Excerpt ~ Ch. 1
April 28, 1975
The city teetered in a dream state. Helen walked down the deserted street. The quiet was eerie. Time running out. A long-handled barber’s razor, cradled in the nest of its strop, lay on the ground, the blade’s metal grabbing the sun. Unable to resist, she leaned down to pick it up, afraid someone would split his foot open running across it. A crashing noise down the street distracted her — dogs overturning garbage cans — and she snatched blind at the razor. Drawing her hand back, a bright pinprick of blood swelled on her finger. She cursed at her stupidity and kicked the razor, strop and all, to the side of the road and hurried on.
The unnatural silence allowed Helen to hear the wailing of the girl. The child’s howl was high and breathless, defiant, rising, alone and forlorn against the buildings, threading its way through the air, a long, plaintive note spreading its complaint. Helen crossed the alley and went around a corner to see a small child of three or four, hard to tell with the ubiquitous malnourishment, standing against the padlocked doorway of a bar. Her face and hair drenched with the effort of her crying. She wore a dirty yellow cotton shirt sizes too large, bottom bare, no shoes. Dirt circled between her toes.
The pitiful scene begged a photo. Helen hesitated, hoping an adult would come out of a doorway to rescue the child. She only had days or hours left in-country. Breathless, the girl staggered a few steps forward to the curb, eyes flooded in tears, when a man on a bicycle flew around the corner, pedaling at a furious speed, clipping the curb and almost running her down. Helen lurched forward without thinking, grabbed the girl’s arm and pulled her back, speaking quickly in fluent Vietnamese: “Little girl, where is mama?”
The child hardly looked at her, the small body wracked with sobs. Helen’s throat constricted. A mistake, stopping. A pact made to herself that at this late date she wouldn’t get involved. The street rolled away in each direction, empty. No woman approached them.
Tired, Helen knelt down so she was eyelevel to the child. In a headlong lunge, the girl wrapped both arms around Helen’s neck. Her cries quieted to soft cooing.
“What’s your name, honey?”
“Should I take you home? Home? To mama? Where do you live?”
Rested, the girl began to sob again with more energy, fresh tears.
No good deed goes unpunished. The camera bag pulled heavy and bulky. As she held the girl, walking up and down the street to flag attention, it knocked against her hip. She slipped the shoulder strap off and set it down on the ground, all the while talking under her breath to herself: What are you doing What are you doing? What are you doing? The child was surprisingly heavy, although Helen could feel ribs and the sharp, pinion-like bones of shoulder blades. The legs that wrapped vise-like around Helen’s waist were sticky, a strong scent of urine filling her nostrils.
A stab of impatience. “I’ve got to go, sweetie. Where is mama?”
She bounced the girl to quiet her and paced back and forth in front of the bar. Her mind wasn’t clear; why was she losing her precious hours, involving herself now, when she had passed hundreds of desperate children before? But she had heard this one’s cries so clearly. A sign? A sign she was losing it was more like it, Linh would say.
A young woman hurried across the intersection, glanced at Helen and the child, then looked away.
The orphanage was overflowing. Should she take the girl home with her? Once they abandoned this corner, she would be Helen’s responsibility. Could she take her out of the country with Linh? What had she been thinking to stop? Was it a trap? By whom? Was it a test? By what?
Helen stroked the girl’s hair, irritated. She had a heart-shaped face, ears like perfect small shells. A bath and a nice dress would make her quite lovely.
Ten, fifteen minutes passed. The idea of this being a sign seemed more stupid by the minute. Not a soul came, nothing except the tinny, popping sound of guns far away. Helen toyed with the idea of putting the girl back down. Surely, the family was close by, was searching for her? No harm done in keeping the girl company for a few minutes. Not her responsibility, after all. When she began to kneel to deposit her back on the ground, the girl’s arms tightened to a chokehold around her neck, and Helen, resigned, strained back up. All wrong; a terrible mistake. A proof that she was failing. Linh would be worrying by now, might even try to go out to find her.
