Fiction / December 2013 (Issue 22)

A Fable

by Khanh Ha

Along the rampart of the old town of Hanoi by the moat green with lily pads stood a solitary ebony persimmon tree and under this tree sat an old woman who sold raw silk. From the market that convened every day outside the citadel, someone went out of curiosity to see her silk and became fascinated. Then more people came. All lingered to feel the fibres, long, shiny and light, so light they seemed weightless. Merchants came, too, taken by the quality of her wares. No one knew where she came from or why she chose to sit under the persimmon tree a ways from the market. Yet every day they watched her come and go, a lone figure under a lone tree. She was clothed in Chinese garments—a small black cap, purple trousers fastened above the ankles showing her thick-soled curved-tipped cloth shoes, and a waist-length grey cotton tunic buttoned on the right side with long, wide sleeves folded back at the ends. Her braided hair hung down her back in a long thick pigtail, and her small eyes were serene and empty. She was mute. By and by, they knew that she came from Yunnan in a caravan of 200 mules. It came every winter and stayed until spring. After breaking up into smaller groups, they went on foot from village to village, peddling salt, sugar, vermicelli, opium, iron and saucepans. They bought cotton and stags' antlers from the Annamese. One evening, her group was attacked by the Chinese Hak-kis―Black Flags bandits―and it fought back. Most caravans were easy prey to bandits, but not hers. After the Black Flags overwhelmed them, they took with them the merchandise and young women and slaughtered the rest. In the melee, the old woman crawled into a bamboo grove, and from there she watched the bandits hack off older women's breasts and stuff their mouths with the bloodstained flesh. She watched the bandits drive a long bamboo pole through the men's bodies and carry them like pigs on skewers to the river, where they dropped them and then sat and smoked their bamboo water pipes.

In her blank eyes, people saw a witless woman, perhaps born mute, perhaps turned mute out of terror of the carnage that might have claimed her mind. When asked where her shelter was, she pointed toward a bamboo grove beyond which lay green rice fields, and she kept pointing.

One early morning, a man came out of the citadel and made his way toward the ebony persimmon tree under which sat the old Chinese woman. His name was Gaston Olivier, a French lieutenant. He wore thick side whiskers the colour of burnt chestnut, and his eyes were a smoldering blue. Among the young naval officers, Olivier was the most progressive, and he spoke the Annamese language and had mastered classical Chinese. He sympathised with the wretched country colonised by his own, whom he referred to as pirates and bandits. Early mornings, one could see him walking by himself along the moat into the rice fields—a white sheen changing to yellow as the sun rose—walking on an earthen dike and often stopping at the spot where, twelve years earlier in 1873, Lieutenant Francis Garnier had lain dead, ambushed by the Black Flags. A young Bonaparte, a visionary adventurer who almost died in his Mekong exploration, Garnier had lived out his romantic and entrepreneurial dream believing that the Mother River was navigable to China and could become a major trade route between Saigon and Yunnan. Across the rice field where Garnier died was a road that went past a little pagoda and then over a bridge called the Paper Bridge, and, where, barely two years before, Captain Henri Laurent Rivière had also been killed by the Black Flags.

During those walks, Olivier thought about his countrymen, brave men who fought and spilled their blood on this part of this God-forsaken land. How many times had he strolled on the dike where the romantic Garnier had been speared to death? Or on the dirt road where the head of Rivière was buried so men and beasts could tread on it? The country had been pacified, peace restored. His life as a soldier was less at risk as had been those who had fallen under the enemy's blows. He often imagined his fate had the war still dragged on. If he became another casualty of war, dying a tragic death like those men, how much would that reduce his fiancée's life? Monique. Beautiful Monique. When he stood at the spot where Garnier's body was found, he thought of himself lying there, his head missing, his chest gouged, his heart cut out by the Black Flags. The Hak-kis men would then burn his heart to ashes and gulp them down. A heinous custom. But a brave man's heart, like Garnier's, would make the bandits bold—those cowards. When he traipsed along the dirt road to the Paper Bridge, he pictured the spot where the Chinese Hak-kis had interred Rivière's head. Only the head. So that he was damned by the constant trampling of the living. Here was a man, much like Olivier himself, a good soldier who valued human life. A man of circumstance. A novelist-turned soldier. Perhaps Olivier would read his works someday, because they must be good to have been read at select literary salons back home. Again he thought of Monique when he imagined the violation of Rivière's body. A brave soldier, he himself would have fought like those men, and, if he had fallen, the enemy would have done the same to his body. He imaged that a large ransom would be offered by his government to the enemy to retrieve his corpse. The huge sum would bring out evil in each Chinese bandit, and they would maul his corpse just as they had Rivière's, carving it for every shred of flesh that could be ransomed for money.

