I woke to a faint aroma of cinnamon that hung in the air.
The pungent bark helped my mother’s chronic abdominal pain. When she drank tea she added a sliver of cinnamon bark to help settle her stomach. The backdoor was left open and it was gray outside. In the pale light of dawn I saw her pick peppercorns that came down in deep green jade from a vine around the trunk of an areca.
I didn’t feel like getting up, but I knew I had to get going to catch Chim’s boat. I turned on my side, feeling dampness on the front of my shorts. I wished I had them in black so they would hide the stains of my wet dreams. In the morning on my way to meet Chim, I’d stop and wash the stains at a creek. When Xoan rowed with us because her father was drunk on his home-brewed rice liquor, I saw her eye the dark blots and I wondered if she knew. A year older than me, she had a woman’s figure. She was slightly taller than me and had a round face like Chim’s—her father—a flat nose. Barefoot, she walked with a straight back, chest thrust out, black pantaloons flapping around her legs. Her dimpled smile and her shining white teeth gave her a radiant look, as if she always had lights around her. A few times when she pulled up the hems of her pantaloons to wash her legs and feet, she seemed to show them to me. She had nice white skin. I pretended I wasn’t looking, but when Chim was dozing on his back in the rattan dome I took a good look at her as she swayed her body at the bow. Her blouse was drawn back tight as her arms pushed and pulled on the oars and her breasts jutted. I’d never looked at a girl that long. My mother always covered her front with a piece of garment tied back behind her, and over it she wore her loose blouse in tobacco-juice brown. When I let imagination play, I thought about Xoan. I wondered if looking at a girl had anything to do with my recurrent wet dreams, but they seemed like they started sometime after I went to work for Chim.
He came to our home one late afternoon after my father died. He knew our family was down on its luck. After he had a long talk with my mother, I was told to meet up with him the next morning on the ferry landing just outside our village. Soon I became his helper’s helper. The girl could row that big boat by herself on both oars when it had gained momentum, or when Chim decided to have a smoke. I was in awe of her. The first day, my arms ached sharply, my back hurt, and I had to sit while she rowed, casual, easy. What a miracle when I could row like that. But before long we rowed that boat together up and down rivers and creeks, and she told me how to avoid the shallows lined with sharp rocks that could wreck a boat’s bottom, how to maneuver our course around treacherously swirling water. One day past a sandbank I saw two turtles, one picking algae off the other with its jaws. “Look,” I said to her, “you ever seen those creatures do that?”
Xoan nodded. “Yeah,” she said, “they’re in love, so they take care of each other like us. I mean humans.”
She didn’t say much after I broke the news to her father that I’d leave for Hanoi in the morning. My mother sent me to work for my granduncle who owned a franchise for rice alcohol, licensed by the government. We were eating lunch outside the dome, and Chim was done with his bowl. He poured himself a cup of tea, gargled, and spat over the gunwale as if tea was bad for his health. “I hate to see you go,” he said, wiping his mouth with his hand. “But you do what’s best for the family. One thing, though, son: keep your eyes open and learn.”
“Yessir,” I said.
“How are you going to get there in the morning?”
“Oh. I’ll catch a boat.”
“How about this . . . tomorrow you and her . . .” He nodded toward Xoan. “Take the boat as far as the Monkey Hop Landing. That’s half of your trip. You’ll manage from there.”
“And how’d she manage to bring the boat back?”
“I’ll take it back with her.” He rose and headed into the dome. “I’m getting off here. But I’ll be there—tomorrow noon.”
I helped him with a wicker bin. It had two handles, and the lid was tied down with hemp ropes. When we hoisted it over the ledge I could hear faint clinks inside, muffled by rags. I was about to ask him something and then decided not to. We laid it on the ground and he stood resting his foot on its lid. He saw me standing with unasked questions in my eyes and grinned. “Get going,” he said.
“Thank you, sir,” I said, nodding. “I’ll be going now.”
