Conversations in art about ecological collapse and our place in the changing world

Conversation 19

Plain of Reeds
Philip Huynh

At the Ho Chi Minh City station, the driver would not let Lien’s valise inside the bus. He strapped it on a rusted rooftop grill over the innards of the other passengers’ lives — valises, coconut bark rucksacks, wooden chests, bicycles, potted plants. Though half the cargo was on the roof, the inside was still suffocating, the air humid with sweat, and she could only rest her feet between sacks of someone else’s vegetables.

The view driving through the countryside was of endless rice paddies with nonchalantly swaying stalks. How absurd that people were now trying to sell their furniture for just a few bags of it. The only evidence of deprivation remained in the bus, where she sat next to an old woman with a litter of babies on her lap. They were her grandchildren, said the lady, and also orphans, as if to explain why she was feeding them water with a touch of sugarcane from a plastic bag. Such was Lien’s resigned pity that she took one of the babies on her lap for the whole ride.  

What should have been a two hour trip took half a day, because a bus that ran on charcoal could go only half-speed, and because the driver had to make several stops along the way to refill the back bin with coal, which left a dark trail of soot on the road like bread crumbs. It was midday when they reached Tay Ninh, whose bus stop was an untouched relic — a concrete pad next to a dirt road, beside an empty food stall with a beaten tin awning. There were only a peasant boy with his scrawny cow snooping for scraps around overturned chairs.

The bus driver climbed up the roof to retrieve the belongings. He tossed Lien’s valise at her just as she stepped off, and she caught it in her arms like her baby.  Then she did as Lady Pang instructed — she walked straight ahead and waited for someone to stop her. Lady Pang arranged her next driver, though she would not tell Lien the driver’s name, nor what he looked like, nor where to go in Tay Ninh to meet him.

“Just step out of the bus,” said Lady Pang, “and walk straight ahead. Leave it to him to find you.”  

When Lien asked her what if this man did not find her, Lady Pang smiled and said, “You won’t be missed.”

She walked barely ten paces when she felt a tap behind her shoulder. He spoke her name in the form of a question.  

“You are Lady Pang’s friend?” she asked.

“If you are,” said the man. He had a bald, glistening head and a dark, burlap-rough face of a mummy. Ruddy as his skin was, it failed to bury his dark bright eyes rubbed wet by orange dust. He wore the peasants’ typical garb, the black ao baba, though it looked as if it were just pressed and starched, with not a speck of dust. The stitching along the sleeves were red.

He took the valise from her hand. Straight-backed and limber, he had a young man’s body affixed to an old man’s face. She had to quick-step to keep up, and had no choice but to trust him.

She followed him to a motorcycle — a colonial era Motobecane that had a rusted green frame and a large headlamp that was encrusted with orange dirt. It looked like the last bat out of Diem Bien Phu, high-tailing it south just to be enlisted in the American war, and was yet again standing to be drafted for the next losing side. It had a 125 cc engine, with one bicycle seat for the driver and another seat jerry-rigged over the rear luggage rack. That was where the man motioned Lien to sit, while he placed her valise in the small gap between the two seats and tied it down with frayed ropes.  

Then he handed her a plastic rain shawl. “I don’t want to see your blouse ruined,” he said.

After she put the shawl over her head, he handed her a pristine white handkerchief.  “Wrap this around your beautiful face,” he said. “So it doesn’t become leathery like mine.”

They rode into the countryside at the speed of thirty-five kilometres, past the rice paddies, then to where gravel roads became dirt roads, and then to where any road became a spotty occurrence between scrub grass and ferns. So thick were the fern bushes that she did not know a path existed until the motorcycle turned into it. She had thought the rain shawl was meant to protect her from dust, but now realized it was really meant for the bush that rubbed against her through the plastic, and that turned the sun into a flickering tempest through the shadows above.

She was relieved when such thickets yielded to a knee-high scrub grass that revealed the expanse of the countryside. Here the land was flat and cultivated by nothing but the hundreds of birds who swept in and out of the drying marshes which still carried lotus flowers. They now rode in a swaying grass sea, with the horizon line of cajeput trees marking the distant shorelines.

“Where are we?” she asked.  

“The Plain of Reeds,” said the man. He had been quiet, but the simple question opened up a geyser of talk. He slowed the bike and spat his words over the shoulder, explained to her that this was the area of some of the most harrowing battles during the American war.

“The enemy hid in these plains for years,” he said, and it took her some time to realize that what he meant by the “enemy” were their current masters.  

He suddenly accelerated, and she tightened her grip around her valise. All that prevented her from jumping off the motorcycle was the fact that Lady Pang recommended this man — this married man, this single man, this widower, she really had no idea. But she could see that beneath his ruddy exterior, was something combustible.