Helen bent and fished for the strap of her camera bag, putting it on the other shoulder to balance the weight. Maybe it was a sign. Insane, but what else could she do but take the child with her?
Halfway down the street, a woman’s voice yelled from behind them. Helen turned to see a plain, moon-faced woman with thin, cracked lips stride towards them.
“Are you her mother?” Helen asked, guilt welling up. “I wasn’t trying to take her—”
The woman yanked the girl out of Helen’s arms, eyes pinched hard. The girl whimpered as the mother swatted her on the leg and scolded her.
“She couldn’t tell me where she lived,” Helen said.
But the mother had already turned without another glance and stalked away. The girl looked over the mother’s shoulder, dark eyes dark expressionless. In a few more steps, they turned the corner and disappeared.
For the briefest moment Helen felt wronged, missed the weight on her hip and the sticky legs, but then the feeling was gone. How had the mother been so neglectful anyway? It rankled that she had not been thanked or even acknowledged for her effort. But with the shedding of that temporary burden, the old excitement buoyed up in her again. The possibility of the girl disappeared into the past. She’d better pull herself together. She picked up her bag, checked her watch, and ran.
On a normal day the activity in the streets so filled her eye that she hardly knew where to turn, torn whether to focus her camera on the intricate tableaus of open-air barbers on the sidewalk cutting their customers’ hair, or tea-vendors sweating over their fires and flame-blackened pots, or ink-haired boys selling everything from noodles to live chickens to cigarettes, or old men with whisk beards as peaceful as Buddhas playing their endless games of co tuong. And, too, there was the endless flotsam and jetsam of the war: beggars and amputees thronging every place where foreigners were likely to drop money.
But today streets were vacant, the broken windows and smashed doors like gouged out features of a face once familiar. The people gone, or rather hidden, the streets deformed by their absence.
Helen’s Saigon had always been about selling — chickens, information, or lovely young women — it didn’t matter. It had once been called, “The Pearl of the Orient,” but by people who had not been there in a very long time. Saigon had never been Paris, but now it was a garrison town, unlovely, a stinking refugee shantyville filled with the angry, the betrayed, the dispossessed, but she had made it her home, and she couldn’t bear that soon she would have to leave.
Closer to the center of town, there was activity. Gangs of looters ranged through the city like gusts of wind, citizens and defeated soldiers who now in their despair became outlaws, breaking into stores they had walked past every day for years, stores whose goods they coveted.
Helen hurried, sucking on the drop of blood at her fingertip, but couldn’t help her excitement, stopping to look, framing the composition in her mind’s eye: teenaged boys, some in jeans, some in rags, breaking a plate glass window; a crowd inside a ransacked grocery, gorging themselves on crates of guava and jackfruit; a young girl with pink juice running down her face and onto her white blouse. It had always fascinated her — what happens when things break down, what are the basic units of life?
Hours late. Helen walked faster, touching the letters in the top of her bag, letters that she had wasted the whole morning begging for, that undid the last bit of her foolishness, her wanting to stay for the handover. She hoped that Linh would have taken his antibiotic and morphine in her absence but guessed he had not. His little rebellion against her. He had forgiven her and forgiven her again, but now he was drawing a line.
At the central market, unable to stop herself, she held up the camera to her eye, shooting off a quick series — a group of men arguing, then carrying away sacks of polished rice, bolts of cloth, electric fans, transistor radios, televisions, tape players, wristwatches, and carton after carton of French cognac and American cigarettes. She was so broke she could have used a few of the watches herself to resell stateside.
Wind blew from the east, a tired, rancid breath carrying across the city the smells of rotting garbage and unburied corpses. The rumbling to the north might have been the prelude to a rainstorm, but the Saigonese knew it was the thunder of artillery, rockets, and mortar rounds from the approaching communist armies. Her brain hot and buzzing, all she could think was, what will happen next?
The looters, figuring they would probably be dead within hours, were careless. They fought over goods in the stores, then minutes later dropped them in the street outside as they decided to go elsewhere for better stuff. Even the want-stricken poor seemed to realize: what good is a gold watch on a corpse?
