Bian’s Tale Part 1: Saigon
As promised, a taster of Bian’s Tale. Strictly speaking, Urban Fantasy is set in contemporary times, so this bends the rules a little. It’s also from a very different perspective. I hope you enjoy it, and I would very much like to receive feedback, whatever your reaction.
Part 1 : Saigon
An Athanate Novel
My name is Bian Hwa Trang.
I do not grieve.
What I was before, I am no longer.
I am at peace with myself.
I am female. I was born near Sai Gon, in Nam Ky, about one hundred
and thirty years ago. You now call the place of my birth Ho Chi Minh City
and the country, Vietnam. I am unsure of the exact date of my birth. I know
that I was sold in 1890; that was Dan—Year of the Tiger. I estimate I was
about nine at the time; I know I was Mao—Year of the Cat.
I was sold by my parents.
This was an act of the greatest love and sacrifice on their part. I hope
they survived that dangerous time and the little money they received for
me went some way to ensuring that.
My blessings, such as they are, on them, on their memories, on my
brothers, their children and their children’s children in that unhappy land.
And on my dear sister.
My love and reverence for them, always and for ever.
I am Athanate.
That is the word for the people, the language and the culture of which I
am now part. The word means undying. It means I can say for ever.
As I child, I heard stories of the ma ca rong. In the West, it would have
been vampires. They are both wrong. I am Athanate; I drink blood to sustain
me. That does not make me a demon, it does not make me an animated
corpse, it does not make me evil.
I am more like you than you think.
As to what I was and how I came here…this is my tale.
“You cheated! You cheated,” I shouted, as I tried to leap higher.
“Phew,” said my sister, holding the mango even higher and flapping her hand in front of her face. “Don’t get any closer. Ma’s been washing your
hair in buffalo piss.”
“Has not! You’re lying and you cheated.”
“No, I didn’t. If it’s not your hair then what’s that smell?”
“You stepped in the dung, smelly foot.”
That was smart of me. If she’d looked down, I would have grabbed the thick rope of her plaited hair and used it to help me jump up.
She didn’t look down. I hated her. I hated her even more than I hated the fat little man who chased us off the orchard. He had plenty of fruit. Why
did he have so much? He couldn’t eat it all.
Without Nhung, I would never have been able to escape over the wall when he chased us. But I was the one who climbed the tree. I wanted my half. She told me I could have half and she wasn’t giving it to me. She was going to eat it all, I knew she was. She was horrible to me, even though she’d taken me out for a walk.
“I hate you,” I said, and my lip trembled.
“Never say that, little sister.” Before I could stop her, she swept me into her arms and hoisted me on her hip as if I were a baby.
I struggled, but not much. She gave me the fruit and we shared it on the way home.
“Never say you hate me,” she whispered, burying her face in my hair. “Whatever happens. Promise me.”
“It doesn’t smell bad? My hair?”
She shook her head.
“Why are you crying? Is it because I said that bad thing?”
“No, little Bian. It’s nothing, just dust in my eyes.”
“I love you really, Nhung.”
“I know. And I love you, too. Now, I’m tired. You must walk, we’re nearly there.”
She put me down and, as evening fell, we walked together into the sprawling cesspit that was the slum where we lived.
Nhung had known another world, one outside of my imagining at that time, but I had been born in a sampan, in a floating village. I accepted the stink, the noise and the crowding of shelters.
Of course, I knew people lived in big houses, some of those houses were even made of stone. And those people ate every day, sometimes three times a day. I remembered visiting Sai Gon once, which I thought the biggest city in the whole world, and I’d seen the stone houses. But the people in the stone houses were as distant to me as the dragons in the stories my mother told me at night. I’d never talked to anyone who lived in a stone house, and for all I knew then, they too had long forked tongues and teeth like knives.
This was my world. Little Ap Long, on no map, reached only by paths. Or by water, of course.
We passed huts made from screens of woven palm-leaf braced between bamboo struts. These flimsy structures were real to me; the stone houses of Sai Gon had all the substance of dreams. Real homes smelled of palm oil and wood fire and sweat and shit, not perfumes and spices. They were rough and light, with dirt floors and straw matting, not smooth and heavy, with tiles and silks.
As we got closer, my friend Minh passed the other way with his mother, carrying pots to fill with water. He jumped one of the smelly puddles and came up to me, puffed up with the importance of news.
“You have an aunty come to visit,” he said in a low voice.
“An aunty?” I looked up at Nhung. She untied her hair and let it fall across her face.
“Minh, come away. Now.” His mother jerked him back.
