She Weeps Each Time You're Born
By Quan Barry
On this we do not agree. Some of us say she was made manifest in a muddy ditch on the way to the pineapple plantation. Others say it happened hunkered down in a piggery, the little ones with their wet snouts full of wonder at the strange bristle-less being wriggling among them for milk. Either way we bow to you. Believe us when we say life is a wheel. There was no beginning. There is no end. But we will tell you the story as she believes it occurred under the full rabbit moon six feet below ground in a wooden box, her mother’s hands cold as ice, overhead the bats of good fortune flitting through the dark.
When Little Mother took off her non-la under the jackfruit tree, Lam knew what he had to do and he knew what he wasn’t capable of doing. All his long life he’d been the hand that shields the candle guttering in the storm. And now this young woman was standing in his yard underneath the jackfruit tree, the cuffs of her loose black pants dirty from paddy water. It was obviously the mosquito sickness, the kind that can eat twenty pounds off a grown man in under a week. Yes, it was definitely the mosquito sickness, but there was something else. He tried not to stare. Her pregnant stomach was stretched tight, her cheeks sunken, gums receding as if she had already died and nobody told her.
He was just coming back from gathering the wild peony root. With his cane, the errand took twice as long. The flower grew in a small grove along the road to the mountain. He had heard that on the other side of the mountain the landscape was bombed flat, empty C-rations and discarded magazines and clothes and everything the Americans no longer wanted strewn in the places where the butterfly bush used to flower.
He lifted his cane and motioned for her to follow him inside. A jackfruit fell from the tree and broke open, the smell instantly on the wind. Little Mother nodded and put her hat back on. Something shimmered at her feet. Lam blinked and rubbed his eyes. When he looked again, it was gone. He was an old man, older than Uncle Ho would have been were the old patriot still alive. He was old enough to remember the famines brought on by the Japanese army and their insatiable hunger for rice. Still, he knew what he’d seen shimmering at her feet—a ring of words shining in a perfect circle on the ground around her. Sôn dài cá lôi biêt tâm. In the long river, fish swim off without a trace. The sunlight streaming through the reeds in her hat.
Then Lam heard the sound of a door banging shut in the wind. His nearest neighbor was more than a mile away. This is what happens when you live in two worlds at once, he thought, but all he said to her was come.
His two rooms were just off the road along a bend in the Song Ma, the river an impenetrable red. No one was allowed on the other side of the Song Ma, the area declared a free-fire zone where anyone remaining could be shot without question. In the last year he had taken down the paper lanterns that hung from the branches of the jackfruit tree. Without the lanterns it was still obvious somebody lived there. Even on the eastern side of the river, it was best to be cautious, not attract attention. Sometimes when a convoy of trucks would rumble past, his house would shake, the planked boards rattling, the palm leaves thatching his roof rustling as if a strong wind were blowing.
Inside he offered Little Mother his only stool, turning it so the few stray pieces of reed sticking out of the warp were to the back. She bowed before taking his hand and easing herself onto it. He smiled at her humility. They say the Emperor has a throne of solid gold in his summer palace, he said. Can you imagine such a thing? She didn’t answer. During the last war he had treated a Vietminh soldier with a blood infection who claimed his mother had worked as a cook at the palace. The soldier had said as a child he and his cousins would sometimes play in the many splendid rooms, the Emperor away for most of the year. The soldier didn’t move when Lam stuck a needle in the top of his head, all of the soldier’s joints swollen from the infection, his knuckles big as grapes. Once I sat on it when no one was looking, the soldier whispered. Sat on what, said Lam. The throne. The needle wouldn’t stay in. A drop of blood appeared, beading on the scalp. What was it like, Lam said. The soldier gazed into the fire, the flames raging in his eyes. Finally the needle took, the metal ringing at an imperceptible frequency, vibrating like the wings of a housefly. The soldier didn’t flinch as he answered Lam’s question. Like sitting on a mountain of corpses.
Little Mother placed a hand on her swollen belly. In the firelight, shadows ravaged her face. In places her scalp was visible, her hair patchy as if moth-eaten. Child, Lam said. The word hung in the air. The time is late. The medicine will do for you what it can. He could hear the sound of flies buzzing among the overturned crates heaped with clutter in the other room where herbs and flowers hung from hooks. Rows of glass bottles lined dusty shelves. In each one floated insects, tiny birds, embryonic reptiles.
