with wrought-iron lilies. Up from the courtyard clambers a female spirit, lightest and most determined of the seven. She is level with the balcony, black against the night, her face that appears human in the moonlight the only white showing. Her gloved hands clutch the lilies in quest of a grip, and then the slim figure hoists itself over the balcony and down onto the tiles.
High frosted windows yawn into the breeze. The spirit penetrates a sitting-room, deserted of occupants, the sleeping chamber lying beyond. Tables, credenza, chairs, foils to the material melt in front of her, for the plan of the house was given her several days before. She is not new at this job, is good at it. The distant street-lamp at the corner of Pasteur and Phan Dinh Phung streets, more than the dull moon which glances off the cream-colored door of the bedroom, uncovers the bright steel knife which she slides up from her ankle into her hand. Past the door two figures sleep, Vice Minister Bao of the Ministry of Interior and his wife, and the spirit approaches the bed. Silently. One black gloved hand muffles the mouth of Vice Minister Bao and the steel pares the throat at the same time, whipsawing flesh and muscle in a single swift motion with which the young spirit dices life. Vice Minister Bao cannot cry out as his vocal chords snap like strands of cuttlefish and he begins to thrash and drown in the blood of his severed carotid. But in his final minute he opens his eyes and sees, staring back at him, eyes as human as his, round and grey, silent and fitted with hate. The spirit takes the hand which wielded the knife and covers the man’s eyes as well as his mouth. She leans heavily upon him to squeeze out the last ounce of life. There is not throat enough left for a rattle, only blood everywhere, which wets and threatens to rouse the wife now tossing on the other side of the bed. The spirit grips the knife again and hurries round, but the woman, though awake at last, is easier to kill. She lies without a sound, eyes open, yielding and unbelieving, not that she is about to die but that it is another woman who has come to do this job of kitting. She collapses under the knife, and the spirit, her task completed, removes her blood-soaked gloves and pins a paper to the pillow. A political tract, a warning to the finders in the morning, much like those she has left behind on other beds, and then she leaves.
“We do not question your loyalty, Mr. Long. It’s just that your family seems—well, so peculiarly situated.”
“How so, my colonel?”
Nguyen Minh Long always speaks in a respectful but dignified tone to his superiors. Even when what they have to convey is unpleasant. I could never have risen to the rank of Third Chief Assessor without knowing my place. I attempted a smile and nodded slightly at Colonel Dinh’s use of the word “peculiarly.”
“Consider what is said of your sons,” he went on, looking up from his desk. “Your older one doesn’t seem to do much, does he?”
I knew this was coming, of course, from what Thanh had told me, and I arched my back for battle. The ceiling fan chopped the air overhead, and fine eddies of wind whirled round me like harpies of slander let loose by Loc and Huyen. I fixed the colonel with my eye, for I had my dignity and that of my family to maintain.
“Hai is with his unit at Vung Tau,” I said. “He does what his commander tells him.”
Colonel Dinh planted his elbows on the desk in a triangle ending with his fingertips, as though he were praying. The nails were dirty, as always, but I had never fully noticed them before. The colonel had a farmer’s nails. Nha que nails. I looked down instinctively at my own hands, which Madame Bai at the Eden Roc had worked so hard over just the day before. They were so silken, so smooth. I glanced up again. Nha que. It is not a term of respect in my country, far from it.
“I would hope so, Mr. Long,” he said, a bit sternly to my thinking. “But that is not the point. The whole unit is idle because they have not been ordered to the field.”
Colonel Dinh paused and leaned back in his chair. I kept my eyes steady on him, for Nguyen Minh Long has nothing to fear. I was determined to force him to finish the thought with no help from me.
“Even though the Twelfth and Eighteenth regiments of the North Vietnamese Third Division have been spotted just north of Phuoc Le in recent days. Here—”
He leaned forward and reached inside a drawer.
“—look at these. They were taken just last week.”