She didn’t like to speak to my parents, but she had been kind to me and Nhung before. Maybe her husband had gambled his wage again. Minh told
me that put her in a bad mood.
“We can go to the rice field together tomorrow,” Minh called out as he was dragged away.
I didn’t want to think of working in the rice field, so I just waved.
A visitor. So exciting and mysterious. We had never had one before, that I could remember.
“We have an aunty?” I asked Nhung again, but she just shook her head without looking at me and took my hand.
“Whatever happens,” she whispered as we walked on.
And so we arrived home, hand in hand, with the sweet taste of stolen fruit still on my lips, on the day my world began to come apart.
I didn’t like Aunty Kim. She smelled of old joss sticks and piss, but I was polite. I knew she must be very important because we had fish with the rice at dinner. The bits of catfish left after the merchants had gone, for sure, but tasty all the same.
We children sat at on the floor on one side of our home and our parents sat with Aunty Kim on the other, as if that separated us. My eldest brother, Lanh, could have reached out and touched them.
A small lamp in the middle of the floor was the only light, and it wasn’t bright enough for me to see Aunty Kim’s face clearly.
But she didn’t look like my parents.
Aunty or Uncle can be used for anyone really; I called Minh’s mother Aunty. But we’d never had a Aunty visitor before. Even if I didn’t like her, she was so exciting. She had a piece of silk, real silk, like they had in Sai Gon. It smelled of flowers and she kept dabbing it against her face. Maybe she didn’t like to feel sweaty.
That was silly. Everyone sweated. When I had complained once that I was hot, my mother had told me that to breathe is to sweat. I said that to everyone until they got tired of it. And maybe a bit longer than that, too.
“She’s very thin,” Aunty Kim said, as if there was any other way to be. She spoke in French, like the people in Sai Gon, and I didn’t understand a lot of what she said. I was certain I understood the words, but they didn’t make sense. She could only mean Nhung or me, and we were just like everyone else we knew. Well, there was the fat man who guarded the orchard. But who would want to be like him?
“She speaks well, and she works hard,” said my father. Aunty Kim must be very grand, because he was stern tonight. He hadn’t laughed once.
“She hasn’t even worked in a house before,” replied Aunty Kim, making it sound like that was more important.
“She learns quickly, and she is honest, and strong,” said my mother.
It was as if they were arguing, or bartering. I couldn’t understand why and Aunty Kim started using words I didn’t know. But it had to be Nhung they were talking about, because my sister was all of the things that my parents claimed, and beautiful too, even if she was hiding behind her hair tonight.
With the meal in my belly and the words over my head, I was sleepy. I leaned against Nhung and she put her arm around me and squeezed. Too tightly, but it didn’t matter. It was nice.
“And the child…” I heard Aunty Kim say, as I fell asleep. “It might make it easier for them. It might be a chance for her to learn.”
My head came to rest in Nhung’s lap, and I didn’t hear the reply, or any more of the talk.
I didn’t meet Minh to work in the fields the next day. I never saw him again.
I woke in the night and I knew that I was on the Mother of Waters. I knew her sounds and smells; the creaking, the gentle swaying and drifting in her arms. My earliest memories were of helping my father catch fish, and sleeping on the sampan as we made our way back. That was all before Ba Hoang had heard of my father. Before men came asking for him and we had to escape from Khanh Hoi to distant Ap Long, where we were safe. Where we could be farm workers, invisible amongst the tide of country people seeking work closer to the city.
Ba Hoang had ears in the water. My father said that when he thought I wasn’t listening. I looked many times and never saw any ears in the water. This fish would just eat them anyway. But I knew I was supposed to keep away from the river and the people on it, and I did, mostly.
And yet here I was, in a sampan, with the old smell of fish guts and sweat. What had happened?
I reached out for Nhung for comfort and reassurance, but it was my mother next to me.
“Shh, my baby. Not a sound, Bian.” She hugged me tightly to her, and rocked me along with the Mother of Waters. A little spray must have come through the weave of the cover because her cheeks were damp.
Everything was all right if she was here.
It was all a mystery and exciting, but not so exciting to me that I couldn’t sleep. I could always ask Nhung tomorrow why we were on the river. She’d tell me.
There was no Nhung the next day, and no answers.
We came up the Sai Gon River into Khanh Hoi with the fishermen before dawn. Sampans covered the face of the river there, every day. As we had needed to many times before, long ago, we had to walk from boat to boat to reach the quay. But today, the family slunk away from the docks like dogs, our straw hats pressed down over our heads. The whole family except for Nhung, who I couldn’t see, not even in any of the other boats.
“Don’t look round,” hissed my mother. “Keep your eyes down.”
