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THE JAPANESE CAME WHEN I WAS IN THE GREAT ROOM standing on my mother's feet and she was dancing me around the symboled borders of the oriental carpet. At the symbol for fire they took me from her, but my mother still danced. They pushed us out the door. Outside there was a forest. The Japanese called it the Sea of Trees. My mother said she was dancing with my father. The Japanese followed behind us, holding their sabers at their sides.
We talked about my birthday. I was asking for a noodle stew. My mother danced around me on the path, saying that if there were flour I would have it. One short Japanese was told to pull up his saber, it was hitting on the ground. The trees were tall, my mother let her head drop back and she looked up. The Japanese looked too. My mother danced in circles with her head back and her arms held out.
"I am dancing with your father," she said.
On my birthday we had grass from the marsh. Pulling up the grass, we found a man floating on the water. Do you know him? everyone said, passing him on down. Others washing by the marsh took hold of the cuff of his pants and pulled him closer.
"No," they said, and passed him down again.
Crickets hopped on his face and my mother waved her hand over him. Someone tried to get his shirt off, but he was too bloated and no one could free it from his floating arms. We took his buttons, though, turning them around and around. As we twisted the buttons loose his legs brushed the grass we were pulling up for my birthday dinner.
"You can grow on these," my mother said, and pulled the longest blades of grass and putthem in her shirt.
My amah cooked the grass in water with an onion. My mother danced around the pot, her arms crossed, her feet moving slowly, I thought she was cold.
"This is Indian," she said, meaning her dancing.
My amah gave me the first bite of the onion. "Happy birthday," she said, and then she bit where I bit and my mother bit where my amah bit and then the Japanese came in. They took the pot and poured the grass dish out the window.
"This is not a kitchen," they said. "This is where you sleep."
My father came to visit when he could. When he did, my mother sat still on her mat. Her eyes moved all over him. My amah checked his earlobes for thickness. His feet were brown, as if they were dug from dirt—potatoes from a field. I thought how we could boil them. How broken open they would steam.
"We are many up there," he said, and pointed to the mountains past the Sea of Trees.
"Marcelle," he said to my mother, "we will come down."
My father left. My amah said to us children, "Sound is what we hear at sunrise. Taste is a stop in the road. Seeing is the talking of ghosts. Animals teach us sleep—geese make us the pillow, the honey slowness of almost sleep is taught to us by bears." She pointed to our mats. "So everyone get to bed."
The Japanese played ball. Out our window we could see them running toward the jeeps they used as goals. We picked our favorite players. Bet on our teams. Our window was the closest to the field. Women balled rice in their fists, then placed these bets on the sill. I waved the flies away, kept count of who had wagered what. I thought, what if my man on my team jumped into the jeep and drove through the Sea of Trees? I would surprise him from the back, tell him where to go.
"The mountains," I would say. "I have to see my father."
My mother had Poulet one day while a game was going on. She spread her legs and her yells mixed with the yells of the players and the cheers of the Japanese standing on the sides of the field. That day the women bet their balls of rice on the baby. More thought boy than girl, and when she came out girl, the losers spit on their rice balls. Poulet came out yellow. My mother, wet from fever, held my arm with both her hands as if she were rowing and I was her oar.
When my amah asked for milk, they cut a hole in her leg.
"Look what the saber did," she said, and she took my fist and put it in the hole in her leg. Then I rolled my fist back and forth on her bone.
Later my amah stole the milk instead. My mother fed Poulet the milk, saying it would take away the yellow of her skin. My amah laughed. "For that you will need a river of milk," she said, "and I've only got two legs."
Not in French, like usual, but in Chinese, my mother told my amah to be quiet.
At night they told me stories. My amah told me how she lit a firecracker and put it into the ass of her father's best horse. My mother told me about the day I was born. My father's dogs stood over me like oxen in the manger. My father was down in the kitchen eating oranges the servants kept in china bowls around the house. It was the Year of the Dog. Our family, long known for selling medicines, lined the streets with their roots and their leaves, gave buyers a tiger's price. A girl had been born to Yeu, the dynasty lived on. And Yeu waited in the kitchen, eating one orange after the other, the servants taking the peels to keep under their pillows.