He handed me some reconnaissance photos. I vaguely remember seeing a tank or two, and some missiles. Such things were not new to me. I handed them back in silence, making sure I did not come in contact with those dirty nails.
“Well?” he said, his voice rising. “Why this NVA activity not report? What you say about that?”
I winced. Whenever Colonel Dinh gets excited, he drops his words. It is distressing for an educated man to listen to. Nha que, nha que, I kept thinking, like a mantra I couldn’t dislodge from my head. If only he’d gone to the Lycee. . . .
“These photos could be taken anywhere.” I tried to remain deferential. “As for the regiments, you said yourself they’d only been spotted recently.” I applauded myself on my reasoning. “How could I incorporate them into my analysis yet?”
Colonel Dinh, though an adequate fonctionnaire, is not bright, and what I said made him hesitate. I smiled indulgently. I like the French word for bureaucrat. It expresses the mediocrity of individuals like Colonel Dinh with dirty fingernails exactly. Capable of functioning. Nothing more.
“Well then, what about your other son? Truyen. What do you say about him?”
“What about him?” I shot back, with perhaps not quite the unction he expected. He seemed taken aback.
“Are you aware he has deserted his platoon? In fact, seven months ago.”
Malicious persons like Loc and Huyen might have said I blanched at this startling accusation, but they would be wrong. Nguyen Minh Long has always been remarkably self-possessed.
“That cannot be, my colonel,” I responded, though not as quickly as I might have.
“And that you have always reported his unit at Bien Hoa to be intact?” he pursued. He now stood up and placed his arms straight downward on the desk, leaning forward toward me. I looked at his hands, searching for the dirty fingernails, but all I could see were his fists on the desk, knuckles outward. Somehow this disconcerted me.
“Well, I. . . .” I hesitated.
“You what?” Colonel Dinh snapped. He positively snapped, of that I am certain. It was my turn to be taken aback.
“Well, I. . . , I don’t know,” I said. Mr. Loc would have said I stammered. “That was the way it was reported to me.”
“Then how do you explain this?” He reached inside his desk again and pulled out a document which he thrust at me. Report on Nguyen Minh Truyen, Private First Class, Twenty-third Airborne Division, Army of the Republic of Viet Nam, Bien Hoa, Viet Nam. And the date, some five months previous. My eyes did not go past the fateful words “AWOL.” I felt faint and handed the report back to him, saying, “But this is the first I have heard of this, Colonel. Surely you do not believe that I, Nguyen Minh Long, would deliberately falsify military reports? Who says this of me?”
Although I knew. Colonel Dinh just stared at me in silence.
“I really know nothing of this, my colonel. You must believe me,” I said, although, even to my way of thinking, without much conviction.
“That’s what you say,” he sniffed, stuffing the report back into his drawer. “But now,” he said, smiling simply and sitting down again. “Tell me about your daughter.”
Before long they will make me chief here, in Tan Chau village. I am sure of that. I can see how they look up to me. Even though those little rumors about Thi Hanh forced me from the ministry. These people know nothing about that, of course, and besides, they need organization, someone who has a sense of government. And well, to put it modestly, someone with talent, too.
I wonder whether Thi Hanh will come back to watch my return to power. I hope so. Though she was always different when she was young, stern, silent for days, wandering off by herself even at the strangest hours. The Tan Dinh night guard brought her home once after curfew, saying they didn’t have the heart to throw her into Chi Hoa prison, she was that pretty. . . . Think of what Miss Huyen would have made of that. A daughter of Third Chief Assessor Long in jail! Thi Hanh wouldn’t tell me where she’d been that night, even after I beat her. . . .
And now she has gone off with the wood nymphs, with the spirits. I miss her, of course, the way all parents miss a child who has failed to understand them. There is a sense of incompleteness, of something that needs to be “wrapped up” between us. Even when Thi Hanh was still here, our life together was . . .inconclusive. And now she has gone.
