Here is the fourth episode of Bian’s Tale; the first half of Section 3 – The Right Path.
I think it’s fairly clear that Bian’s Tale is not really suitable for episodes, but I’m keeping it going to keep pressure on me to finish this first novel of the companion series.
In this episode, Ophélie/Bian see-saws between optimism and realizing how much the structure of Saigon works against her. It almost ends on a cliffhanger. 🙂
I’m going on a writer’s retreat at the end of this week, for a week. I will be on my own in an apartment in Madrid (the daughter arranged for a £35 return flight ticket!). My posting of the next couple of episodes may be a bit early or late.
Part 3 –The Right Path
I’m like a poison. A disease. I spread bad joss to everyone around me.
The wooden floors had been polished that morning until they gleamed. The lemon scent of the polish overwhelmed the creamy, wild honey smells of the sandalwood and rosewood furniture and the peppery perfume of the potpourri. Fragrances which had become familiar and comforting over the last five years.
The salon at the back of the house on Boulevard Bonnard was quiet but for the measured tick of the longcase clock against the wall. The screaming in my head didn’t count.
A murmur of voices reached me from the hallway. Maman talking to the Marine officer who’d brought me home. He lingered, concerned he’d somehow failed in his duty. A doctor had already come and gone. He’d declared there was nothing wrong with me and prescribed rest.
I couldn’t rest. I couldn’t close my eyes without seeing that head, the blank gaze, the bleeding from the stump of the neck. The horror of it chased my guilt around in circles inside my head.
If I’d put more effort into finding Nhung.
If I’d found Kim before she’d been caught.
If I’d been able to make her tell me where Nhung was.
I heard the front door open, a deeper voice asking a worried question. Papa had returned from his office, called by one of the servants. It got worse and worse.
All because of me. All because of the stupid, stupid idea that I could delay Kim’s execution and somehow get her to tell me where Nhung was.
I’d made a fool of myself and I would live with that. I’d made a spectacle and I’d have to live with that, too.
But in drawing attention to myself, I might have endangered both sets of parents. Who could say what Bác Thảo knew and heard? What he might find out if he started listening to the unusual gossip?
And how was I going to explain myself to Maman and Papa now?
If I told the truth, I shamed my birth parents and exposed their lie.
If I lied, I continued to shame myself and I was being disloyal to Maman and Papa, and so I still shamed my birth parents.
There was no option that was not a betrayal.
I had to tell the truth.
Why would Maman and Papa want to keep me, once they knew?
What would I do?
I heard the front door open and close again. The Marine officer was gone. There were whispers outside and I braced myself. The salon door opened. Maman and Papa came in.
I sat with my head down, clutching at my knees, not even able to look them in their faces. I was paralyzed with fear and shame.
“Ophélie.” It was barely audible. They sat either side of me. Each pried a hand away from my knees and held it between theirs.
I’d expected anger and shouting. I sat shivering, half expecting to be beaten for what I’d done.
This gentleness was worse.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, staring at the floor. “I’ve brought shame to the family.”
“No, you haven’t,” Maman said. “We should be the ones apologizing.”
“What?” I looked up, blinking in confusion. “Why?”
“My darling, darling daughter.” She looked down and stroked my hand. Her voice caught. “We always knew there was something.”
She was crying!
“Something we thought you must have been told to keep from us,” Papa said. “Yet, while you were doing so well, we decided to let it be. We told each other we didn’t want to upset you. We told each other that time would heal everything.” He cleared his throat, and looked away, his mouth a thin line and his jaw tense. “This was the counsel of cowardice.”
“All this time,” Maman said, “you’ve been striving so hard to be what we wanted and we’ve been so proud, Ophélie, so proud. But we’ve never thought enough of you, or your real needs.”
“No! Maman, Papa, this isn’t your fault.” I closed my eyes. “It’s mine.”
“Foolish girl.” She pulled me against her and kissed my head. “To think you’re alone. To think you must bear your burdens in silence. That’s what family is for. There’s no fault here, no blame, except ours.”
“Come. Tell us,” Papa said. “Share this burden. Then we can decide what we must do together, as a family.”
I couldn’t hide things from them now, but twice I started and stopped; the feeling I was betraying my birth family was squeezing my throat.
I tried for the third time, but at that point that there was a knock at the front door and Jade let someone in.
“A moment. I’ll send him away, whoever it is.” Papa went out.