I wouldn’t see him again until who knows when and I wanted to do something to thank him, yet I climbed onto the boat and we poled it away. We rowed downriver and passed a wooded bank where turtles had left tracks in the ochre sand the night before to dig holes and lay their eggs. The tracks went up into a clump of vegetation. I said, “I thought he never moonshined his stuff.”
“Was so,” she said, half turning her head from where she stood at the bow. “But you can’t keep a secret for long—not when you have your drinking buddies all over you for your spirits.”
“I guess he knows what he’s doing.”
“He does.” Then she laughed. “Most of the time.”
Still he could encounter trouble. But old Chim was a coot who played dumb, hiding his dark thoughts behind his dead eye and looking innocently through his good one. Maybe Xoan could talk sense into his head, like she did when she made him quit smoking.
All afternoon we ferried merchants who were traveling to distant villages, trading cotton and indigo and castor bean and mulberry. We hardly spoke to each other, and when she had to speak to me she did so with her face partially turned away. I knew she held something in her heart. When dusk fell, the last passengers got off at a promontory, and we shoved the boat back out and headed home. A mist curled over the water so I lit a lantern and hung it outside the dome. The river opened wide and the villages became far apart. Her head tilted back, and she said, “Are you hungry?”
“Yeah. I’ll wash the rice. I’ll cook it this time.”
“Good.” She rested the oars. “Let me know when it’s ready. I got the tuna marinated. I’m going to wash myself in the river.”
She turned and leaned hard on the oars and I steered the boat toward the bank where the water was inky in the shade of giant figs. It was so quiet you could hear it trickling as it streamed under the boat and its oars. I scooped rice grains from a bin hidden under the floorboard, opened a jug of fresh water, and poured it into the clay rice pot. I glanced through the dome toward the bow to see what she was doing. She had let down the curtain. I felt the boat shake and heard the water splash. She wasn’t on the bank. I stood looking, rice pot in hands, and saw her clothes draped over the oar, the wide legs of her black pantaloons knotted and dangling. I sat down, placed the rice pot on the iron trivet, and watched the flame licking its sooty legs. But I wasn’t looking at the bluish flames.
“Tài!” her voice came up from the river.
“Come down! Water’s so warm.”
“I don’t have spare clothes.”
“You can wear my father’s clothes afterward.”
“I have to watch the rice.”
“Let it sit. Bring the flames down. You know how.”
I knew how. I wasn’t thinking of the rice, even though it would burn.
“Come on down!” she called out, mockingly.
I looked around. Twilight shrouded the bank and in the shade a black hollow pulsed with fireflies. They seemed to be watching me undress. I tossed my shirt into the stern, rolled the legs of my trousers above my knees, and then slid into the river from the side of the boat opposite the bank. The water came up to my waist. She wasn’t in sight. I moved toward the bow when something grabbed my leg. I jerked on my feet and saw her break through the water, her hair matted down on her brow and the sides of her face. Her teeth shone white when she smiled. My heart was still thumping.
“Scared?” she said, flicking her wet hair back behind her ears.
“Hell, yeah. Thought it was an otter.”
Then I saw her breasts, hugged wetly, tightly by her white corset, glistening with moisture. The curves of her shoulders were round and her navel was a dark dimple. I just looked, like a dumb beast. She seemed to hear the call of my heart and moved into the lantern’s glow and raised her arms to squeeze water out of her hair.
“You never seen a girl before?” she asked, laughing.
I said “no,” but only I could hear it. She folded her arms behind her head and flung her hair over her shoulder.
“You never set eyes on any particular girl?”
I thought of her washing her feet whenever we docked. Each time I conjured her up, a primitive urge flooded me. “I’ve run into some,” I said, grinning. Most of them were old maids not even worth looking at.
“How long can you hold your breath under the water?” she said, ignoring my lie.
“I don’t know. Why?”