"Dreams of the groves," my amah said, "keep the family tight-knit."
IN THE DIRT, FATHER JEAN-CLAUDE DREW ME A MAP OF his homeland. He took off his cross and used it to draw mountains capped with snow and houses with roofs that were as pointed as steeples.
"Here's the bar," he said, and he drew me the inside, where the woman stood who served him drinks and where the liquor bottles lined the shelves.
Father Jean-Claude looked for a long time at his map and then he handed me the cross and told me to draw a map of whatever I wanted while he took a nap with his head under a bush, saying there he could sleep shielded from the power of the red-hot sun.
Later, when the last light was going down behind the mountains, Father Jean-Claude sat up and looked at what I had drawn.
"Where's this?" he said while leaves in his hair fell onto his shoulders.
"Here," I said.
"Here's the Sea of Trees," I said.
"I can see that, but what about the latrines, or the grave, didn't you draw those?"
I shook my head.
"This isn't right," he said, and he took the cross from me and drew in the fifteen makeshift bamboo prisoners' huts, where he said we laid our two hundred sweaty heads every night, and he drew the guardhouse towers and the general's place and the broken-down hall the nuns had called the Great Room when this place had been a convent. He drew people sleeping on the floorboards in the huts and some of us in piles on the side of the road.
Then Madame Lin walked by. She bent over my map and Father Jean-Claude looked down her dress. She took up the cross and drew the flowers by the marsh and the fishline out behind our place where our washed slips and underclothes were hung to dry.
... I woke up one night to the Japanese. They were sitting my mother back down on her mat.
"Where were you going?" they said.
"Nowhere," my mother said.
"Where were you going?" the Japanese said.
"To the toilet," my mother said.
"Where were you going?" the Japanese said.
"To the mountains," my mother said.
In the moonlight they looked like brothers and my mother their sister gone off with a boy they didn't like, anything in particular they couldn't say, just their sister shouldn't be off with a boy, not with older brothers around.
It rained for days and the shovels slipped from our hands as we filled the field with sand so that the Japanese could play their games. Poulet on my back, I imagined I looked like a mother, with a husband, a house and some crop to be picked on her land. The slick shovel handle I meant to ask my husband about, see if on his next ride into town he could buy us a new one. The Japanese watching under umbrellas were trees on our land, when they moved it was the breeze in their branches.
"Keep the jeeps the jeeps, don't imagine them to be something else, that way we can drive out of this place," said my mother, who was shoveling next to me.
In the field, we stopped shoveling and held our hands above our eyes so we could see in the rain. I saw the Chief of the Montagnards. His testicles were swollen so big from the stream water that his wife pulled a wheelbarrow beneath him so he could walk without his testicles ripping off and falling to the ground. My mother took my hand and brought me closer to her while we stood and watched the chief and his wife and the wheelbarrow go by.
When the Chief of the Montagnards stopped in front of the Japanese, the Japanese bowed to him and the chief rested his hand on his swollen testicles in the wheelbarrow. No one could hear what the chief or the Japanese said. It sounded like the chief was singing. Madame Lin said that he and the Japanese talked of peace and the end, and that the chief was going to disband his small mountain army, which had existed for centuries, even before the Japanese had come to this land. Madame Lin said that at least she wished that was what they were thinking, so that maybe more clothes and jewelry would be traded back and forth between the Montagnards and the camp and she could make herself a chartreuse dress, the same color as the robes the chief had worn one day when he came down the mountain months before.
The women watched how the wife cupped her hand to lift the water from the wheelbarrow and pour it on the Chief of the Montagnard's testicles.
Before they went back through the Sea of Trees, the chief and his wife spoke to my mother.
"Marcelle," I heard the chief say, but that was all I could hear and then they left.
Later, the Japanese gave my mother fish eyes and asked her what the Chief of the Montagnards had said to her. My mother chewed on her fish eyes but she did not answer. The Japanese hit her face and the fish eyes flew out of her mouth, marked with her teeth. I picked them out of the dirt and chewed on them while I watched the Japanese play ball.
My father told us what had happened to him while he was living in the mountains with the Montagnards. He said he woke up in his grass hut and a woman was sitting in his chair and she took off her head and started brushing her hair.
