THE NATURALIST, An excerpt
A text by the 2012 Sozopol Fiction Seminars fellow Cab Tran
On the scooter ride back Hien clung to her so tightly that she had to scold him. They crossed a city brimming with life, past the hotels and cabarets and restaurants, until the lights of Saigon gave way to jungle darkness. They lived on the outskirts of the city, in a cluster of one-story homes with concrete foundations and within earshot of an airfield. A central kitchen and courtyard was shared by all the families. In the day, French planes droned overhead, shaking furniture and wall hangings out of place.
Hien had grown so used to the noise that he couldn't sleep without it, and found that silence, any silence, was far more disturbing than the rumble of aircraft.
He took off his slippers and skated barefoot across the floor. He rummaged in the bottom drawer of a wooden cabinet for a bundle of incense, wanting to pray and ask for new favors before he forgot. The cabinet was the most ornately decorated piece of furniture in the room. It came up to Hien's chest and was used as an ancestral altar. Pictures of Trang's parents were framed and displayed in little holders.
The cabinet's panels and doors had dragons carved into interlocking squares, into which a few pieces of precious jade were inlaid. Between the photographs was a bowl of uncooked rice with dozens of already burnt incense sticks from previous offerings. Bowls of dragonfruit and papayas flanked the altar.
"Not yet, child," Trang said, seeing that Hien had separated incense from the bundle. "We must do the prayers properly. Once we cook the food and offer it, then we can burn incense and make our wishes."
Hien grabbed a used science book off the bamboo shelf. The French-operated secondary schools had recently discarded textbooks for more up-to-date ones. The schoolteacher had brought by history books, science books, language books. Some were waterlogged by careless students who carried them in rainstorms and others had pages torn out, although their binding was excellent. A few of the workbooks were in Vietnamese, but the rest were in an incomprehensible French. That, however, didn't deter him from looking at the pictures. His favorite were ones of animals. He crawled onto the wood-slatted bed and closed the mosquito netting around him and started in on a chapter about reptiles.
Trang observed her child with amusement. "What are you learning about today, Hien? Can you even read French?"
"Madame Avril says it won't be long before I can read this whole book."
"She is a kind woman to teach you. She can have all the soup she can eat for the rest of her life. We're very fortunate. I will thank your grandfather's spirit tonight for guiding Madame Avril to us."
Hien flipped ahead to the section on dinosaurs. His eyes had widened when Madame Avril told him the world had been a single continent back then. She showed him a map and demonstrated how the continents had broken apart in the past and could be reconstructed, like a puzzle. It was why, she explained, some animals lived in one part of the world and not another.
"Come Hien," Trang said, putting down her bowl of sticky rice. "Come sit next to your mother. There's something important I have to tell you." He set his book aside and did what he was told. "What have I taught you, child?"
"That we must obey our parents," he said immediately, knowing it was the correct answer. He'd been asked it a million times.
"That's right. What else?"
He squirmed away from the straw mat his mother was sitting on, distracted by a hundred different things. He lay on his belly and watched a gecko dart under the altar. Slithering like a snake, he stalked it and positioned himself to block its escape.
"Hien?" Trang said. She rolled a rice ball clumsily in her hands, stacking them in a wooden bowl. "Are you paying attention to me?"
"That we mustn't attach ourselves to things," he said.
"And why mustn't we?"
"Because it will only make us want things we can't have."
"Yes, very good." Her eyes grew sad. "Child, come here."
He sat in her lap, looking eagerly into the prepping bowl. Fried fish for dinner and sticky rice for dessert.
Hien's body twisted around until their faces were inches apart. He could smell her warm breath as she levelled both hands on his shoulders.
"There's something I have to tell you, child. Something very important that you need to know. Now listen carefully –"
"What do you mean?" He didn't like her tone at all. The sound of his body squirming in her lap sent the gecko trembling up the wall.
"It's not just my hands and my back anymore, Hien. But what I want you to know is this – cling to nothing and you will lose nothing. Not only things, Hien, but also people."
This last part was something he'd heard only once before. He remembered her wording it the same way. It was after his father had died, after the bombing of Haiphong. He'd been in tears over his father's death and she told him that there were proper and improper ways to grieve. If done improperly, his father's spirit would get confused and lost and attach itself to the living world. What Hien had to do was to let his father go, so that he could return again to this world in another form.
"I won't let you die," he said, knowing fully what she was saying.
"Hush. Nobody said anything about dying. It'll be a long time before you have to worry about anything." "I won't let you die," he said again, feeling something thick and sickening churn inside him.
Trang held him more firmly by the shoulders, examining his flat nose and sharp eyes, skin smooth as obsidian. "What did I teach you? Have you learned anything? Nothing really dies. It just becomes something else." She let go. "Now go into the courtyard and start a fire in the hearth. Get the large pan ready while I dress the fish."
He obeyed. Many things raced through his head as he entered the dark courtyard. His heart thumped in his chest and he wondered what would happen to him if his mother were to die tomorrow. Would he end up like the orphans of Saigon who were put in the care of Catholic nuns or would they do something more sinister to him, like make him work on a rubber plantation? The kitchen took up one entire corner of the communal courtyard, a tiled area large enough for all five families to cook at. Pots and pans and containers were arranged around the open hearth, along with an array of grass baskets, tin buckets, wooden footstools, and clay pots. Cooking ladles and strainers hung on a bamboo shelf used to store bowls, chopsticks, and other utensils. Hien found kindling and a box of matches. He looked for the fish pan. He thought about his mother and her knobby joints, resolving that night as he struck a match and brought it to the wood splinters that he would find a way to save her.
Cab Tran was born in Vietnam and immigrated to the United States as part of the Vietnamese diaspora known as the "Boat People." Raised in rural Oregon, he then studied English Literature at the University of Montana. Tran has been the recipient of the David TK Wong Fellowship at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, and a resident at the Writers and Translators Centre of Rhodes in Rhodes, Greece. His fiction has appeared in Black Warrior Review and 580 Split. During his sojourn in Europe he wrote a novella, The Naturalist, which was longlisted for the inaugural Paris Literary Prize. He lives in Missoula, Montana.
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