Everyone was scared. I was scared because they all were. I wasn’t scared of Bo Hoang. He was a monster that came for bad children. I hadn’t been bad, had I? But then I remembered the mango yesterday. It hadn’t been ours. That was bad. Had Ba Hoang found out about that? Did he have ears in the orchard as well? Had he taken Nhung?
“Where’s Nhung?” I asked my mother.
“Hush, Bian,” was all she replied.
“Are we going to work?”
“Not today. Hush.”
“Then where are we going?”
“Be quiet! No more questions.”
I was sad that no-one would talk to me, but we were walking towards Sai Gon, and maybe I would see a dragon today. Lanh had told me they danced in the city streets sometimes, but I was never sure when he was teasing me.
About noon, we were in the heart of the city and surrounded by people. My parents weren’t so scared any more, but still no-one would tell me anything.
They stopped at a house. I didn’t even know. I was walking ahead with my hands over my ears to block out the noise of all the people. Lanh had to catch me up and bring me back.
A real stone house.
It was a single room, so big you could fit four families in it, maybe more. Inside, there were only some old men and a lot of sacks of spices which made me sneeze. The front was open to the street, but it was cool and dark at the back. We sat there on straw mats while my father talked to the old men. I saw him hand some piasters to the men. One of them brought us tea and tiny chipped mugs.
He spoke nicely to my mother and she smiled.
“Such a fine son. Strong,” he said and clapped Lanh on the shoulder.
Lanh called him uncle and thanked him for the tea.
The man’s tongue and his teeth seemed quite normal. Despite that disappointment, I thought I liked him.
My parents went out, leaving us to play.
My second brother, Thao, and Lanh argued about what we were doing here and when Nhung would join us. I sniffed some spice which burned my nose and made my eyes water. The old men laughed and closed the sacks.
I decided it would be alright to live here, but what would we do? My parents always said that there were too many people and not enough work in Sai Gon.
One of the old men taught us a board game, XiangQi. I watched Thao and Lanh play. It was nice not to work, but my brothers were worried and trying not to show it. I could tell by the arguments they had.
I fell asleep in the afternoon.
It was evening when my parents returned. I jumped up, expecting Nhung to be with them, but she was not.
They brought food—noodles and fish soup, and pork as well. Pork! We sat at the back of a stone house in Sai Gon and feasted like the Emperor.
Yes, it would be nice to live here and eat like this every day, so long as we were all here.
My parents didn’t seemed to enjoy the food as much as we did.
When we had finished, we sat quietly and waited. In Ap Long, we always spoke while we ate, and afterwards too. Here, we knew things had changed. But it wasn’t so scary as long as mother and father were with us. They wouldn’t let anything bad happen to us.
“Father,” said Lanh eventually, “where is Nhung?”
My father looked around. The old men were sitting outside, in the street, playing mahjong by the light of a smelly, hissing lamp.
“My children,” he said quietly. His voice caught and suddenly, I was very frightened, for no reason I could name. “My children, a bad thing has happened. It is my fault and it isn’t.” He stopped and mother put a hand over his.
“Bian Hwa,” he said, “do you remember when we had to leave Khanh Hoi to go to Ap Long?”
“Yes, we left because Bo Hoang was looking for you and he has ears in the water.”
“Hush, Bian, do not say that name.” My mother glanced out into the street. “Say…say the thin man.”
“The…thin man,” said my father, “is very bad. He found us in Khanh Hoi and he found us in Ap Long, and he will find us again unless we move far away.” He stopped and blinked. “And that is very, very difficult. To go, we need papers and we need money. Money for papers and money for travel.” I didn’t understand anything about papers and money. And to travel, you just walked or rode in a sampan.
“Will Nhung be there waiting for us?” I asked.
My mother bowed her head.
“No,” said my father. “There are too many bandits in the countryside. Travel would be dangerous for her…and for you. She must stay.”
“It’s my fault,” I said. I’d been the one who wanted the mango. Nhung would never have done that on her own. I’d wanted it so badly, and she’d wanted to make me happy. Now she was being punished.
“No, Bian Hwa, it is not your fault. The thin man and the government are not your fault. They are everybody’s fault.” I didn’t understand anything. He paused and tried again. “We cannot stay here and we cannot take you with us.” He saw my face. “Until it is safe to come back,” he said quickly.
My mother began weeping.
“But father,” said Lanh, “if we are not together, how will we burn offerings to the ancestors?”