He closed his eyes, picturing her teary, grief-stricken face as she gazed at his remains, only lumps of bone. He knew he wasn't morbid. He wasn't callous either. Peacetime, however fleeting, only exposed the precariousness of a man's life in a forlorn land where barbarism had betrayed the young lieutenant's belief in the principles of liberty and rights. For now, in the name of God, he could travel the countryside without trepidation of an unseen enemy, and the respite afforded him gratitude, a rare blessing. Yet if war erupted again, he would kill like a soldier, but without malice, without hate. Not against the Annamites, not against the Chinese Black Flags hired as mercenaries by the Huế Imperial Court to attack the French. No, how could he hold any ill feeling against this uncivilized race? Liberty and rights. That was what his country stood for and what he loved most, but he found himself violating French justice against a people who had done nothing to deserve such a violation. Though he respected the bravery of his countrymen, was touched by their grisly deaths, he could never condone French transgressions against these backward people.

From the market, people could see the French lieutenant squatting on his haunches the way Annamites did, talking to the old Chinese woman. The bright morning sun dappled his white calico jacket and trousers, so white they glared. Some mornings, he would sit under the persimmon tree, his salakot, the wide-rimmed cork helmet, in his lap, his hand scribbling busily in a notebook. When he stopped scribbling, he turned the notebook toward the woman, and, while she read, he sat fingering the black strip looped around his sleeve, at times removing it and then working it back on. The sleeve strip distinguished him as an officer from the rank and file. On one sheet he showed the woman, he drew a long dress with its train trailing on the ground, the Chinese characters describing the gown neat and crisp. A silk wedding dress. The Chinese woman nodded a simple acknowledgement without a written answer. She could not write. He spoke to her in Chinese and drew a square. A handkerchief. He wrote that he would like to see a sample of it in silk and asked when she could bring it, but all he received was her blank look.

He rose to his feet, put his salakot back on, tilting its wide brim back to cover the nape of his neck from the sun's glare. He pictured Monique in pale yellow silk. He imagined its translucent hue, its silky touch, so light it made no sound when the bride minced beside him. It could be all for naught, he thought. In six months' time, he would return home for Christmas. Home. Then the wedding. Perhaps he should write and tell Monique to have her wedding dress made by a local seamstress. He had her measurements and once he had debated with himself whether to have her dress tailored by an Annamite. The inexpensive local labour attracted him. For an unheard-of 20 francs, he bought a pair of tailored-made flannel long-underwear just as the cold and rainy season set in before February. But when it came to a European wedding gown, he could not bring himself to trust an Annamese tailor.

Days passed. One morning, the lieutenant came out of the citadel and headed toward the persimmon tree. Seated, the old woman was gazing into the white glare over the moat, its moss-green water tinted gold. He knelt on one knee and spoke to her about the sample work he had asked for days earlier. She turned to look emptily at him, and he knew that he should quit chasing his fantasy. As he stood up adjusting his salakot, the woman reached into her cane basket, pulled out a roll of fabric and unfurled it. He took it from her and found a pair of long sleeves in his hands, and he rubbed them with his fingers. Then he closed his eyes. No, this is not real. His fingertips caressed something like waves. Slipping through fingers. Substance that had no marrow. When he opened his eyes, he was gazing at the long strands of silk. They glowed like sunlit fibres, coming not from without but within. Two perfectly fitting long sleeves of a wedding gown. His sharp eyes acknowledged their symmetry. As if they had just ben unfastened from Monique's arms. Could the woman make them? She shook her head. Who made them? The woman looked at him serenely as if he were air shimmering on the fringe of the shade. Flushed from excitement, he squatted down and explained to the woman slowly that he desired such a wedding gown more than ever. That he had time. Six months' was a long time. Then he cupped his chin in his hands and looked at her. Her gaze held him. Still as water in the moat. Undisturbed. He described his wife-to-be, and when he told her how graceful his lover would be in the silk wedding gown, his eyes gleamed and his hands glided dreamily over the silky filaments that held light. The woman listened. Whether or not she understood his story, he did not mind. But by telling her of Monique, he cut down the time and distance between them, as if he could hold his lover in the shade of this persimmon, far from home. When he stopped talking, he felt as light as the pair of sleeves in his hands—they, too, had no weight of their own. He copied onto a sheet of his notebook Monique's measurements and gave it to the woman. It struck him as odd that the sleeves were made with no measurements furnished. Then he tore out another sheet on which he had sketched her wedding gown and put it in the woman's hand together with 20 piastres and told her he would like to keep the sleeves. As he furled them up, he inquired about the weaver and the seamstress, but the woman only gazed at him.