I took a deep breath and went under the water. Then I opened my eyes and saw her pale figure a few feet away. Bare legs. Full hips covered in a black loincloth that floated about her. Like a watery vision, dark and pale from the lantern’s gleam. I looked at where her thighs met, holding on to the air left in my lungs until my head was near bursting. I shot up, blowing water from my nose, my mouth.
“How’s that?” I said, gasping.
She nodded, her eyes searching my face for something I had just seen. Then she brushed her wet hair up above her nape.
“Can you do better than that?” I said, measuring her with my eyes.
“Yeah,” she said, barely moving her lips.
“Want to bet?”
“Because you’re so sure of yourself.”
She flashed a grin, white teeth gleaming. “What’re we betting?”
“If you lose, you’ll lose what you’ve got covering your body.”
“My clothes?” Then she snickered. “Could be yours.”
“Could be. I’m halfway there already.”
She appraised my bare torso with her gaze. Then again she smiled. “Are you sure that it’s fair?”
“What’s not fair?”
“I have more to lose than you—if I lose. I’m not going to gain anything if I win.”
“What’s fair then for you?”
“Tell me again what you’ll do if you win.”
“You lose your clothes.”
“You said that.”
“But not here.” I tilted my head toward the boat’s dome, kept my voice level. “In there.”
She pursed her lips, then nodded. “If you lose, you’ll do something else for me.”
“Call off your trip tomorrow. And work for my father for another year.”
My stomach knotted. She seemed so sure of herself. What if I lost? Go tell my mother to forget her dream about my future, and mine, because of a bet? What would I look like to this girl if I called off the bet? There she stood. Her bosom wetly contoured by the tight corset. A sinful bait.
“All right,” I said calmly.
“A man of your word, I hope.” Her lips curled mockingly.
“Whenever you’re ready.”
She quickly knotted her hair with a twist of her wrist and her other hand pulled the knot tight. We sucked in air and went down at the same time. She was an opaque shape squatting on her haunches, her loincloth spread about her like a dark mushroom head, her arms crossed over her abdomen. Quickly I pressed my knees together and crossed my arms on my chest to save the air left in my lungs. Then I crimped my lips and shut my eyes. Soon my head began to swell, tingling at the root of my hair. The air in my chest thinned quickly and I shrunk to a dark hollow somewhere in my guts. Then I saw my mother’s face. Her whispers melted into a viscosity in my mouth that dripped into my lungs. They were burning hot. I wanted to free myself of this dark, miserable suffocation, push up, rise. But I didn’t move. I’d rather drown.
Water got into my mouth, stinging my nose like red-hot pins. Then in the blackest depth of my mind I smelled air, and when I opened my eyes I was slumped against the side of the boat. I felt her hands on my shoulders.
“Take a deep breath,” she said.
I took a deep breath. I gagged and coughed violently.
“Again,” she said. I sucked in air through my nose. There was something wrong with it. It felt like it was bleeding. I wiped my nose and saw no blood. From her calm voice, I knew I had lost.
“Did I win?” I said, not looking at her.
“You’re still alive.”
“Did I win?”
“Yeah,” she said. “You won.”
A dead weight was gone from my chest. Suddenly I felt very tired and hungry. The aroma of rice was in the air. It must be ready.
“Hope it didn’t burn,” I said, climbing back onto the boat.
She remained in the water. I turned. “Won’t you come up?”
She searched my face, swung her leg over the gunwale, her wet loincloth clinging to her thigh, and deftly dropped to her feet on the boat’s floor. I squatted over the opening on the floorboard.
“Why don’t you cook the tuna now?” I said, “I’m starving.”
She said nothing as she stooped to enter the dome. I looked at the curtain behind her and turned to the pot, opened its lid, and let my face soak in the wet steam. The breeze came up across the river and there was a faint odor of wet timber from the opposite bank. When she came back out, she had put on her clothes. She handed me a pair of dark gray cotton pantaloons.