"She was the most beautiful woman I've ever seen," he said. "And the sound of the brush going through her hair sounded like words whose meanings I did not know. When she left I found her long hair on the floor of my hut, mixed in with the dirt fallen from the cleft hooves of the wild pigs that would come in looking for rice, for the Chinese apples whose seeds shone like rubies, for anything they could eat. On my hard dirt floor, their small hooves sounded like women walking. Picture high-heeled shoes and transparent gowns. Foraging, grunting and then leaving, they wiggled their asses and their corkscrew tails shook as they trotted back up to the higher plateaus. It was the woman," my father said, "who took off her head and started brushing her hair who told me when it was safe to come down and visit you, when the Japanese would be shy of guards who bordered the Sea of Trees. Sometimes this woman would sing, her voice sounding like it was coming from all over. She was a kind of weather we've never known, a kind of rain or wind, a kind of night sky a color no one had ever seen before. There were the mountains and there was her singing," my father said.
"You fucked her then?" my mother said. She had once found receipts from hotels in my father's trouser pockets. She had found strands of hair on the front of his shirts, long and shaped like rivers drawn on maps.
"And where," my mother wanted to know, "did you put it inside her? The hole between her legs or the hole in her neck? Lucky girl," my mother said, "to be fucked in the head."
"Marcelle," my father said to my mother in French, "she was a ghost."
"Oui?" my mother said. ...
In the Great Room I stood on my mother's feet again and she danced me around the symboled borders of the oriental carpet. At the symbol for water she stopped and told me what it was the Chief of the Montagnards had said to her. My father was planning to set us free. With spears, with guns and sabers, he and the Montagnards would come one night or one day and they would spring from the Sea of Trees and beat back the Japanese.
When my mother told me this, white moths were flying through our legs and settling on the carpet.
"It's either the silk in our skirts or the wool in the carpet," my mother said.
She caught the moths and rubbed the powder from their wings onto my eyes, so that when I looked in the Great Room's mirror I had half-moons above my eyes, so they seemed bigger like my mother's eyes, and I looked out the window, toward the mountains, and I thought I could see my father there, Yeu, walking with his face turned to the side, his nose large, banner-like, father straight and tall as a pole.
The day the Chief of the Montagnards came with his children, his boy pointed to his father's testicles in the wheelbarrow and said to me, "Someday all this will be mine."
The day of the Great Game, the Japanese came from all over. From roads that led to places we did not know of, from roads we knew led to Saigon, from roads where others had been taken and never seen again, the Japanese players came in jeeps. Their sabers and guns were collected and spread on tarps and then the Japanese changed their clothes. They put on their colors. The Japanese red sun was raised. Generals drank from small cups, and Japanese women came from the backs of the jeeps to cook and serve the food. From our place we watched the women. Wearing wooden shoes, they walked among the tables covered with cloths and ladled out noodles. Their long sleeves never got in the way but stayed close like folded wings at their sides.
"How beautiful," we all said, and we decided who was the prettiest, who wore the nicest dress, who walked the way we thought she should walk, who would be the first to be whipped, or made wife, or fucked in the kitchen, the man's saber hitting the stove, nicking the table's legs, her legs—drawing blood from the lily-white skin.
"Oh, yes, they are all beautiful," we agreed, and with arms on dusty window ledges we watched them move through the Japanese men.
The player man I bet on did not win.
"Year of the Pig," my amah screamed at me. "What did you expect? Pigs give you dreams of the mud, and in the morning your sheets look like you've slept with your shoes on. Besides, he couldn't run with legs as fat as tree trunks and knees that knock."
Days later, when they pulled him from the marsh, we found out that the bloated man was one of our men. He was the husband of Leandri, a woman who made us dolls. The brown hair she used for the dolls was from her own head, and all of us girls owned one of her creations and we all called our dolls our Leandris. When Leandri found out it was her husband, we were sitting on him, braiding our Leandris' hair the way the Japanese women had worn their hair.
Wrapped in a sack, he was like a couch, and we sat on him and leaned our backs against a bamboo hut and worked on perfecting the Japanese braid. Leandri pulled us off the sack and tore it open and fell onto her husband. As she hugged him, bits of his rotting skin clung to her cheek. When she walked back to our hut, the Japanese called her names—spirit from the Chinese grave of whores and fishwives.
