He came to her as he always had done, long before the sun rose, while the frogs and the crickets still sang in the pond behind her house. This time, for the first time, he didn’t come alone.
* * *
Her village was a poor one – poor and useless –like her. Her grandmother had told her that, once, long ago, it had been prosperous. Then the war came and with it the soldiers, the planes, the powder that fell from the sky and the sickness it brought with it. Grandmother said it was supposed to kill the forest, but it made everything sick: the rice, the chickens, the pigs, and people, too.
Even now, the war long over, the earth was still sick. The paddies gave only grudgingly, the chickens laid only little eggs with thin, brittle shells and Nhan – she was marked, too. Born without a place for babies to grow.
When the other girls in the village began to whisper about their monthly bleeding, she said nothing and waited for hers to begin. Her mother took her aside and asked almost daily: did she have the women’s sickness yet?
Nhan began to dream of it, even without knowing how it felt. She pushed on her belly with the heels of her palms, willing the pain to start and the blood to flow, but there was nothing.
At the age of fifteen, her mother took her to see an old woman in the next village down the river. The witch gave her bitter tea and joss sticks were burned over Nhan’s belly. She made Nhan lie on her stomach and put hot cups all over her back to suck out the hot chi that was undoubtedly blocking her menstruation. The cups left big blood-red moons on her skin, but still no blood came.
The following year, her father sold a pig to pay for a trip to Can Tho and a visit to a clinic. The city was noisy and full of people rushing every which way. Cars and motorcycles beeped viciously at them as they made their way to the address on the pamphlet her mother held. The doctor was harsh and cared nothing for Nhan. He pushed and prodded her like a sack of rice, made her lie on a cold metal table, and pushed painful things inside her. She cried for her mother and begged him to stop, but he didn’t even seem to notice she was there.
On the way home, in the boat, her mother told her that she would never bleed. The doctor had said that she’d been born wrong – not really a woman – because she had no nest for a baby. “Useless,” her mother muttered. Even as Nhan began to cry, pushing desperate fingers into the empty spaces in her belly where her womb should have been, her mother clicked her tongue and spoke cruelly. “Better you’d been born with no arms, or no legs, or a cleft palate like other children in the village. At least then people could see your affliction and feel pity – you could sell lottery tickets and perhaps marry a beggar. But who wants a barren wife? No one!”
Then it was her mother who began to cry, burying her face in her hands. “Who will support me in my old age if you have no husband? No one. No one! Your father and I will die working and poor.”
After the trip to the doctor, Nhan’s mother hardly spoke to her. She’d throw fish at her and tell her to clean them or push her out into the yard to feed the pigs. And finally, one afternoon, she watched her mother move her sleeping mat outside, by the kitchen, under the overhanging roof. “Get a net and sleep out here. I don’t want your bad luck in the house.”
Even though her mother had warned her to tell no one about her condition, somehow the whole village got to know of it. The other girls would not sit and sort rice with her for fear of catching her bad luck and barrenness. The boys would make fun of her and call her “empty cup”. Even the older people, though polite to her face, would shake their heads and mutter the minute Nhan had left their presence. She’d looked back often enough times to see the pity, or even contempt, in their faces.
One evening, her father had sent her to the village store to buy oil. It was almost dark, and the store was empty except for the owner, Mr. Diep. After finding the oil, she reached out her hand to give him the money; he grabbed her wrist instead. He pulled her into the dark corner of the shop and began clawing at her clothes.
“Sh-h,” he said. “Just let me have a little taste. Just a little.”
Nhan kicked at his shins and clawed at his arms, but Mr. Diep grew angry and slapped her face so hard, Nhan stopped crying.
“Stupid girl. You’re broken, anyway, and no one will have you. Why make a fuss about nothing?”
Perhaps his words made sense, and later, Nhan would think about them. But there, in the dark, stuffy little shop room, she fought like an angry cat, scratching at his face, until he let her go. Finally he pushed her away in disgust.
“Who wants you anyway? You’d probably steal my seed and dry me up, too. Get out, you piece of filth.”