Helen walked through the torn streets unharmed, as if she weren’t a foreigner, a woman; instead she moved through the city with the confidence of one who belonged. Ten years before, she had been dubbed, “Helen of Saigon,” by the men journalists. She had laughed, the only woman from home the men had seen in too long. But now, she did belong to the ravaged city —her frame grown gaunt, her shoulders hunched from tiredness, the bone sharp jawline that had lost the padded babyfat of pretty, her blue gaze dark and inward.
Ten years ago it had seemed the war would never end, and now all she could think was more time, give us more time. She would continue till the end although she had lost faith in the power of pictures, because the work had become an end in itself, untethered to results or outcomes.
She stopped on Tu Do, the old Rue Catinat, shaken at the gaping hole of the French milliner’s store. The one place that had always seemed impregnable, a fortress against the disasters that regularly fell upon the city, Annick guarding the doorway with her flyswatter in hand. But the doorway was deserted, the plate-glass window shattered. Inside, crushed boxes, flung drawers, but not until she turned and saw the two rush-bottomed chairs, empty and overturned, did she believe the ruin in front of her.
When life in Saigon grew particularly hard, Helen would go to the store, enjoying the company of Annick, the Parisian owner, her perfectly coifed dark blonde hair, her penciled eyebrows and powdered cheeks, the seam of the silk stockings she insisted on wearing despite the heat. She had been the only female friend Helen had all these years.
At first Helen had not understood the French woman’s talents, did not understand that the experiénce coloniale made her a breed apart. Annick was an old hand at Indochina, having thrived in Saigon for two decades, coming as a young bride. When her husband died she had confounded her family in France by staying on alone.
The two women would retire to the corner café and drink espressos. Helen sat and endured Annick’s scolding about neglecting her hair and skin when only hours before she had been out in the field, working under fire. Helen smiled as the French woman pressed on her jars of scented lotions, remedies so small and innocuous that they made Helen love her more. Had Annick finally gotten scared enough to leave everything behind and evacuate?
In the smashed display window, the red silk embroidered kimono Helen had been bargaining for was untouched, although the cheaper French handbags and shoes had been stolen. The Vietnamese always valued foreign goods over Asian ones. Helen hadn’t worked a paying project in a while; her bank account was empty. Her last batch of freelance pictures had been returned a month ago with an apology: Sad story, but same old story. But that would be changing soon. The silk slid heavy and smooth between her fingers.
She had worn down Annick on the price, but the kimono was still extravagant. This was the game they played — haggling over the price of a piece of clothing for months until finally Helen gave in and bought it. Annick refusing to sell the piece to anyone else. Feeling like a thief, Helen undraped it from the mannequin, making a mental note of the last price in piasters that they negotiated; she would pay her when she saw her again. In Paris? New York? She couldn’t imagine because Annick did not belong in any other place but Saigon.
The whole city was on guard. Even the children who usually clamored for treats were quiet and stood with their backs against the walls of buildings. Even they seemed to understand the Americans had lost in the worst possible way. The smallest ones sucked their fingers while their eyes followed Helen down the street. When her back was to them, she heard the soft clatter of pebbles thrown after her, falling short.
Helen picked her way back home using the less traveled streets and alleys, avoiding the larger thoroughfares such as Nguyen Hue where trouble was likely. When she first came to Saigon, full of the country’s history from books, it had struck her how little any of the Americans knew or cared about the country, how they traveled the same streets day after day — Nguyen Hue, Hai Ba Trung, Le Loi — with no idea that these were the names of Vietnamese war heroes who rose up against foreign invaders. That was the experience of Viet Nam: things in plain view, their meaning visible only to the initiated.
The city had ballooned in size, overwhelmed by refugee slums, the small historical district with the charming colonial facades hiding miles and miles of tin sheds and cardboard shacks, threats of cholera and plague so frequent hotels swabbed the sidewalks in front with ammonia or burned incense, both remedies equally ineffectual. Garbage collection, always sporadic, had been done away with entirely the last few weeks. In some alleys Helen had to wade ankle-deep through a soupy refuse, banging a stick in front of her to scare away rats.