In the afternoons, before the rains come, I sit on a little camp stool on my veranda and stare at the black waters of the canal as they crawl past my hut, and I wait for her return. A dry wind furls the channel and lifts the sweet sugary scent of ripening cassava from the manioc field and sets it down at my door. You can almost feel the leaven thickening in the air. Otherwise the forests, the fields, are stagnant and still. It is as though the earth itself is waiting for Thi Hanh. Tinselled dragonflies skim the duckweed-choked canal, their laced wings crackling like electric filament as they hunt for mosquitoes. Every so often a huge dragonfly swoops down on an insect hiding behind a lily pad and tears it free, soaring off again without getting a wing wet. It is amazing. I love to watch them, for hours sometimes, preying on the life beneath them. . . . They say Nguyen Van Toan, the village chief in Cho Moi, twenty miles down river, tried to hide too. just like those mosquitoes, with no more success. . . . It makes me pause when I think of my plans here, but Toan was not particularly smart.
You don’t believe in wood nymphs? Before what happened to Thi Hanh I would have agreed with you, calling them a peasant superstition which a sophisticated man should laugh at. But now I am not so sure. Nguyen Minh Long is Vietnamese, after all, and these beliefs run deep among my people. In fact, we have a whole world of spirits here, who inhabit the thin grey line between the real and the unreal like ghostly sentinels of the crepuscule. Spirits of the woods, the lakes and rivers, the sky and earth. I have never seen one myself. I am not susceptible to such things. But Mother Quy, the old woman in the hut next to mine, swears she saw the wood nymphs that took away Thi Hanh.
My daughter had gone out walking to the end of the village, just as the sun was setting, as was her custom. I often warned her not to. We have no curfew here, but we have the fear of the Communists to keep us inside when night falls. But even in this, to my great disappointment, Thi Hanh would not listen to me.
On that night Ba Quy was out late herself, doing her washing in the canal because her brother Ngai was expected from Long Xuyen the next day. As it was getting dark and she was bending over in the water, scrubbing the wet sheets with pumice stone and humming a folk tune to ward off evil spirits, she sensed something behind her and wheeled, frightened out of her wits. But it was only Thi Hanh, dressed all in black as if in mourning, though her mother has been dead for years. She was walking in a trance, Ba Quy says, pale as the moon goddess. Mother Quy called out good evening, but Thi Hanh passed her by without a word. She just kept marching toward the bamboo forest at the edge of the village. Feeling slighted, and not a little curious, Ba Quy stumbled along the bank behind her, keeping in the shadows. Then she saw them. Three or four black figures sprang up out of the earth and swallowed Thi Hanh the way my dragonflies gobble their prey. Ba Quy leaped back when she saw them and stifled a cry, or they would have swallowed her, too. For a moment she took them to be human, for they murmured something to Thi Hanh, who appeared to answer. But when my child disappeared into the earth with them, Ba Quy screamed and ran in terror, back along the canal straight to her hut, where she clapped the door shut and lay shivering in the dark the rest of the night. She even forgot her laundry, which her neighbors found floating in the water the next day.
Mother Quy is certain it was the wood nymphs, even though her eyes are bad and it was late. She insists Thi Hanh would not have followed them into the earth without resisting if they had been anything else. They must have bewitched her. And it was the ease with which Thi Hanh slipped into the supernatural that caused the old woman to panic and run away. . . .
Ba Quy says she is gone forever, that once a person is taken by the wood nymphs she never returns to the land of the living. But I have my doubts. Such things are too absurd, really, and besides, I want my daughter to witness my return to public life. That is why I sit here, day after day, on my camp stool at the edge of the canal, thinking not so much of my enemies’ victory over me back in Saigon as of my great plans for Tan Chau. You see, Nguyen Minh Long is an optimist. And I watch my dragonflies circle and swoop down on the mosquitoes below, who have no inkling of the fate hovering over them. As for my daughter, Thi Hanh, I know she will return.