That is why, the first time Hai came to her, Nhan had been frightened. She’d woken up sensing someone was near and found him sitting on the wooden platform next to her sleeping mat, looking at her through the mosquito netting. At first, Nhan didn’t recognized him. She only saw the dark outline of a man against the starry night sky.
“Go away,” she hissed. But he didn’t move.
“Go away, or I’ll scream.”
“Don’t be frightened. I won’t hurt you,” the voice whispered back, his face pressing into the fall of the netting.
“Who is it?”
“It’s Hai, the fisherman.”
Nhan only knew Hai well enough to pity him from a distance. When she’d been younger, she and the other girls had watched him limp through the village with his deformed foot dragging behind him in the dust. She’d laughed at him, just like everyone else, and called him “turtle,” because he moved so slowly.
More recently, she had seen him down at the river, and her pity had turned to envy. Up to his chest in the water, he was like an otter, happy and graceful as he put his net fences into place to catch the crabs. He wasn’t a lumbering cripple at all. And he wasn’t useless. No matter what he deformity, he fed his elderly parents with his catch.
That first morning, he’d sat beside her bed while the sun turned the sky purple and then gold, speaking softly. He told her all about the river snakes and how they spoke to him. He talked of the civet cats that crept down to the riverbank and tried to steal his catch; of the baby eels who lived among the mangrove roots in living knots.
“Why have you come?” Nhan asked when he’d finished his story.
“Because you are like me, little sister. River creatures.”
The next morning, at the same time, he was back. This time he brought her coconut candy wrapped in pandan leaves. Nhan could smell the greenness of the river on his skin as he passed her the candy, under the netting.
Again he spoke softly and told her stories. Nhan lay in the dim light, chewing the sticky candy and listening to the whispering voice; it shushed and flowed through her body like a river, too, the water of his words winding though her veins.
Days passed and every morning Hai would be there. Nhan began to wake early, anticipating his visit. One dawn, between whispers, she heard her father’s heavy steps inside the house.
“Climb under the netting, quickly!” she said hastily. She wasn’t sure what her father would do if he caught them, but she was reasonably certain it would be the end of Hai’s morning visits, and the thought of that was like a fishhook in her heart.
Hai burrowed under the netting and flattened himself against the mat, alongside her. Beneath his thin chest, Nhan could feel Hai’s heart hammering.
Her father stumbled out into the yard and began to relieve himself against a bush. He finished with a grunt and wandered back inside.
“Why don’t you come to see me in the daytime?” Nhan murmured in Hai’s ear.
“In the day, I’m working at the river.”
“But you don’t work in the afternoon.”
Hai lay silent for a while and then sighed. “I asked my father if I could marry you. He said no. He said that you were…”
“You were more unfortunate than I. ‘Two chipped teacups make a poor set,’ he said.”
“Your father is right,” said Nhan, the tears in her eyes smearing the weave of the netting into white clouds.
Beside her, Hai shifted. He slid one arm over her torso and gently pulled her against him. With his lips pressed up against her cheek, he whispered, “No. He’s not right.”
It wasn’t just the words that made Nhan feel like crying. It was also the lovely feeling of having the river embrace her and speak so softly. Although she knew that this was not proper, she couldn’t move, wouldn’t move. “I’m broken anyway,” she thought. “Why make a fuss over nothing?”
All the mornings after that one, Nhan held up the mosquito netting and Hai would crawl beneath it and lie beside her. At first he was very quiet. He held her and stroked her hair, speaking to her with his lips just next to her ear. He told her all sorts of things about the river, the animals that lived there and how they behaved.
They had secret ways, he said, and one had to spend a lot time in the water to know about them. Eels, for instance, were very shy, until they fell in love. Then they were as bold as a rat in a market.
“I think you’re like a river eel,” he teased, tracing some part of her ear with the tip of his tongue. Her body shuddered involuntarily.
“Yes, they move just like that. Come to the river with me.”
“I can’t…I can’t swim.”
Hai sat up and, grabbing her by the hand, pulled her off the sleeping mat and into the purple light.