But the visitor didn’t leave. Instead, Papa came back with Chief of Police Meulnes, who looked very grim.
“I’m sorry to disturb you at this difficult time, but you see, I have a profound problem,” Chief Meulnes said, once we were all seated again. “Mam’selle, I’m sure there is a good explanation for what you did on Boulevard Charner, but, unfortunately, already it has been reported to me that people are saying this was a protest against the government and the legal system.”
“That is ridiculous!” Maman said, glaring at him.
She voiced the anger I felt. An anger that as Ophélie, a young lady in polite society, I was not supposed to show. I struggled to restrain the part of me that was still Bian. That my love for my sister, my guilt, my fears, my grief should be thought by others to be no more than play-acting for some stupid political statement was almost more than I could bear.
“I agree,” Meulnes replied. “A foolish rumor. Nevertheless, we must counter it.”
“But a child, upset at—”
Meulnes held up his hand to stop her. “Not any child, Madame. Not even really a child any longer. A young lady at a formative age. And also the adopted Annamese daughter of the man who is governing Cochinchina. She is in a unique position, greatly visible, with a corresponding potential to do harm.”
“She had no intention of harming anyone, and it had nothing to do with the government of the colony,” Papa said, his voice clipped and controlled.
“Of course. As I said, these word are a foolish rumor,” Meulnes responded. “But I most strongly recommend, Monsieur Beauclerc, that I am able to leave here with a statement of facts that will satisfy our friends, and stop our enemies making anything more of this.” He shifted uncomfortably. “Among other matters, as you know, the whole colony is anxiously awaiting the arrival of the Victorieuse, perhaps bearing the determinations of our future.”
Chief Meulnes rose to his feet, apparently unable to contain himself. He took a position in front of the windows, facing us.
“Already there is unrest,” he said, waving his hands. “On top of that, I must now report to you in your position as acting Governor: I have come directly from an emergency meeting with Colonel Durand. Just one hour ago he received telegraphic orders from the Ministère de la Marine to place his regiment at the highest level of alert, short of martial law. All leave has been cancelled. I understand formal notification is now being copied to your office. No explanation has been forthcoming.”
“This is outrageous!” Papa said. “We must question the Quai d’Orsay immediately. By what authority—”
“Monsieur, naturally we have tried to get further explanations by telegraph and we find that communications with Paris have been closed. As have connections with Hué and Tonkin. After the last orders to the Colonel, neither the Ministère de la Marine nor the Quai d’Orsay is available to enlighten us.”
He cleared his throat.
“As you know, this sort of information about the Marines cannot be kept secret and it will be like throwing dry timber onto the firestorm of rumors about the mission of the Victorieuse. Monsieur Beauclerc, we must defuse as many of these rumors as we can to prevent the flames getting out of control.”
“But the Marines on alert?” Maman said. “And more troops coming with the Victorieuse. What on earth is happening, Zacharie? Do they think there’s going to be a revolt?”
“Absolutely not.” Papa dismissed that. “If it were that sort of trouble, we would be the first to know. And besides, there would be a full deployment of troops and calling up reserves, not a single extra battalion sent from France and diverted up to Hué. No, it’s a precaution, or a show of strength, but for what?”
“Indeed,” Meulnes said, rocking on his heels. “It must be a precaution, but that will not be the calm assumption that will spread in the rumors. So you see my point, it is so very important that nothing adds to this.”
He put his arms behind his back and looked meaningfully at me. “Even an action that was entirely innocent.”
Maman and Papa also turned to me, and my heart sank.
It was one thing to screw up my courage and speak the painful truth to them. It was something else to say the same things in front of the Chief of Police.
“It is your decision, my daughter,” Papa came to my defense. “Only if you feel you can tell us.”
Chief Meulnes scowled, but said nothing.
“This story may be a danger to other people,” I said to them, my voice very small, “if it’s heard outside this room.”
They all frowned.
“Oh, come on,” Meulnes said.
Papa glared at him and he shut up.
Once I started, it just poured out. I began with my birth parents, their full names and the high position my father had held. The false accusations about the funds for the Emperor’s mausoleum. The trial. My parents’ friends deserting them, everyone terrified of the contagion of bad joss. My family’s disgrace and ruin. Being born on a sampan on the Arroyo Chinois. Then the rumors about my father and the mausoleum funds. The gangs searching for us in Khánh Hôi.