And that was when he slowed the motorcycle to a jogging pace, turned around, took one hand off the handlebars, and tossed something oval and hard onto her lap.  A grenade. A smile of absolute violence exploded across his face as she juggled it beneath her palms, trying dearly not to drop it.

“At least we have this, if there’s trouble,” he said. She gently handed it back to him over his shoulder, and he put it away in his pocket. The motorbike picked up speed, and he told her about trading a hen for the grenade from an American GI. She had lost all energy to talk, or even to listen, but he seemed to need the conversation to fuel the journey, and so she did her best to reciprocate. She felt that silence would have been more treacherous.

She asked him if he was a soldier, which made him laugh. “No, but I’m handy with a gun,” he said. “I’m a merchant and hunter of fine animals, though I suppose that Lady Pang just called me a poacher.”

“She didn’t say anything about you,” said Lien. The motorcycle wobbled, as if the man — the Poacher as Lien now thought of him — took offence.

“We’re business associates,” said the Poacher, “from a long time ago. And you?”

“The same.”

“Of course, everyone is, in some way,” he said. He said he was a member of Lady Pang’s community, which Lien understood to mean he was Cantonese. He lived in Tay Ninh, and was Lady Pang’s connection to the more obscure animal parts found in her decoctions. 

“I’ve caught everything from saolas to sunbears,” he said. “Macaques, yes.  Pangolins yes. Have you ever seen a Javan Rhino?”

“I cannot say that I have.”

“Beautiful creatures. Grey as ghosts. Their faces are grotesque, yes, but that is part of their beauty.”

Lien explained to him her association with Lady Pang, and that she was a maker of medicines.

“So you’ve used my merchandise!” he said.

“I deal more in herbs,” Lien said.

“She never had you deal in meat?” he said. “Well then, there must be something standing between the two of you.”

Somehow, Lien understood what he meant. “My mother stood between us,” she said. “Lady Pang was my mother’s friend.”

“I’ve known her since we were both young,” said the Poacher. “Do you know how she got to be called Lady Pang? When she first arrived from Hong Kong, all the locals were Madame this and Madame that, down to the village women. ‘If I have to call every village woman a Madame, then they’ll have to call me a Lady,’ she said.”

“A nod to her own colonizers, I suppose,” said Lien.

“Exactly!”

They rode through knee-high grass towards the mangrove forest in the distance, the bike treading a dirt trail barely the width of its tires, swerving around ferns and half-dried marshes.  

“We’re riding over American Jeep trails, maybe tank,” said the Poacher. “They’ve been grown over, mostly.”

They approached the forest, and its black outline should have lightened to match the green expanse. But closer in she saw only the charred remnants of tree trunks denuded of their branches. Giant, leafless twigs were thrown like stakes in the dead black ground, exact replicas of their pointed shadows from an overpowering brightness above. This was not the forest but its skeleton.

They rode into the heart of this graveyard, dodging the charred tree trunks. The only life came from the buzz of the motorbike. Even the birds stayed clear.

“Agent orange,” said the Poacher.

She hugged her valise and closed her eyes. She did not open them until the motorbike stopped. They were by a riverbank. The denuded forest continued on the other side of the stagnant river. They had reached a dead end.

Around the bend came floating a black stick figure. She thought it was a fallen tree with an upright branch, but then saw it was a peasant in a black ao baba, standing on a skiff boat. The skiff was the same charcoal grey of the forest. The gurgling of the boat’s engine made her see violet rain droplets.  

It nudged up against the riverbank, the tip of its bow fitted with a piece from a rubber tire. The boatman cut the engine, and greeted the Poacher like an old friend.

They carried the motorbike over the boat’s rusted railing, where it was stored on the front deck next to a pink hog with its phlegmy snoring. Then the Poacher helped Lien on board. Wares in the front, passengers in the back, and the engine cut into the middle, which the boatman started with a pull of its cord. She leaned one leg on an oar stowed against the freeboard, which was used, she assumed, whenever the engine ran out of gas.

They rode down the curving river, which formed the spine of the ghost forest that spread from each bank. 

“The war made it harder to make a living in some of the obvious ways,” said the Poacher.

“I see that,” said Lien.

“But it actually made the hunting easier, in some ways,” said the Poacher. “After the Americans napalmed a stretch of forest, we’d just wait for them and the Viet Cong to clear out. We’d camp out in a clearing just beyond the inferno, and just wait for the sound of hoofbeats. Our prey would come running out the burning forest, stunned like zombies. Picking them off was easy. We used to set little traps in the forest, but that suddenly seemed so silly.”

Lien felt like she was in a graveyard for the Earth itself — a place to mourn the death of the world.

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