“Come on,” he whispered, and was off, limping through the yard, pulling her along behind him wearing nothing but her sleeping clothes. They walked atop the dikes of the paddy field, towards the river.
When they reached the bank, Nhan was suddenly frightened. Perhaps he wasn’t a man at all. Perhaps he was one of those river demons who tempted girls into the water at the hottest time of the year, and then drowned them so they could be together in the muddy underworld.
Hai coaxed her down the riverbank. Wet clay squished and spread between her toes.
“I don’t want to die,” Nhan whimpered.
“You won’t die, little sister. We all come from the river. You’ll remember once you get in.”
Nhan entered with trepidation, feeling the cool water creeping up the legs of her pyjamas. She clutched Hai’s hand with desperation until a quiet undertow swept beneath her and took her off her feet.
“Don’t…don’t let me go!”
His lean, strong arms surrounded her, pinning her to him. The water splashed her and she clung to his neck, burying her face there.
“See? Nothing to be frightened of.”
Even so, it was Nhan’s heart racing now, and she felt its echo in Hai’s chest. The light was turning the river to molten gold, exactly like the colour of his skin. She was embracing a water dragon with golden scales.
Then he kissed her mouth, gently at first, but then with hunger. Nhan felt they must have been spiralling, because she couldn’t pull away from his lips, no matter how hard she tried. His tongue was like a little fish, eager to swim home, and his arms wrapped around her tightly, making her feel she’d been grafted onto him. Perhaps he was a river demon. Perhaps it didn’t matter.
Pressed together like that, Nhan could feel something hard growing thicker between them. She knew what it was from all the girls’ gossip and the animals in the village. But what was not completely clear to her was how it all worked. She closed her eyes for a moment and vision sprang up in her head of dogs mating. She giggled. Dragons weren’t dogs.
“Not scared anymore?”
She shook her head and wriggled against him, laughing, feeling his harness slide between their wet, clothed bodies.
“I knew you were a little eel,” Hai said thoughtfully.
He waltzed her through the water until he reached a place where her feet could touch the bottom. There he released her, unbuttoned her sodden shirt, and pulled it off her, tossing it up onto the riverbank.
“Eels don’t wear pyjamas.”
He sounded very serious, and before Nhan could respond, he submerged beneath the surface in front of her. There was a tug at her bottoms and, even as she felt him slipping them down her legs, he pressed his face to her belly; the warmth of it spread tendrils of heat through her loins.
He emerged in a fountain of spray with her bottoms in his grasp. They flew wetly through the air and landed on the bank with a wet smack. Moments later his ragged shorts followed.
Nhan expected him to close the gap between them, but instead he backed away from her, out into the depth of the river.
“Swim to me, little eel.”
“I can’t. I can’t swim.”
“Yes you can. Try.”
Nhan was doubtful, but now that she trusted him not to let her drown, she waded in until the water was at her chin, then she pushed off towards him, like a little frog leaping off a lotus leaf. And just like a frog, her limbs found their way, moving just fast enough to keep her head above water. As she neared him, he swam a little further, just out of her reach, again and again, until she began to tire.
“I can’t…” she sputtered, her head dipping under the water.
But he was there, all sinuous limbs and warm body, surrounding her, holding her.
“I can!” she whooped, “I can swim!” Nhan wrapped her arms and legs around him in delight. “I’m not useless.”
Hai kissed her again, a long sucking kiss but, when he stopped, face was serious. “No. You’re not.”
Beneath the surface, his hands caressed her thighs, her back, her breasts. They were soft fishes, swarming around her body, tickling and tasting and making her throb between the legs. One reached under her buttocks and touched her there, cupping her mound. Nhan shivered and twitched at the contact. Her heart was racing and her breaths were short and sharp.
As they reached the far bank, she suddenly remembered Mr. Diep’s words. “I’m broken, down there,” she whispered sadly. “I was born that way, and then the doctor broke me again.”
But Hai didn’t answer. He lifted her onto the bank, seating her in its muddy embrace, and pushed himself slowly inside her.