“The disgraced mandarin and the mausoleum funds!” Meulnes, still standing, grunted quietly and nodded, his mouth turned down. “This, I have heard.”
My mother kept pressing my hand between hers.
I continued with the tale. The escape to Ap Long. A life of planting rice in paddy fields.
Then it got harder. The renewed threat from Bác Thảo. My parents’ desperate plan. And the arrival of Madame Cao in Ap Long.
“I can see now,” I said, my head bowed in shame. “The villagers in Ap Long knew what Cao really was. But they didn’t say! They didn’t want anything to do with us. Like my parents’ friends in Saigon, they didn’t want to catch our bad luck by helping us.”
I had to struggle to keep going. “My father and mother, my brothers…I’m sure they didn’t know. They believed she was going to be a maid and the money my parents received was a share of the recruitment fee. But now I understand, my sister knew,” I whispered, pausing to take a shaky breath. “Nhung knew and yet she didn’t say anything because my parents needed the money for the second part of their plan. She didn’t say anything because she thought her sacrifice would let me escape.”
My heart ached and my eyes stung, but I made myself go on.
The return to Saigon. Buying clothes for me. The pretense of hiring clothes for my parents to make them look well off. The lies about my father’s employment in the north, when the real plan was for them to travel to Hué. Then the Victorieuse, bringing rumors of changes in the mandarinate that might return my family to where Bác Thảo could threaten them again. The ledger of appointments in Hué I’d borrowed from the library in a vain search for mentions of my father.
I didn’t speak about the Salayar, or the Bugis captain who’d given me the idea about the ledger. I didn’t speak about the kris in my bedroom and the warnings about the Tò Dara, or my suspicions about Père St Cyprien. I needed to keep it as simple as possible. Although Chief Meulnes had listened without much interruption, I knew, from his expression, I’d already said things that he didn’t believe.
Papa saw it too, and demanded he explain.
“Very well, Monsieur.” Meulnes put his hands behind his back and tilted himself forward like a schoolteacher in his class. “I have no doubt that Monsieur Trang and his family were chased from Khánh Hôi by a gang, and that a gang eventually discovered that they were hidden in Ap Long. Maybe it was even the same gang. But this ‘Lord of Thieves’, this ‘Bác Thảo’; he doesn’t really exist. He is the Annamese bogeyman. They blame Bác Thảo for everything: if they can’t pay their debts, it’s Bác Thảo’s fault; if they steal something, it’s because Bác Thảo told them to.”
He shook his head in exasperation, his voice rising. “The tales of Bác Thảo go back years. He is ageless, and to listen to these tales is to fall into a tangle of myth: Bác Thảo is Moi, from the mountain tribes, a sorcerer of course, like many of the Moi, and he can change his shape by this sorcery. Oh, yes! He becomes a tiger at night! This is the man we must arrest for the killings in Khánh Hôi yesterday!” He sighed and raised his hands in exasperation. “I regret that Monsieur Gosselin has now spread this ridiculousness to the French community.”
He started rocking on his heels again, his leather boots squeaking quietly.
It was clear that neither Maman nor Papa liked the way he was speaking and he retreated a little.
“I apologize,” he said, more calmly. “I do not wish to be rude. However, as Chief of Police, I am very well aware that we have a surfeit of gangs in Khánh Hôi. We have street thugs. We have the Chinese and Annamese ‘societies’. We have Tongs and Triads. They are inevitable here in the Orient, and sufficient to keep my men thoroughly occupied. We do not need a ‘tiger-sorcerer’ as well.”
“I see no need for anything about this Bác Thảo, or false accusations of stolen gold to be any part of what we say about this,” Maman said. “Nor any unnecessary details about Ophélie’s birth family.”
“Incidentally, this is the first we’ve heard of this,” Papa said.
“And it makes absolutely no difference to us,” Maman said immediately.
Meulnes nodded. “But of course, that is your private matter, Madame. For me, I am required only to speak to the governor, or acting governor.” He made a little bow and gesture in Papa’s direction. “So, by definition, I will not tell others any of your family’s private matters. There remains, however, the public matter. We have a decision to make, of how much of this should be the official version. The background? Well, it lends much credence to the story of why your daughter ran up to the guillotine.”
I looked up at Meulnes. “I just wanted to ask her where Nhung was.”
I could not bear to look at Maman and Papa.