With his finger he began to draw a figure in the dirt. He made a star at the top of the head, a large X at the base of the spine. Then it was time, the flames the right shade of gold. Are you ready, he whispered. He could feel his heart ticking in his chest. Gently Little Mother reached out and took his hands, drawing them to her face. He uncurled his fingers to let her have a closer look.
In the center of each of his palms was a spot like a moldy thumbprint, the skin pitted with a deep green scar the size of a coin. When he was younger, he would sometimes chase small children playfully through the market, holding his open hands up in front of his face, the green scars like unblinking eyes. It’s who I am, he said. She let go of his hands. The clock in his chest was pounding. We have to get the blood moving, he said. Let the light in. Little Mother nodded. I am an old man, he added. Please. Quietly she took off her shirt. The skin over her belly was stretched tight like an animal hide dried in the sun. He couldn’t help but wince.
Even Lam is surprised by the steadiness of his hands though there has always been a gentle knowingness in his touch. He lights a scrap of paper on fire and drops it inside a small bamboo jar, then places the mouth of the jar on Little Mother’s bare shoulder. The jar tightens, the lip adhering to her skin as the fire burns up the air inside, creating a vacuum, the body’s internal pathways invigorated as the darkness within is drawn out of the blood. After a while he lets go and the jar stays fixed where it is. Then he lights other slips of papers, drops them in other jars, attaching each one to a different spot on her body. The smell of burnt paper fills the room.
When he’s done, he stands back. She looks arboreal, arms outstretched, her body wreathed with burls. Something in the way she holds her arms in the air reminds him of a tree. He imagines sitting under her boughs and opening his eyes as if for the first time on earth, her limbs bursting with white fist-sized flowers. Lam gasps, the memory of a long-ago afternoon suddenly flooding his heart. Life is a wheel. That love should summon him again through the curtain of all these years. There are times when one must prune the tree that bares the fruit. The new life has to come that day, that very night. He must do all he can. There is nothing and everything to lose. He lights one last strip of paper and drops it in a jar. Quickly he attaches this to the root chakra, the volatile door on the lower back.
The drawing of toxins to the surface of the skin. Like drawing light out of the darkness. Little Mother’s body covered with mouths, each one breathing clean and fresh. Her eyes heavy-lidded, both open and closed. The seeing into a thousand rooms at once. An orchestra of doors and hinges, worlds opening, jawbones rattling in the wind. The body wheeling through room after room. Sometimes in the quest for health, one must purposely inflict damage. The tree pruned back so that the fruit will flower.
Will it come tonight, she whispers. Yes, he says, patting her shoulder, but he says it mostly to reassure himself.
Gradually the jars loosen and drop off one by one, and where each has been, a dark circle remains. Technically they are bruises, like kisses that bring the blood up to the surface of the skin, the blight patterning her body. The fire burning in the corner of the room begins to die out.
After her skin has cooled, he helps her to dress. For a moment he thinks he sees the skin of her belly trembling but it is probably just a trick of the late afternoon light. Together they walk outside to the jackfruit tree. He has done all he can. He of all people should know that when the heart breaks, there is no salve. Around them the air hangs fetid with the wet heat that follows the southwest monsoon. On the ground the ants are already dismantling the ruined fruit.
Wait, Lam says. He hobbles back inside. He returns with a peony, its pink bud furled tight as a fist. Tell your mother-in-law Thuan I am her servant always, he says, pressing the flower into Little Mother’s hand. He thinks of Thuan and her old-woman eyes as though rinsed with milk. If he were a younger man, he would run a needle through fire and take Thuan’s face in his moldy old hands, carefully lifting the cloud from each of her eyes. He imagines that when he finished, Thuan would rise from the stool and behold him as he used to be, both their bodies once again young and flawless.
Little Mother nods and tucks the flower in the weft of her hat. She has never heard anyone call her mother-in-law by her given name. She knows Bà will be happy to get the peony, her milky eyes shining. For a second time Little Mother pats the flower with her fingertips, securing it in place. Everywhere the small bruises jewel her skin, each one the diameter of a child’s wrist.
Three times Lam waves off the crumpled piasters she offers him. Please, she says, her eyes fixed on the ground, as each time he refuses. Finally she tucks the money back up in her conical hat. Grandfather, she says, turning to go. In the next life I will serve you. He places a fist in the scarred-green palm of his other hand and bows deeply. It isn’t until she has fully disappeared around the bend in the road that he stands back up.