When Poulet was just a few months old and I sat feeding her milk dripping from the corner of a sheet, my amah came over to me and told me to put Poulet down and to stand up. She had me lift up my arms, and she wrapped the sheet around my small breasts, tying it tightly in a knot at the back. The milk was cool on me and for a day I smelled like Poulet. But at night, when I asked my amah to untie the sheet, she said, "No, from now on you are just a girl and not a woman. The Japanese will not want to touch you or take you to the Sea of Trees. I don't want to see you coming back to camp with dirt in your hair and blood running down your legs."
I wore the sheet all the time. Once in a while my mother would untie it and tie it tighter for me. My elbows sticking out, my mother asked, "Who is the chicken here? You or my little Poulet?"
Once when I was playing the circle game, the Japanese pulled me off the dead man I was sitting on and took me to where they held prisoners and they sat me in a chair and they brought out a Frenchman and they said, "Tell us what he says."
His name was Michel Riquelme. One lens of his glasses was missing and the lens that remained magnified his eye and made it bulge so that he seemed to look at you with it more closely.
"Speaking of eyes," he once said to me, "I took out a man's eye in a bar with the end of my cane."
The Japanese said, "Tell him to stand up tall. Tell him, Keep your head down, your answers short, yes or no, your hands low, don't grab for rice or for water. Clean your ass after you shit, clean your teeth with your finger, clean your cell with the water given to you to drink, watch your mouth. Tell him, Your translator's a half-breed, and in the eyes of the gods she counts as two of the lowliest girls that ever slipped out of the belly of a French whore made with the seed of a Chinese clown."
With the eye stuck on the end of the cane like a cigar, Michel Riquelme said, he left the bar and dropped the eye in the Seine. Pupil up, it floated and bobbed, taking in Notre Dame, the starlit Paris sky.
"What did he say?" the Japanese said.
Michel Riquelme spoke French quickly. Often he would answer the questions and tell me about his life at the same time. "For fun we ran a stick through a hoop down the street—I don't know about the guerrillas—days it rained we made boats out of orange peels. Toothpicks were their masts, and we sailed them in the gutters—guerrillas never came to me or my men on December twenty-third."
I fell in love with Michel Riquelme.
"Year of the Rabbit," my amah said when she found out. "You'll have dreams of the garden," she said.
ON MY MOTHER'S BIRTHDAY WE WENT TO THE MARSH. There we put a table and chairs in the knee-deep water so that while we ate in the hot afternoon sun we cooled the bottoms of our legs. Come to curl around our ankles were the floating grass blades.
From the marsh my mother looked toward the mountains.
"One year Yeu gave me dancing lessons for my birthday. Out on our balcony he sang in perfect French, `Parlez-moi d'amour.' I put my head on his chest and heard his heart going—it kept time with the song," my mother said, and then she started singing it and we joined in, my amah and me, and we splashed our feet in the marsh and the marsh water went up and hit our faces and our hair and then the Japanese came and they told us to take our table and our chairs back to where we found them, and "Do you think this is your house?" they asked us, and they laughed, saying to each other, "They think this is their house." They ran to one side of the marsh and said, "Here is the bedroom," and then they ran to the other side of the marsh, the legs of their trousers getting wet, their saber points dunking in the water, and they said, "Look here, the kitchen," and then they ran to another side of the marsh. "The toilet," they yelled, and they dropped their pants and peed in the water, making it look like circles in the marsh come up from fish feeding at the surface.
Later, from my window, I saw the Japanese lying down by the trees, they were watching the sun set and chewing on long blades of grass. I was drawing another map of our place in the dirt. I was just drawing where we lived, how our huts faced each other and how you could stand in your doorway and wave to someone across the way. I drew the general's hut, which was one hundred paces from ours. His had a porch and on the floor of the porch was a lion skin. The soldiers told the story of how the general shot the lion when he was just a boy. I could hear Father Jean-Claude's voice telling me it was all wrong, I should be drawing the guardhouse tower and how connected to it was the never-ending barbed wire that penned us in our camp. Then I thought that what Madame Lin would have drawn was something other than huts or guardhouses, probably the garden we grew behind our row of huts. In the garden the bean plants sprouted white flowers and Madame Lin plucked them and put them behind her ear. She would hold out her arms to one side and move them like ocean waves and say that the Japanese were mistaken, she was not really Chinese but rather a Fiji islander, and they should set her free and take her back to her father on his island, where he would give them necklaces made of shells and wine served in coconut bowls and steaks cut from monkey and whale.