“Put these on,” she said. “You’re dripping all over the floor.”
I took them from her hand. She avoided my eyes. Inside the dome I took off my wet trousers and sat on the plank bed holding them in my hands. Then I touched my nose. It didn’t feel tender anymore. Something was whitewashed in my mind. I couldn’t explain it. Did I come up from under the water against my will?
I sat there naked. I felt miserable.
The breeze fluttered the curtain, bringing in the dark aroma of fried tuna. My stomach churned as I pulled up the pantaloons, and as I put down my foot, it hit a bump on the warped floor. A tiny shock from the sole of my foot shot to my brain. It wasn’t pain anymore. It used to be, in the weeks after the bamboo spike went through it. When I refused to stay home, against Chim’s advice, she let me row with her and helped me change the dressing at the end of each day. They gave me a support to help me walk. It was a cane with a cross-handle, both made out of black bamboo. When I thanked Chim for it, he said that she made it for me so I wouldn’t hop along like a bird. I had time to examine it afterward—how the handle fit tightly into the cane through two round openings, cleanly bored. I knew then she was a handy girl.
We sat and ate by the lantern. She had dried her hair and rolled it into a bun above her nape. She looked older this way, and the white of her neck and her throat held my gaze. Water was boiling in the kettle that sat on the trivet. She leaned down, picked up the kettle, and began to add hot water to the teapot. A thick layer of leftover tea leaves covered the bottom. Between mouthfuls of rice, I asked her when she’d be ready in the morning so we could take the boat up to Monkey Hop. By the cockcrow, she said. I wanted to arrive in the city in daylight. It was a big city. She asked if I’d been there and I said no, that all I had was my granduncle’s address. It was on Limestone Street, one of the thirty-six streets on which thrived trade guilds of all kinds.
She poured tea into two clay cups and sipped hers while I refilled my bowl with rice. In the silence, we could hear water lapping at the side of the boat, the harsh calls of waterfowl across the river. She drained her cup and stowed it with her bowl and chopsticks in a rattan strainer and then rose to her feet.
“I knew you had something else on your mind,” she said, looking down at me.
“Maybe I do.” I glanced up without meeting her eyes.
“You won the bet. I won’t go back on my words.”
“I didn’t forget.”
She turned on her heel, speaking to me with her head cocked back. “You know where to find me.”
I stole a glance at her back just as she let the curtain fall behind her. The rice was stuck in my throat, and quickly I washed it down with a gulp of tea. It scalded my tongue and I spat it out. Then I glanced at the remains of our dinner in the trembling shadows the lantern cast on the mat. Out on the river, some boatwoman was singing a ballad, her lantern gliding low on the water.
I put a lid on the remains of the tuna and wrapped it with a jute cloth. Then I put the dishes under the floorboard. The teapot in one hand, the cup in the other, I entered the dome through the curtain.
She was a dark shape under the blanket on the plank bed a foot from the floor. All I could see was the glimmering white of her face. I stood hunched over her, and then sat down on the floor. She turned on her side, pulling the blanket up to her chin. Her eyes gleamed. I could hear the beating of my heart as I lifted the teapot and poured myself a cup.
“Are you going to sit there and drink and make me do this?” she said.
“No.” I sipped my tea.
She watched me. I got up from the floor and sat on the edge of the bed. She dropped her gaze and I tugged at the corner of the blanket. I watched it fall, watched her pale white figure lying on her side, one leg pulled up and both arms crooked covering her chest. My throat went dry. I put my hand on her calf, felt it, remembering how I’d gazed at her calves whenever she washed her feet at the river. The thickness in my throat grew as I looked where her thighs met. She lay very still. I pushed at her leg and slowly turned her onto her back. Gingerly, she obliged. Out on the river we could hear the clap-clapping of the bamboo sticks the boatmen made when there was a fog.
I could smell the river, the damp silty smell still clinging to my skin, and I could smell her.