It was more out of shock than pain that Nhan cried out. She clutched at his shoulders and neck as he pushed her into the cool mud with his body. Beneath her, in the clay, things wriggled against her skin. He was like a tide, sliding in and out, serenely, peacefully, with a face like the Buddha in the temple: half aware, transcended. But each time he seated himself fully, a little smile tipped the corners of his mouth upward. It was as if he was making something better with each thrust.
And Nhan could feel it, too; that with every stroke, he was mending her brokenness in some way. Just when she thought that, everything inside her was right again, a delicious heat spread over her whole body, like the sun coming out from behind a cloud, but not nearly as gentle. She began to shudder uncontrollably, forgetting where she was, or who she was.
“Hai…” she breathed.
But he didn’t answer, he just kept on making things better until, quite suddenly, he moaned, pushed into her with all his might and lay on top of her, trembling like a trapped butterfly.
The next morning, Hai didn’t take her to the river. He crept beneath the mosquito netting and kissed her until she couldn’t bear it any longer, until she was tearing off her clothes to be his little eel again. He suckled at her breasts, and stroked himself between her closed legs until she begged him. He took her quietly, slowly, covering her mouth to muffle her noises.
Eight months passed, and Hai never failed to come and make love to her. Sometimes they went to the river, sometimes to the paddy fields, sometimes he took her into the forest and they make love standing up amongst the trees.
But one day, Hai didn’t come. Nhan woke up in the dark and waited for his now familiar limping gait, but she heard nothing but the crickets. As dawn broke, she became worried. In the morning she did her mother’s chores, but she could not concentrate.
“Where is your brain, you stupid, useless girl?” her mother demanded after Nhan let a dish slip through her hands and onto the floor. It shattered into jagged white pieces.
Nhan had become immune to her mother’s abuse. She could suffer anything so long as, the next morning, Hai would come and unbreak her again. But what if he never came again? How could she bear her life without being made whole again each morning?
As soon as she could, Nhan ran down to the river. There were a couple of fishermen there, but not Hai.
“Where is Hai?” she called to them.
No one knew. They shrugged their bare shoulders and continued setting their nets.
In the afternoon, Nhan got up the courage to walk through the village and knock on the door of Hai’s parents’ house. A very old lady answered the door.
“I’m sorry to trouble you, but do you know where Hai is?”
“Gone,” the old woman mumbled.
“Where has he gone?”
“It’s no business of yours where he’s gone, empty cup.”
Nhan reddened and stepped away from the door. “Is he coming back?” she asked timidly.
The old mother cackled and closed the door. “He’s gone to do what I told him to. He’s gone to find a wife in the next village.”
That night, Nhan couldn’t sleep. She lay awake, her heart fighting to get out her mouth to escape the horrible cold in her belly. Even though she hadn’t become pregnant, Nhan was sure that Hai had healed her, but now she knew it wasn’t so. The empty, dark place in her stomach where her womb should have been was growing and growing, threatening to turn her whole being in to an echoing wasteland. The quicker the better, thought Nhan.
* * *
“Wake up, little eel.”
Nhan opened her eyes and peered into the darkness beyond the mosquito net. Her stomach leapt, her heart thundered. “Hai?”
“I went to see your mother, and she said that you had gone… and…” Nhan began to weep.
“Don’t cry, or you’ll wake the baby.”
Nhan scrambled out from under the netting and peered into the gloom. “What baby?”
“Our baby. Come here and don’t talk so loud or you’ll wake him.”
She inched over to where he sat, cradling a bundle in the darkness. “Hai… it’s not our baby. I can’t make babies.”
“Don’t be silly, of course you can. You did.”
She shook her head, unable to find sense in the situation. “Hai… it’s not possible. I’m an empty cup. I couldn’t have had a baby without knowing it.”
“But the river isn’t ever empty, little eel, and she does whatever she likes.”
“I don’t understand.”
“We made the baby, and the river kept it in her womb. When it was time for the baby to be born, she gave it back.”