THE DAY THE JAPANESE FIRST CAME I WAS STANDING ON my mother's feet and she was dancing me on our balcony. She was singing "Parlez-moi d'amour," and my father's dogs were jumping at us.
"Cutting in?" my mother asked them, and I could see their teeth, and their breath smelled like the bones brought home for them from the market. Then my mother said, "Ca va?" but she wasn't talking to the dogs and she wasn't talking to me. She was looking out over the field and she had her hand over her eyes like we were on a boat and she was trying to see land.
"He's coming," she said.
So soon? So early? I thought.
"He's not alone," she said. My mother ran downstairs. From the balcony I could see my father turn to the side. I could see his straight nose. Straight as the garden rows. Corn planted that way, at an angle to the morning sun, catches stronger rays at midday and grows sweeter and faster. This is what my father had told me.
"Jesus," my mother was screaming. "The Japanese! The Japanese! The Japanese!"
At first I thought it was part of the song she was singing.
They were holding my father by the arms.
Let him go, I wanted to scream out to the Japanese. He will not fall, I thought. But I did not scream out because everyone else was screaming and I did not think I would be heard.
My father was screaming, "Get back into the house!"
The Japanese were screaming words that, at the time, I could not understand.
It was not until the Japanese pulled out their guns and shot my father's dogs that I realized that the dogs were barking so loudly.
The dogs leaped into the air falling on their sides. Dust rose from where they lay even after their legs had stopped moving.
When the Japanese came to me I was singing my mother's song. I was hearing my father yell, "Marcelle! Marcelle! Marcelle!" even though my father was standing right next to my mother.
I was watching a Japanese face come down so close to mine that I thought it was going to kiss me and I lifted up my face a little to let it.
Outside, stalks brushed my arms and legs and it felt like hands were touching me. I heard a noise like my father digging in the garden and hitting rock, but then I turned and saw it was the Japanese. They were hitting my father and mother with the butts of their guns.
Even with a hand over my mouth I was still singing "Parlez-moi d'amour."
MY MOTHER READ THE NOTE FROM THE CHIEF OF THE Montagnards when the Japanese were playing ball. My amah was rocking Poulet and telling her about the house where we once lived—the porcelain bridge, the carp in the pond, the smell of lotus on the paths, the one-thumbed crooked gardener who stole from the rose garden and later sold the roses from a cart at the market.
After my mother read the note she folded it and put it into the sheet knotted at my back. "Promise me you won't read it," she said. "You're to give it to Michel Riquelme."
I had to carry the note in the knot of my sheet for days. At night, when I moved on my mat, the paper's edges got caught in the bamboo ticking. I thought how can I ever give it to Michel Riquelme without the Japanese seeing me?
Those nights I did not sleep. Outside, the Japanese were walking by our place, their sabers scraping the walls. Inside, my amah was screaming in Chinese. In her dreams she would put her fist in the hole in her leg, holding her hand like the saber was in it and she was trying to draw it out.
"Ayaaaah!" she would say, and pull out the saber in her dreams, her fist rising above her head and my mother waking up to calm my amah down.
Every Wednesday was Rat Day. We stomped our feet on the ground and yelled, and the rats from the rafters and from under the floorboards would come running out, back and forth across our feet, over our mats. With planks pulled down from the dividers in the latrines, we aimed for their heads.
"Banzai!" we would scream, laughing and picking up the rats by their tails and tossing them to the cook, who carried them out to the kitchen in a covered pot.
"Banzai," the Japanese said when they saw us through the windows. Watching us they would smoke cigarettes and bet on how many rats we would catch.
The day the general was bitten by a horse it was Rat Day. No one saw the horse bite the general, but while we were yelling and crashing the boards on the rats' heads, we heard the horse whinny loudly and charge past our windows. We thought the general had been shot.