“We will all burn offerings, but not together. Until it is safe—”
“We must not lie,” said my mother, wiping her eyes fiercely. “This day of all days.” She moved closer to me. “Bian, you are too young to work as a maid in the houses and too young for the journey up the country.” She looked so angry. “We want you to be happy and free of the thin man. We want you to be free of the curse of bad luck that has followed us, free of our shame.” She put a hand softly on my arm. “And to escape that, you must go further than any of us, my daughter. Far, far away.”
“Mother, how—” Lanh started.
“Look around us, Lanh,” my father interrupted. “Where are we?”
“Sai Gon, in Nam Ky,” he replied proudly.
“No! Our leaders are exiled, our rulers are French. We cannot even leave this place unless they give us permission. Forget Nam Ky, all of you. Forget the puppet Emperor. That world is all gone. This is Saigon, in Cochinchina, part of the French empire.”
I was scared that they were angry. I didn’t understand what they were arguing about.
“Then we should join the Black Flags and fight the French.” Lanh spoke to his friends like this when he thought I wasn’t listening, but he’d never spoken to our parents this way.
“No, Lanh.” My father spoke again, and now his head bowed. “It is too late for that. The Black Flag Army is gone. The bandits that use the name are nothing but an irritation to the French, and they will be swept aside soon. No, it is time for a different path.”
“Bian, listen.” My mother pulled me against her. “We are happy for you. You will be safe. You will wear pretty clothes and eat good food. You will go far away and learn so many things. You will have a good life. Don’t you want that? Then, maybe you will come back, rich and contented, and burn offerings at the temple.”
I cried. I didn’t want to go far away and learn things.
“But how?” said Lanh.
“We were warned. We knew the thin man was getting closer, and that gave us just enough time to prepare. We have made an agreement with a good Frenchman and his wife,” replied my mother. “An important man in the government, a rich family with no children. They want to adopt a girl before they go back to France.”
“Bian,” she hugged me again. “You will have a new mother and father, and you will live well in a stone house and see many beautiful things. You will be happy, won’t you?”
My name is Bian Hwa Trang.
Bian means secret, Trang means honored. You cannot be both secret and honored. Between them, they crush the fragile flower, Hwa. Maybe this was what made my name so ill-omened.
My father had been honored. I knew it even then, like I knew the tales of dragons. He had been an important man, my father, the youngest mandarin in the service of the Emperor. I didn’t know what these words meant when I first heard them. My mind couldn’t comprehend the opulence; the houses and servants and bowing. Not for the man who I had seen gutting fish and planting rice.
It must have been a wonderful time for him earlier in his life: to have survived the great cholera epidemics that killed more than a million people in Nam Ky; to have studied and excelled; to have been accepted into the ranks of those that ran the country. With danger and striving behind, my parents must have thought a life of glittering rewards lay before them on their marriage day.
But the glitter hid the decay that lay beneath. A ragged and impoverished country that fell ever deeper into the pocket of the French while its supposed leaders sought wealth and advantage over one another. And in one such power struggle, my father’s sponsor in the service fell, taking my father and many others with him into disgrace.
A trial was held. It was a mockery.
A charge was laid that government funds for building the Emperor’s mausoleum had been stolen. My father’s sponsor committed suicide to protect his associates. That was sufficient for his enemies; the man and his supporters had been effectively destroyed; they ceased to care. The charges were dropped. The stolen money was a mirage. It had never existed and they knew it.
But stories like the theft of the mausoleum funds gather life like a storm harvests winds. The wealth was fabulous, the stuff of legend, an emperor’s ransom. It had been hidden, and the location known only to a trusted few.
I’m sure that gave my father no more than a bitter amusement, until a chance comment, a cruel aside when he was seen by his former colleagues at the docks, made the stories grow a little more.
There was now one man, just one, came the rumor, a disgraced mandarin, who still knew where the money was hidden and he worked as a humble fisherman in Khanh Hoi, biding his time before he collected it. Bo Hoang’s men came searching through the floating townships for my father.
Lord of the gangs in Khanh Hoi, fierce as a tiger, cruel as death, Bo Hoang ruled the floating townships. There was never any chance that we would not be betrayed, and my parents knew it.
I must have been four or five. To me it was just another nighttime on the Mother of Waters and waking to a new home in Ap Long, made from bits of sampan.
Far greater shocks for Lunh and Nhung; born into privilege, having adjusted to life on a sampan and then having to adjust all over again to rice farming. It was not simply that the work was hard and the life unforgiving; the two years immediately before Bo Hoang tracked us down the second time were famine years. As the eldest children, Lunh and Nhung took the brunt of the extra work and ate no more than Thao or I. I never heard either complain, not even once.
Something of that strength was passed to me, maybe. As my family prepared to say farewell that night, I stopped crying. In fact, I never cried again, except in the darkness, with no-one as my witness.