Illustrated by Scott Gandell
He always comes back home with his arms full of beautiful things. He brings toys–figurines of American heroes with names you can’t pronounce, tiny plastic parachutes looped with white strings that you spend hours untangling, slingshots that your children use to shoot pebbles at trees and fences and each other until one of them cries and you have to go outside and separate them. He brings back his rations, the food packed into those uniform green cans. Chicken soup, bread, Coca Cola, Oreos. The children open them up and eat whatever’s inside, shoving the best pieces in front of the baby’s face for a bewildered, toothless smile.
He brings home a television once, black and white pictures with raspy gargle voices for sounds. It’s twelve inches tall and weighs more than you toddler, but this is 1966. No one in Vietnam has televisions. Not in a hamlet this small. This is why all of your neighbors and friends invent excuses to come over and watch or gawk at the screen from outside when they pass by. The children love the attention, and so does your husband. He always liked to be the one who had more than everyone else.
Helen, he says as the kids fight amongst themselves over who gets the extra parachute. And you come to him, because that was what you always do. Then he brings out the things he bought for you: ropes of pearls in every color you can imagine, cold green jade bangles that you can barely squeeze your hand into, shining gold earrings studded with diamonds that you know you won’t be wearing out of the house often. You’ll still have some of them when your oldest grandchild gets out of prison. You’ll carry them through forty-five years and twelve thousand miles and a war.
You love him. You always will. In fifty years, you’ll keep a postcard from him in your purse, and sometimes you’ll take it out for your granddaughters to coo over. He was a very handsome man, you’ll say, and they’ll nod and scrutinize the picture.
You like to think that you don’t love him any less because he has a second wife.
This is a common practice in Vietnam at the time, especially for wealthy war generals. It’s just as common for the wives to share a house in addition to a husband.
You’re his first wife, but your marriage wasn’t arranged. He came to your house and spoke with your parents before approaching you, even though you had more suitors than you could count. People might not know it by looking at you now, but you were very beautiful, maybe even the most beautiful girl in your village. But he was the smartest, the most handsome, the most successful. You told your parents, He’s the one I’m going to marry. And you did.
He sleeps in late on Saturday afternoons. You always wake up early to get started on the chores. Cooking for a full house isn’t easy. Cleaning for a full house is even harder. Once, you were sweeping the front porch when he got up. Helen, he called, nestled among the thick blankets that he liked. But the door was closed behind you. You didn’t hear. He only ever calls once. You’re supposed to be within earshot of his bedroom whenever he’s asleep so that when he calls for you, you could come running. But that day–you don’t even remember when it was, only that the sun blazed hot against the back of your neck as you brushed the dust away—you weren’t, and that was the day you learned what happened when you made him run.
What kind of man are you trying to get, he’d said, still clad in his loose pajama pants and stabbing a long finger into your chest. It took everything you had, but you managed not to let out a sound. Standing out in the front instead of obeying me. Trying to find a new husband?
And you ducked your head and said, No, I’m sorry that I didn’t hear you. Please forgive me. And he said, Let’s hope, for your sake, that it doesn’t happen again.
Sometimes, when it’s dark and you’re lying in bed alone, you can’t help but think that your failure to do what he expects of you is why he had taken up with another woman. Maybe you aren’t good enough. But half a century later, you’ll know that it wasn’t because of anything you did or didn’t to do. That was just the way things were. *** And this is where it should have ended.
Where is she? His voice rings loud through the pop and sizzle of fatty pork on the stove. He wears his uniform, the heavy green coat with the patches and badges telling everyone of all the accolades and awards that he earned. Beads of sweat trail down that smooth brow. Tell her to come out.
Who? you say, pressing down on a browned chunk of meat. You’re making braised pork with eggs and coconut, your son’s favorite.
Your daughter. He says it like it is obvious. The expectation when you live with people like him is that you will somehow know exactly what they want.
Why? You don’t remind him that she’s his daughter, too.
Just answer me. Then he shoves past you and into the hallway, calling for your oldest daughter the way he does when he’s angry: short and harsh, with the ends of the words bitten off and ground between his teeth. His boots track dirt onto the floor that you just cleaned.