He wrote home and sent the silk sleeves with his thick letter. In the note, he asked Monique to describe her feelings when she had had a chance to examine the sleeves. Then he re-sketched her wedding gown at the end of the letter and asked her to imagine herself wearing it, to imagine the shimmering silk, gossamer-thin, flowing light as mist and glittering with gold veins. He told her he had never seen silk of the quality the Chinese woman sold, not from any Chinese or Indian textile merchant back home or in Tonkin. To calm himself from excitement, he re-read the letter. He read slowly, not wanting to reach the end. He spoke the written words that conveyed his emotions, his longing for her. He relived feelings laden in those words, written on thin paper which then travelled across the ocean, and, by the time he could feel them in his bones, they were a month and a half old. Could feeling grow old? He knew his would not.

Three months passed. Her letter came. He read it in the barracks and then went out for a walk. Wherever he looked, he saw her face in the photograph she'd sent with the letter. The blue sky edged against the watchtowers, and sunlight shot white glares on the old Chinese cannons poised on their carriages. He squinted in bright sunlight and went into the tree shade along a dirt road. Up the road was a crowd of natives standing in wait for a tramway. Away from them stood a small group of Europeans, each donning a large straw hat. He sat down under an Indian almond tree, and the coolness of the shade brought back her visage, a half profile by a reading lamp now daguerreotyped against his mind. Her hair was swept up above her nape. The graceful curve of her swanlike neck. The shimmering heat and the clattering of tramway. Beyond the tree crowns were inked electric wires stretched over the Chinese quarters. The gentle arch of her pencil-thin eyebrows. Her eyes blue as the sky above, a blue even evident from the simple black-and-white daguerreotype. Blue as hope. Blue as beauty. Blue as baby blue. I fell in love with the silk, the textile. I wore the sleeves and looked at my reflection in the mirror and, yes, their elegance encouraged me to imagine myself in such a silk dress. How can I describe its hue? Neither white nor yellow. Help me describe it. Unless we can imagine the yellow of ripened wheat, buffed to a shine. And it is self-radiating. Perhaps the weaver knows. Perhaps she has the magic. Remember, Gaston, you are in the Far East. Where magic abounds.

That afternoon at sunset, Olivier left the citadel and loitered in the market. From afar, he could see the Chinese woman sitting like a small bundle in the shade of the persimmon tree. A few people came and went. The woman tended to her business and afterward sat gazing into the sun, now a deep orange disk flaming over the moat. Sunset. Sunrise. Perhaps one day when she was gone, people would notice the persimmon tree, or its shade, more solitary than ever. She left her spot in the dusky light and, basket strapped on her back, walked the length of the moat. The lieutenant trailed a distance behind. Soon twilight gave to darkness. Above them hung a full moon. The dirt path glimmered, and the woman was a dark shape, save for the paleness of her pantaloons. He had passed this way before, and now he came upon a pagoda in ruins. It sat upon a stony bed like a bird's nest amid a pond. There was light inside, shining through gaps in the turret housing an ancient bronze bell. Ahead the woman turned onto an earthen dike that cut across the rice fields. He had tread on this treeless dike but only in the early morning to avoid the scorching sun and the rank fumes from the muddy soil that brought fevers. Quick-footed, the woman made it to the road on the other side of the paddies, and the lieutenant thought he had lost her in the dark vault of bamboo that grew thick and tall along the road. He ran. His footsteps roused white egrets from sleep, and they flew up from the edge of the paddies. The rush of their wings startled him. But the woman never looked back, now becoming a blurred shape among clumps of tall reeds swaying their pale plumes in the moonlight. He remembered this part of the road, though in daylight everything looked different. There was a curve in the road, and as he rounded it, he saw the woman a ways up passing a small pagoda. He remembered its two tall columns at the entrance and, next to them, a tiny shrine fronted by a limestone low wall. As he passed it, he could barely make out the Chinese inscriptions on the columns, the carvings, now indistinct in the oyster light. In front of this same pagoda, two years before, a French midshipman named Balny had been killed by the Black Flags, two days after they'd slain Henri Rivière. A spooky feeling stirred in him. Every night passing this spot, the Chinese woman must, like all Buddhists, chant a prayer to her deities. At that thought, he crossed himself. When he sighted her again heading toward the Paper Bridge, she was a pale figure, more an apparition than real human. He could see in his mind the road crossing the stone bridge and the creek that flowed languidly through its arch. Suddenly, the woman turned from the road and disappeared. He quickened his steps, then ran. Where she had disappeared, he saw a path, wide enough to pull through a four-inch field gun. He had never noticed the trail during his morning walks, perhaps because its entrance was overgrown with lantana and touch-me-not shrubs.