Papa rose as well now, and started pacing the length of the room.
“We say simply that Ophélie thought this woman, Cao, should be made to say where her victims had been sold, and to whom,” he said. “Make a mention of some family member kidnapped. A relative. A distant cousin.”
Meulnes made a thoughtful humming noise without actually agreeing.
“And this, I believe, now calls for an initiative from the government on policing of these kinds of matters.” Papa stopped and took up a matching posture opposite Meulnes; arms behind his back.
Meulnes stopped his rocking and went very still. He cleared his throat again. “I see,” he said.
“The law has rightly shown that these crimes are unacceptable in any section of society, but that is wasted unless it is reinforced with action,” Papa said. “Madame Cao’s collaborators must be brought to justice, and they must be required to reveal those who purchased slaves through this disgusting enterprise, or they will face even harsher sentences. Once we have those connections, the police will follow them to their utmost ends. We will rid Cochinchina of any stain of slavery, sexual or otherwise.”
“Monsieur, this is laudable,” Meulnes held up his hands as if to ward off the pressure from Papa. “But this is hardly the time for this initiative. The colony is in a state of alert. The Victorieuse is expected at any time, and carries orders that we cannot anticipate. Beyond that, there are practical considerations of police budget and manpower. This is not to mention enormous difficulties with cultural differences and expectations in the various races throughout the colony.”
“I understand your concerns, Chief Meulnes.” Papa was equally adamant. “I allow there must be a consideration of practicality and timing, but a colony though this may be, it is also part of France. Ultimately, there must be one law for all.”
“Monsieur,” Meulnes bowed his head. The Chief of Police took orders from the governor; there was a point where that was the end of it.
“As to the rest,” Papa said, “I would request that we all carry on as normal. When asked, we give the barest details—that we should indeed have taken more information from this criminal to help prevent others crimes like hers.”
He fixed Meulnes with his eyes. “You and I will meet shortly and discuss the detail of our plans in this regard.”
Meulnes took his dismissal and left, bowing to us politely, even if his face told a different story.
Papa checked his pocket watch.
“I must return to the office,” he said. “Meulnes is a difficult man, but determined and thorough. I think good things may come of this. As for us; we put this behind us.”
“As far as everything else is concerned, yes,” Maman agreed. She’d not let go of my hand the entire time. “But it breaks my heart to think of your sister, Ophélie.”
I started to apologize again for everything.
“What can we do, Zacharie?” Maman said, stopping me. “It will take some time for you and Meulnes to get the police to start searching, and he’s right, there are constraints.”
Papa frowned and stared at his shoes in thought. “There’s a team of inspectors working in the Customs Department, the Opium Regie. Regulating the opium business, essentially.” He grimaced in distaste. “They’re not policemen, of course, but they have rights to enter and search premises.”
“Will there be a problem about using them?”
“Well, it’ll need to be set up carefully. Riossi will help me in exchange for some consideration for his concerns.” Papa tried to speak neutrally, but the set of his jaw told me what he thought of Riossi’s concerns. He went on, his eyes focused in the distance, his voice becoming more thoughtful. “It must be seen to be about all the victims, not just Ophélie’s sister. Once it gets going, we’ll also need accommodation for the women, even if it’s temporary; we can’t just turn them out onto the streets. Food, clothes, practicalities like that. Maybe the Sisters can help. Then some way of communicating with their families.” He stroked his jaw in silence for a while. “It’s an enormous project, but it’s entirely justified, and I think it can be done.”
“It was what I thought I might ask for my birthday present, Papa: to find Nhung. I know it’s too much. I know. But there is nothing else I could possibly want, not while there’s a chance that Nhung is…” I couldn’t go on, and Maman squeezed my hand again. “Please, just find her, and free her.”
“We will do better than that,” Maman said firmly. “Zacharie, we must adopt Nhung.”
“Of course,” Papa said, as if there’d never been any doubt. “There is no other solution.”
He left, and I lay for a long time with my head against Maman, hardly daring to believe how lucky I was.
Carry on as normal. The next day was my Mandarin lesson at Yi Song’s house in Cholon. With the Chief of Police’s comments about unrest, I half-expected to be kept at home. However a note from Monsieur Song had arrived reassuring my parents it would be safe, and stating I would be met at the tram stop and escorted.