The Japanese stopped betting on our rats and ran to where the general lay on the ground, blood soaking through his fingers where he held them to the bite on his shoulder. The Japanese pried his hand from the bite and sent someone off to round up and destroy the runaway horse. At their dinner that night we could smell horse stew all over the camp and it smelled sweet and not like the meat of a horse who could take a bite out of his master's flesh. We wondered how they had cut it, in cubes or strips. We guessed at the spices and the greens they had added.
"Coriander," my mother said.
"Pepper," Leandri said.
"I smell the Chinese apple," I said. "Would they use that?"
"Perhaps it is the sweet smell we are smelling," my mother said.
Then the Japanese came in and they threw our mats into the air and they lifted up loose floorboards and they called out that they were looking for medicine for the general, and that if any of us had some we were to hand it over, because if the general's shoulder worsened overnight, there would be lashings in the morning, dunkings in the latrine and a dead body or two.
The Japanese found no medicine for the general in our hut. My mother, long past wearing cologne, offered up a bottle, opening it and letting it pass under the noses of the Japanese.
In French, to my mother, Leandri said, "Don't think that will get you out of here—it's going to take more than a bottle of cologne to do that." Then the Japanese made my mother put on her silk skirt and take the bottle to their horse-bitten general.
Later, back from the general's, smoking cigarettes he had given her, my mother sat on the end of her mat and told us what had happened.
"Walking over to his hut I kept trying to remember when I'd gotten the cologne. And then I remembered that Yeu had given it to me after he had told me that in place of brushing their teeth, the old Chinese ate water chestnuts after their meals. I had laughed at that, and he said, `You French are no better, with baths of cologne instead of baths of soap and water.' I laughed again, thinking about it, while walking to the general, and the Japanese yelled at me. `No laughing,' they yelled, so of course I laughed harder, and while I was laughing I was thinking how I couldn't let the bottle drop and spill in the dirt, and then the Japanese opened the door of the general's place and I saw the general lying on his cot, without his shirt, his belly as broad and smooth as a woman's, and I kept on laughing and the general said to his men, `What's this, you've brought me a hyena?' but then I noticed the splendor in the general's room and I stopped laughing.
"On the walls there were tapestries woven with silk and with gold, depicting beautiful women bent at rivers, walking with flowers, men on horseback, the horses' manes spread out behind them like the wings of birds of prey. On the table was a pot of steaming tea. The floor was recently swept. `I must be careful not to slip,' I told myself.
"`With all respect,' I said to the general and bowed, `I am afraid that all I have to offer you is this one bottle of cologne.'
"`Lai, lai,' the Japanese said to me, knowing I knew Chinese. So I went up to the general and opened the stopper on the bottle and moved his bandages to the side and I poured all the cologne into the bite in his skin. You could see the tooth marks so clearly that if the horse were to bite him in the same spot again, its teeth would fit, like a bare foot in its footprint in the sand. When the general screamed the Japanese crossed their sabers in front of my neck, but when the general didn't roll over and die, they let me stand. The general took my hand. To kiss it, I thought to myself, but he was just holding on to me so I could help him to his feet. He went to his desk and sat in the chair and someone poured him some tea.
"`Please sit down,' he said, and I was given a chair. The tea smelled like a holiday—I couldn't remember which one. Easter or Christmas. I thought maybe it was brewed with clove.
"`The French make quality cologne: he said to me, and he touched his hand to his shoulder and then wiped it off under his fatty breast.
"`There is a Frenchman my daughter translates for, as prisoner he receives no cigarettes, would it be possible?' I said.
"`Cigarettes too?' the general said. `Of course that is what the French do, and they drink, don't they?' he said.
"`Yes,' I said, `but it is the smoking he misses the most.' The general pushed his pack of cigarettes across to me on the table and I put them inside my blouse.
"`But what about you?' the general said.
"`A sheet, to sleep under, safe from mosquitoes,' I said. The general spoke to his men and they came back with a sheet.
"When I left the general I took a look at the tapestry hanging behind him. It was one I hadn't noticed before, it was so plain, showing only a man pulling a wagon up a snow-capped mountain. When the general saw me looking, he said, `This is from my country,' and passed his flattened hand over the tapestry's threads."