The trail wound around the edge of rice fields on one side and a small forest on the other. He felt a sharp pain and let out a stifled cry when his forehead was pricked by thorny stems of bamboo. He saw the woman, lost her and saw her again ducking under silver-plumed reeds and drooping banana fronds. At times, she seemed white as a pearl, washed by the moon, at times enfolded in dark vegetation. Where are you heading to? he thought, baffled, as he stumbled after her. The earth smelled dry, but the dank odors of fallen leaves and moss made the air wet. Just then, he saw red stains on the leaves in a shaft of moonlight. The red was startling, like stains of fresh blood. Then it came to him that they were camellia flowers by their roselike shape, the glossy leaves. He groped his way forward by holding onto their thick trunks, but he'd now lost sight of the woman. The constant sawing of insects filled his ears. Where could she go? The shriek of a night bird pierced the air. She could not be living in a forest. But somehow he thought she might, considering her reclusive nature. Farther up the trail, he saw no sight of her and stopped. The yellow sheen of the rice fields was trembling in the breeze, and it brought him an odor of burnt soil. He listened. In the long susurrus of the forest, he thought he heard the sound of chimes. A melody perhaps. No. You are tired. The clouds shifted, and now the path shone. He stepped into its glow, and it lit his way up the path. The earth felt lumpy underfoot, but the melody of chimes lured him, pulled him up a small hillock. He strode under huge palm leaves, the moon slivers of light between the overlapping leafage. The soil felt slick where moss and decayed ferns abounded. Then, after rounding the hillock, he stepped into a clearing.

He stopped. There was a halo, pale blue and very soft, shining in the glade. The air was vibrant with melodic notes of chimes, coming from where he did not know, but they surrounded him, and he stood transfixed by the scene before him. Humans dancing. Tiny humans. He saw gnomes, hunched, long white beards sweeping the forest floor. He saw leprechauns in green vests. He saw unicorns white as pearl, spiralled horns glowing bright silver. He saw fairies circling above, so tiny they were only flecks of blue light. In the centre of the little people, he saw two women. The Chinese woman and Monique. The woman held Monique's hands in her own, and they danced. His fiancée was clad in a shining wedding gown, pale yellow, so pale its sheen seemed illusory. The train of her gown gleamed and glittered, and it was so long it was held up by the gnomes and leprechauns who kicked their legs and bobbed their heads in rhythm as they danced. He watched them like someone watching his own dream, afraid to either enter it or walk away. His whole being seemingly bore no bones, no flesh. In their place, a permeation of a peaceful feeling. Then a yearning woke him. He felt fear. Of loss. Of things forever gone. Fear pushed him forward. And he cried out her name, but the sound Monique never left his lips. Suddenly, he found himself standing alone in the clearing. With only a moon above.


The following day, Lieutenant Gaston Olivier received a telegram from home. After he read it, sitting on the edge of his bed in the barracks, he held the telegram in his lap and sat still for a long time. The news of Monique's sudden death from pneumonia struck him like a blunt sword edge. Disoriented, he remained seated. The bugles sounded.

He looked down at the telegram and in his mind he saw the blue halo. He cried.

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