I wasn’t entirely sure whether I felt relieved or not. I didn’t want to leave the safety of the house, where no one could see me and ask me about the execution, and yet there was a reason I wanted to go to Cholon. One that was nothing to do with learning Mandarin.
So I set off, feeling nauseous with apprehension. How many people I passed would know it had been me at the execution? What would they think?
I didn’t really want to meet my friends, not even Manon. They’d be full of questions, or worse, they’d shy away from me.
As ever, Jade was close behind me. As ever, silent and radiating unhappiness.
I tried to ignore her and concentrate instead on the gentle hiss of the southeasterly wind as it blew through the leaves of the trees that lined the roads. It brought the smells of the old market to me; food and people, spices and incense.
I took the side streets to avoid walking down Boulevard Charner. The roads were less busy that way, though it still felt as if everyone was looking at me.
The tram to Cholon went from a station next to the Arroyo Chinois, beyond the market, so it wasn’t possible to stay on quiet streets the whole way. My mouth felt dry as we walked past the three great open-sided halls of the old market, but the only voices that called out to me were street sellers naming their wares and prices.
Another time, I might have paused, but every shouted mam’selle felt as if it might lead to questions about Boulevard Charner. So instead, I walked quicker, sure that there were eyes following me until we arrived at the tram station. I bought tickets for Jade and me. We had timed it well. We got on board straight away and sat together silently for the brief journey to Cholon.
The change from the center of Saigon was always startling.
The name Cholon meant big market, and that described it well. Instead of broad European style boulevards and trees, shops and cafés, there were old, narrow streets, mazy, with storerooms that doubled as shops and homes. Every building seemed to sell something and peasant traders sold on the roadside from woven baskets they’d carried in from their farms. The streets were crisscrossed with canals, some wide and thick with sampans and junks, others smelly, choked with silt and spanned by hump-backed little bridges.
Cholon was busy and loud and colorful and noisy. To French eyes, it was rough. Certainly, much of what the administration did not want to see in the center of Saigon ended up here. French people didn’t come to Cholon during the day. During the night, only French men would come, looking for gambling, drink, opium and other nighttime entertainment. Ophélie was out of place here. Jade, in her smart white tunic and trousers, also looked as if she didn’t belong. She’d been unhappy in the center of Saigon. If I could see a difference in the level of her unhappiness, I would say that Jade was more unhappy now, in Cholon.
Qingzhao was waiting for me at the tram station, alone. I was surprised. I’d expected some of Monsieur Song’s servants, but his daughter evidently though her presence was enough. Certainly, she would be known in Cholon, I reasoned, and there would be few people who would want to offend Yi Song.
Qingzhao didn’t bother to greet me in French—we were immediately talking in Mandarin, and not the direct, informal way that Monsieur Song used, but the layered and decorative language of the court.
“Could we pass by the temple of Quan Yin?” I asked her once the formal and elaborate welcome was complete.
She studied me solemnly as we began to walk.
“The Goddess of Mercy hears the cries of the whole world,” she said. “You don’t need to visit her temple to pray. She hears the murmurs of every heart.”
“The lady hears everyone, everywhere, but I do not,” I replied, trying out Monsieur Song’s manner of turning questions aside obliquely.
She actually smiled, as brief as a flash of sunlight on water, but she changed direction and we headed for the temple, continuing to talk in Mandarin as we went.
My mood lifted as we went. Whether it was because I was concentrating on speaking Mandarin, or that Cholon didn’t care what went on in Saigon, or even that I was with Qingzhao, I didn’t know, but the feeling of being watched so closely felt much less here.
The part of me that was Ophélie was still out of place. But the part that remained Bian, on the other hand, loved Cholon and relaxed a touch. Foolish, given that the streets of Saigon should be much safer for a young lady.
The route to the temples took us through a lane of roadside food sellers, where the air was thick with the acrid smoke of small coal braziers, fanned over the passing crowds. Cooks shouted out their specialties and prices. We were jostled as we walked, but it was only that everyone was so busy and intent on their business. I managed to smile when I heard Jade swear in Cantonese behind me, as someone trod on her toes.
At the end of that lane was the spice store where my parents had left me with my brothers while they made the final preparations for my adoption. Seeing my discreet interest in the store, Qingzhao paused in the shade of their awning to see how many of their spices I could name in Mandarin.
The store was owned by the same men, but their eyes passed over me without recognition, of course.