And she, the other wife, stands in front of her rooms, leaning against the doorframe. She isn’t very much younger than you, but she is beautiful, too. Sometimes it isn’t hard to see why your husband married her. He always got the best.
Her lips curve into the slightest of smiles. When she looks at you, she isn’t wicked or gleeful or smug. Her face is carefully blank, her big eyes sharing no thoughts.
Later, your husband will tell you that his other wife had seen your daughter take a pearl necklace from her room. You still don’t know if the wife was lying or if your daughter really had stolen from her stepmother. You don’t think that she wouldn’t have done any such thing, but when you look at your daughter in fifty years–drunk half of her waking hours, too poor to own a car, married to a man sentenced to four lifetimes in prison—you might think otherwise.
Your daughter and your husband’s second wife don’t get along. You suppose someone would think that you would be fighting with the other woman for your husband’s attention, but it’s really your oldest daughter who competes with her. If you were to be quite honest with yourself, you’d say that it’s often a relief to have someone else to share the burden of being married to your husband.
But that doesn’t make you like her any more.
You walk into the kitchen. He stands in the middle of the room, right between the table and the counter, his eyes narrowed into slits. The kids scattered when they heard the anger in his voice and it now it’s just the two of you in here, with the other wife still watching from the doorway to her room. She lets her satisfaction show on her pretty face.
When you tell your grandson about this fifty years later, you try to make him understand that it was a different time. A different place where there were no rules about beating your children. Your neighbors wouldn’t have called the police if they heard the sounds of a switch or a broom handle or a palm striking flesh for hours. They wouldn’t have come to see if anyone was hurt if they heard a little girl wailing until dawn. That wouldn’t have happened, anyways. Your kids knew that crying out only made it worse. His face is purple with his rage. You are rich. He prefers to imagine himself able to buy anything his family could ever want or ever need, so there is no reason why your daughter should steal anything. It’s an insult to his pride, and there’s no worse crime in his eyes.
Where is she? He leans forward on the table, pushing his face an inch from yours. Flecks of foamy spittle land on the front of your tunic, right on the painted lily that made you pick this tunic in the first place. Behind his back, the corners of the other wife’s red mouth twist into the barest hint of a smirk. Her fingers dance around her collar and when she moves her hand, you see the dim sheen of a string of pearls.
You don’t remember doing what you did next, but you remember it happening before your eyes. Your fingers curling around the handle of your second-favorite knife, a sharp silver thing with a twelve-inch blade. Lifting that knife from its spot on the counter. Feeling its weight, cool and comfortable, in your hand. Sinking the blade deep into the old, soft wood of the kitchen table, not three inches from where his wrist meets his hand.
You’ve ruined that knife and burned the meat, but you don’t care. He stares right at you, the whites of his eyes visible all around irises. There’s a spot of lipstick missing from the middle of the other wife’s mouth.
“If you kill my daughter,” you say, your voice steady and sure, “I will kill your mistress.” He never hits your daughter again . * You remember everything that happened. Everything. It was a beautiful day to die—not too hot and not too cold, with the sun blazing bright over the base. The air was clear of dust and you could smell flowers and fried pork and shrimp paste and gunpowder. Your hair was clean and your uniform new and your belly full of the finest fried fish that Hanoi had to offer. In your pocket were two rings for your wives and a chocolate bar for your littlest son. The smile on your face was bright and yes, it was a beautiful day to die indeed.
The first time they try to kill you is a birthday. Not your birthday, but one of your second-in-commands’. You never really liked bars that much, but that’s because you knew them too well. You grew up with cigarette butts and fast women and cheap drinks, and it’s not a place you like to be. But your brigadier general chooses it, so you say okay and you get the first round of drinks, too. Nam gets the next, and Duong gets the one after that, and continues until almost all of them are plastered.
“Hey. Hey. No, give that back!” Nam’s words run together like his tongue is two sizes too big for his mouth. His hand swipes at the air four inches to the left of the beer can Kiet had taken away from him, causing him to lurch to the side. You duck under his arm and sling it over your shoulder to keep him steady. “Hey. Hey!”