A dark scarf covered her hair to attract less attention, but now she also wore a black cotton smock over her T-shirt to hide her camera. Soldiers had beaten up a few reporters already. Paranoia running wild. A camera a magnet for anger. The South Vietnamese soldiers, especially, were bitter against the press, blaming the constant articles on corruption for stopping their gravy train of American money. Not an exhibitionist people, they didn’t want evidence of their looting, their faces splashed across world papers, ruining chances of promotion at home or immigration abroad. Helen pitied them as much as she feared them. They were mostly poor men who had been betrayed along with everyone else abandoned in Saigon. If one was rich or powerful, one was already gone. Only the losers of history remained.
At the alley that led to her building, Helen folded the kimono into her lap and bent down into the stall as she did most days. She lifted a camera and took a quick shot, already thinking in terms of mementos. “Chào bà. Bà manh khòe không?” Hello, Grandmother Suong, how are you?
The old woman stirred her pot, barely looking up, then poured a small cup of tea and handed it to Helen. She felt deceived, tricked into loving this Westerner, this crazy one. People gossiped that she was a gui, a ghost, that was why she was unable to go home. “Why waste film on such an ugly old woman?”
“Oh, I only take pictures of movie stars.” Grandmother smiled, and Helen sipped her tea. “Read the leaves for me.”
Grandmother studied the cup, shook her head and threw the contents out.
“Doesn’t matter. You don’t believe. These are old Viet Nam beliefs.”
“But if I did, what does it say?”
Grandmother studied her, wondering if the truth would turn her heart. “It’s all blackness. No more luck.”
Helen nodded. “It’s good I don’t believe then, huh?”
The old woman shook her head, her face grim. Gossips said they saw the Westerner walking through the streets alone, hair blowing in the wind, eyes blind, talking to herself. Heard of her taking the pipe.
“What’s wrong, Grandmother?” They had been friends since the time Helen was sick and too weak to come down for food. People walked over from other neighborhoods just to sit at these four low stools and eat pho, because Grandmother Suong’s had the reputation as the best in Cho Lon. During Helen’s illness, the old woman had closed her stall and climbed the long flight of stairs to bring her hot bowls of soup.
“The street says the soldiers will be here tomorrow. Whoever doesn’t hang a communist or a Buddhist flag, the people in that house will be killed.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I’ve heard those rumors —”
Grandmother gave her a hard look. “I don’t have a flag.”
Helen sipped tea in silence, watching the leaves floating through the liquid, imagined them settling into her doomed pattern again and again against the curved bottom of the cup. The truth made her weary.
“The way it works, from what I know of what happened in Hue and Nha Trang, is that the women scouts come in before the soldiers. They go through the streets and hand out the flags. Then you hang them. And welcome the victors.”
The old woman nodded, the furrows in her face relaxing as if an iron had passed over a piece of wrinkled cloth. She rapped her knuckles lightly on the back of Helen’s hand.
“Listen to my words. They are killing the Americans, even the ones without guns and uniforms. Their soldiers and our own. All the Americans leave, but you stay.”
Helen shook her head as if she could dislodge an annoying thought. “Linh is hungry.”
“I took him soup hours ago. You are too late. War is men’s disease.”
Helen finished her tea and set the cup on the crate that served as table. The old woman filled a large bowl with soup and handed it to her as she stood up. “You eat.”
“Did you read for Linh?”
The old woman’s face spread into a smile. “Of course. He pretends he doesn’t believe. That he is too Western for such notions. For him there is only light and long life. Fate doesn’t care if he believes or not.”
Helen dropped lime and chilies in her soup.
“Da, cam on bà. Thank you. I’ll bring the bowl back in the morning.”
“Smash it. I won’t be open again after today.”
“Chào chi. Tôi di. I’m going to the other side of town so maybe they forget who I am. Not only Americans, but ones who worked for Americans, are in danger. No one is safe. Not even ones who sold them soup.”
From The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli. Copyright (c) 2010 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.