Then, with our journey resumed, a few minutes later, we were in the temple district. There was more space here; it was an oasis in the relentless churn of Cholon.
Qingzhao and Jade sat at the entrance to the temple, in the shade, letting me walk on alone into the broad forecourt.
On the inner wall of the forecourt stood a statue of the goddess. Her tranquil gaze looked down over many worshippers; she was a popular goddess. Next to her was the door into the main temple.
But I wasn’t here to pray.
In the middle of the forecourt, apparently the object of the goddess’ contemplation, there was an old, crumbling, limestone wall, standing alone. It was about twenty meters from end to end. It had originally been intended as a spirit wall – a feature to prevent evil spirits from directly entering the temple. Maybe it still fulfilled that function, tatty as it looked. The community repaired and re-plastered it every year, yet within days it looked again like it did now, almost as if it were alive with the wings of a thousand birds. It had become a prayer wall; pinned to it with small iron nails, practically covering it, were pieces of paper, all fluttering in the breeze.
It had many names. The French called it the Wall of Petitions. Across the top, out of reach of most people, monks had written their name for it in broad Chinese ideograms—‘Words in the Wind’. Every time they repaired the wall, they re-wrote the name, and every time, someone added something. This time, they’d made it read like a Chinese poem.
Prayers; words lost in the wind.
Yet hope rises like the sun.
I blinked and my throat felt tight, but I had no time to dawdle. I started scanning the little papers, trying not to read the heartbreaking words.
“May I help, young lady?” An old beggar bowed by my elbow. He spoke in formal Annamese. His tunic was threadbare, but clean, and his face darkened by the sun. His thin hair was neatly tied back with a bow. An old clerk who’d lost his position, maybe, and who now made a pittance reading for those who could not. Normally, there would be two or three like him, offering to help in return for alms.
Still, did I look as if I couldn’t read?
“Thank you, Uncle, but no.” I pressed some centimes into his hands and returned to searching.
Saigon and Cholon were huge and sprawling, growing every year. They met like two big rivers running together, churning where they touched, but Saigon was stronger pushing the boundary back year by year. Poor people built ramshackle houses wherever they could, and not a month passed without some area being cleared of them, often without warning, for Saigon’s relentless expansion. Families were split, people went missing, newcomers searched for relatives. Here, they posted their desperate calls, in among the sad petitions for help from the goddess: the son who’d fallen ill; the father who wouldn’t stop spending his money on opium; and the landlord who was cruel.
The last things my elder brother Lunh had said to me on the night I was adopted were whispered instructions on how to check and speak the words in the wind in our own secret way.
A way he’d learned from Nhung.
He’d said it would mean that, however far apart we became, we’d never be lost to each other if we could visit here.
Each little page was a prayer, the monks said. With each flutter, the prayer flew up to the goddess. Surely one would come back down to me.
I’d visited Cholon with Papa, and managed to persuade him to bring me here to the temple on just four occasions in the five years since I’d been adopted.
I had used those opportunities to look for messages, but I hadn’t really believed there would be anything. I’d thought the rest of my family were in Hué, and Nhung was a maid in Saigon somewhere. That I’d be more likely to find her in the old market by the tram station.
The guilt of not understanding what had happened to her was like ice in my blood.
All that time—
“I can help you search.”
I looked at the beggar again. Maybe it had been a mistake to give him money before I went looking. On the other hand, four eyes are better than two, and I couldn’t take too long.
“Find me a prayer with zhèngdào at the top.” I sketched it in the dust to make sure he understood. “With the rest of the message in Annamese.”
“The right path,” he murmured the translation of the ideogram, and his broad forehead wrinkled. “Most unusual.” Then he shrugged and shuffled to the far end of the wall to start looking.
Anyone could see the prayers, and if they saw one from my birth family, that news could make its way to Bác Thảo, so Nhung had told Lunh that any message we left had to be cryptic.
At least I could ignore any that didn’t have zhèngdào at the top.
But there were no messages waiting for me under the ideogram for zhèngdào. I met my beggar helper in the middle of the wall. He turned his mouth down and shook his head.
With a sigh, I pulled out a message I’d written at home.
It was in the code I’d been told to use: Chief Meulnes had not persuaded me Bác Thảo didn’t exist; quite the opposite.
Could it work?
If Lunh had got the code right…if Nhung was ever allowed out…if she managed to get here in the next few days before the message was covered by others or blurred by rain…
I realized that the hope that she would see my message grew smaller with every if, but I had to try.