Kiet comes to Nam’s other side. You’ve only had a beer and a half so you’re more than okay, and Kiet’s always been able to hold his liquor better than any of your other men. Together, the two of you drag the listless Nam to the front door.The rest of your men are probably out by the car, waiting in varying stages of inebriation, and you’d like to get them home as soon as you can. You’re only ten feet away outside when Nam begins to jerk around. You all know what this means, and Kiet produces an empty pitcher from somewhere and shoves it under Nam’s face.
It seems like years before Nam’s retching turns into dry heaves, and then groans, and then words. “I’m ready to go,” he says, his voice clearer than it had been before. He pulls himself to his feet and can almost walk on his own.
“I’m going to take this to the kitchen,” says Kiet, holding the pitcher gingerly by the handle. While Nam gargles from a glass of water someone had left on a table, you watch Duong weave around drunk men and chairs too far from their tables.
When he disappears around a corner, you hear an explosion from the direction of the parking lot.
You don’t even think. You just run through the people running slower than you. The cool night air does nothing for the pulse pounding too wild and too hard in your neck. You almost feel like throwing up.
You don’t say “excuse me,” as you push past the crowd toward the rising smoke. You don’t know what you’re looking for when your push past the crowd–maybe a dismembered arm, maybe a head. Maybe Duong, maybe Hai. But you don’t see anything like that, just the melted, twisted pieces of metal that used to be your car and the three parked next to it.
You just stare at the rubble.
“Major General!” It’s the voice of Duong, and it comes from right by the door. You look over and it’s your men, all of them except for Nam. They’ve got cigarettes in their hands smoke coming out of their mouths. You and Kiet walk over to them. Your legs are a little bit weak. When they offer you a cigarette, you take it with hands that tremble, but they’re all too drunk to notice.
Obviously, you can’t drive any of them home. In the end, the police tell you that someone did die in that explosion–a doctor, a man who treated soldiers of both sides without discrimination, a man who happened to park his car right next to yours. You nod, and go home. You stopped grieving for innocent men a long time ago.
You’re asleep with your second wife when the next time they try to kill you. It’s one o’clock in the morning and too hot under the blankets, but you curl around her anyways because you miss women and you miss her and your other wife doesn’t want you in her bed. She sleeps like a starfish, her arms and legs splayed all over the bed, and you have to crawl into the largest space you can find and slowly move her limbs around until there’s room for you to slide in beside her. This time, the noise is a thump. It’s only the slightest of thumps, but you’ve always been a light sleeper. You sit up in bed, peering into the silvery darkness, but there’s nothing. And then–there it is, another thump. It’s above you somewhere. The roof. Footsteps now, but you recognize the light, even pace from down the hall. The footsteps grow louder until your son’s silhouette appears in the doorway, where he hesitates. “Father?”
You love your son more than you love either of your wives. He’s going to be a great man; you know it already. You can already see yourself in him–the furrow of his brow, the lightness of his sleep, the pronunciation of his words. He’s only fourteen years old, but as the oldest son in a house where the father is often away, he’s had to grow up far too quickly. But this is life, and that’s how things work.
He clears his throat, but his voice still gives an unseemly crack on the first word. “Father, someone is on the roof.”
Through your determined fear, you still feel pride. “I heard,” you say. “I know. Go back to your room.”
For a second, you have the most irrational worry that he’ll disobey, that he’ll say, “No,” but this is your son. You raised him. He doesn’t disobey you.
Tuan gives you a curt nod, and he’s about to turn around, but then—there, another noise. Footsteps, and your head snaps toward the source. But again, the sound is both all wrong and all right: little feet slapping against the plastic tiles.
Your daughter’s tiny face appears in the doorway. “Daddy, I heard a noise.” You don’t have to tell Tuan what to do. He picks up his half-sister and carries her away, his pace quick. “Here, let your big brother tell you a story,” he says. “Once upon a time, there was a little girl named An Ha.” His voice disappears into the darkness as he walks down the hall. Then a door opens and shuts, and you can’t hear him anymore.
The next noise to come is so soft that if you weren’t a military man in a situation like this, you would have dismissed it as the creaking of the night. But you scan the darkness as you climb out of bed, slowly, careful to keep from waking your wife, and reach into the box near the side of your bed. Your gun warms quickly in your hand as you move, silent, through your house. When you pass your daughter’s room, you hear the crackling of your son’s voice and the high, happy giggle of a happy little girl. Tuan pauses his storytelling as you pass the door, and then continues as you move on. As you creep past your first wife’s bedroom and into the living room, you hear another noise.