Under the zhèngdào character, I had written two simple lines in Annamese.
Beloved elder sister, come back to me.
There is no night so dark that dawn will not follow.
There were many others who wanted to use the wall but finally I was able to give my message and donation to one of the monks. He picked a piece of paper that had faded away in the sun and replaced it with mine. I watched as it started fluttering, one lonely wing beating in a whole frantic flock. Feeling foolish, I tried to steer it on its way with a half-remembered prayer to Quan Yin.
The beggar clerk was still at my elbow, reading my prayer. “Maybe tomorrow,” he said, and pointed at the line written along the top of the wall. “Hope rises like the sun.”
He smiled, making his face compress into a net of wrinkles, fine as a spider’s web. I felt sorry for him; he couldn’t have been long in his current state of poverty—his teeth were good, his eyes were still clear, and he seemed in remarkably good spirits.
My street instinct, the Bian side of me, had a different reaction, but I dismissed it. I couldn’t see enemies in every face that passed me by.
I gave him a few more centimes and hurried back to the patient Qingzhao.
“I’m sorry that took so long,” I said as we continued through Cholon.
“No matter,” she said, waving to dismiss it. “It’s busy. She’s always popular. It’s human nature; we feel we have to appeal for favor to the gods and goddesses, but unfortunately we know what we really deserve, so we beg Quan Yin for mercy, and not Quan Ti for justice.”
I laughed. It was true, the God of Justice was very fierce, and his temple was much less visited than the Goddess of Mercy’s.
For the fifteen minutes it took to get clear the tangle of Cholon streets we spoke about the Confucian puzzle of the meaning of justice as seen by two people on the opposing sides of an argument.
It was a relief to enter Yi Song’s house, but only because it was cool. The language lesson continued without break.
Jade left us, and we walked on into the main courtyard, sitting down in the shade beside the pools of languid carp, where silent servants brought us fragrant jasmine tea.
I tried to be careful to drink politely; mirroring Qingzhao. I had always been rather nervous of her, and unsure of what she thought of me.
There was no time to dwell on that—she continued our conversation relentlessly, leaping from subject to subject. Even when we had a break, and stood to do some of her leisurely Chinese exercises, she still spoke Mandarin, instructing me in how to follow her movements.
I was exhausted in mind and body when it came time to collect Jade and return home.
“It has been an interesting morning,” Qingzhao said, on the walk back to the tram, as we approached the station.
Then she finally relented and spoke in French. “You continue to make excellent progress.”
“Thank you. As you say, a very interesting morning. Will I be meeting you for the next lesson, or will Monsieur Song send a note to arrange it?”
“No need for that.” She smiled, and her eyes flicked to one side. With a start, I was suddenly aware he himself had joined us.
He greeted me in Mandarin, and I groaned internally. Apparently, my lesson wasn’t over yet.
Monsieur Song and I boarded and sat together on the tram. Jade followed and sat across from us, staring out of the window.
“It’s fortunate that Jade speaks no Mandarin at all,” he said. “I have something important to tell you, which you will want to keep secret.”
I blinked. “Lǎoshi?”
What was this?
“You face enemies. However, I suspect you look for them in the wrong places and as a result, there are some you don’t see at all.”
We had never spoken like this in our lesson. I felt a spike of fear.
“I don’t understand.”
“No.” He cleared his throat. “You visited the Quan Yin temple this morning, and left a prayer on the Words in the Wind.”
I’d been with Qingzhao all day, but he could have heard that from his servants who’d spoken to Jade.
“Yes,” I replied. “A message rather than a prayer.”
“A message to whom?”
Should I explain about my birth family?
I trusted Yi Song, and he was a friend of the family as well as my tutor.
“My sister,” I said. I hesitantly began to explain about my family, but he held up his hand to stop me. His features softened.
“I am sure I can predict much of your tale from what I know already. Let us discuss it at the next lesson.” He sighed. “Today, I am only accompanying you on the tram journey, and there is merely time for a warning on a different matter.”
“What warning, Lǎoshi?”
“Words in the Wind is used by many families who are looking for each other, as you and your sister are. However, cryptic messages placed there have other users. For example, those that wish to regain control of this country from the French by force use it to communicate without meeting.”