Then, two yards away, you see the cat.
It’s a pretty little cat: sleek and grayish, with black spots on it. This isn’t the kind of cat that roams the base, and it’s too neat—fur too smooth, feet too clean. Not a wild cat, and your family doesn’t leave windows and doors open anymore. It’s a scouting cat.
It’s a practical thing to do, when you think about it. Much more practical than just sending in a man with a gun and heavy footsteps. Send a cat instead, and if it comes back alive, your victim is either unaware, or an idiot. You shoot it. Then, for good measure, you stick your arm up in the unlit fireplace and fire two shots up the chimney, too. The shells of your bullets clatter to the sooty stone of the bottom of the fireplace. There’s a scuffling on the roof, the sliding of feet on the shingles, a shout, and then nothing.
You carry the cat out to the garbage. The next day, you show Tuan how to shoot a gun. The third time is entirely your fault. After they blew up your car at the bar, you hired an armed guard. He is a cheerful guy, despite the war. You doubt he is older than twenty-two, but he works harder than most people you know.
“My daughter has a presentation at her school today,” he says, grinning. One of his canines is missing, but that’s not too uncommon in Vietnam.
You guide the car down a narrow road as he talks. His chatter is pleasant, rather than irritating. He speaks of his children, two little girls born within a year of each other, and his wife, who he is completely enamored with. It’s hard to concentrate on what he’s saying because this is an unfamiliar street in an unfamiliar town, but you do your best. He sits in the back seat, directly behind you. Next to you is your lieutenant general, who raises a brow at you whenever your armed guard talks. It’s not usual for someone of such a low rank to chatter in front of high-ranking officers, but since you don’t mind and the lieutenant general trusts you, he doesn’t say anything. Your brigadier general sits behind him, staring silently out the window. Surely all of this wife-talk is getting him down, even though it was months since his ran away. Kiet sits in the middle, reading a letter. His lips move as he reads.
You manage to find a parking space right outside the restaurant. It’s not usually crowded here, even though it is the best restaurant in town, according to your armed guard. He knows all of the restaurants in this town, because—
“Chien,” you say, turning to him as you put your car in parking mode. “How far do you live from here?”
“Fifteen minutes walking,” he says.
You wait until everyone’s out of the car before you speak again. “Go home,” you say, and you can’t help but smile. “Go watch your daughter’s presentation.”
The pockmarks on his face disappear into the folds of his happiness. He’s been stationed at your base for over a year, and probably hasn’t seen his family in months.
He stutters over his gratitude, but you just say, “Go! Be back in three hours.”
He walks away from the restaurant before breaking into a run.
Your lieutenant general just chuckles at you. The brigadier general smiles, just a little bit. Kiet folds up the letter. The four of you cross the street and head into the restaurant, leaving your car alone in the parking lot.
That was your first mistake. The lunch is good as Chien said it would be. You eat a meal that’s known as Beef Served Seven Ways, and it’s as expensive as it sounds: beef salad, beef with shrimp crackers, beef in vinegar fondue, three types of grilled beef wraps, and beef porridge with fried fish. It’s wedding fare, probably not what people would consider appropriate in the lean times of war, but you don’t do this often.
You think of your family as the shrimp crackers shatter between your teeth. What are they doing now? Are they safe? They’re safer than you are. Later, you’ll learn that as your fourth course comes from the kitchen, greasy fingers are slipping a rubber band around a bomb. You’re not an expert on explosives, but this one is the kind that requires pressure to keep from detonating, which the rubber band is meant to provide. As it sits in the gasoline tank of a car, the rubber band contracts until it can no longer keep from breaking.
Something about starting the car triggers the incendiary mechanism, and that means death. You’re not thinking about any of this as you enjoy your porridge, or as you pay for the meal, or as you pull a toothpick from the dispenser and stick it in your mouth. Your colleagues thank you and you say, “No problem,” and the four of you squint as you bring yourselves back into the sunlight and get into the car. It’s not too hot and not too cold, and the air smells of flowers and fried pork and shrimp paste and gunpowder.
You start the engine. The car explodes, and you die.
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