I gasped. I remembered my brother Lunh’s enthusiasm for the mysterious rebel groups up in Tonkin. But surely there was no sympathy for them here, down in the south?
“The Black Flags?” I guessed. What did this have to do with me?
Monsieur Song shook his head. “They are long gone, but others have taken their place. The important thing is that the French know about them, and they watch the wall.”
“But it’s just a message for my sister.”
“And it’s clearly in some sort of code. It could mean anything. They look for such messages.”
“I can’t believe—” I stopped. “The beggar clerk!”
I should have followed my instincts with him.
Monsieur Song nodded. “An informant of the Deuxième Bureau.”
My jaw fell. This wasn’t just the police—it was the sinister secret service agency.
And he was saying that I was a subject of their suspicion.
My fury drove out the shock. I wanted to scream with rage. It was bad enough for Chief Meulnes to come and tell me some people were speculating that my running up to the guillotine had been a political statement. Now France’s security forces thought my attempts at finding my sister were a danger to the colony.
“I shall go straight to Papa and—”
“No! Please calm yourself,” Song said. “It would do no good to discuss this with Monsieur Beauclerc. The Deuxième Bureau does not answer to the colonial administration.”
He raised his hands in exasperation. “In fact, the way these organizations work, I believe it would make things worse if your father were to make representations on your behalf. They would become more suspicious of you, and of your father as well.”
Worse and worse. Papa’s unstinting efforts for all the people of the colony should have made him above suspicion. Now stupid rumors about me…
And of course, the Deuxieme Bureau will hear the rumors that Meulnes reported as well. They will see these as proving…
“So this faceless bureau can come here,” I snarled, “answerable to no one, not under the control of the administration, they can form ridiculous, unfounded suspicions and start investigations of anyone—”
“Mademoiselle Beauclerc,” he interrupted sharply, “you are not ‘anyone’. Please, be calm.”
The Bian part of me subsided. His rebuke was well aimed. Ophélie Beauclerc had duties and responsibilities, and had to act in a way that Bian would not want to.
Silenced temporarily, I glanced at Jade, and was relieved to see she’d fallen asleep and heard nothing of our conversation or the tone in which I’d spoken.
Still seething inside, I folded my trembling hands in my lap, looked down, and spoke meekly. “What should I do then, Lǎoshi?”
No one else witnessed it, but I was well aware I had also been disrespectful to my tutor in letting my anger show. My meek voice was part of my apology.
“Do nothing,” he said, his voice kindly. “The Bureau is too busy to spend time on a single obscure message, no matter how unusual your position in the colony. However, I would strongly counsel that you do not visit the wall again.”
It had always been unlikely that a message on the wall would reach Nhung. I knew that. But knowing it did not lessen the frustration and anger I felt that, for the second time in two days, I might be accused of somehow rebelling against the colony.
That my innocent actions might damage Papa’s authority in Cochinchina.
And that, remote a chance as it was, another way to find Nhung was closed to me.
But Monsieur Song was not finished.
“I will make sure that the message is replaced regularly and any response comes to you discreetly,” he said. “Please, keep this our secret.”
“Thank you, Lǎoshi!” I looked up. “But wait, won’t that attract suspicion to the person who visits the wall?”
He smiled. “The agents of the Deuxième Bureau are clever, but they also overlook what is always before their eyes.”
I recognized that was one of his replies that responded to a question without really answering it. Would the monks help him? There was no point pursuing it; he would only get more obscure.
“Thank you,” I repeated instead.
However, the Bian side of me refused be completely silent. I went back to something he’d said earlier. “You said ‘enemies’, Lǎoshi. Where else should I be looking?”
The tram began to slow with a squeal, then came to a juddering halt. We were at the terminal already.
He stood and ushered me out.
“The answer to that is complex,” he said, “and deserves a long and uninterrupted discussion. Your next Mandarin lesson will provide an excellent opportunity.”
I didn’t say what I was thinking; that it would certainly be more interesting and important a discussion for me than shipping, trade and banking.
“I will send a note to your house, arranging for us to meet again in two days,” he went on. “In the meantime, concentrate on your family here, and on the events in Saigon. You should definitely not spend your time worrying about matters such as the Tò Dara, which are no threat to you.”
There was no time to pursue that. He bowed his farewell and I had to match him.
As he walked away, a pair of street urchins joined him, trotting to keep up with his long strides.
I had to laugh as he produced a little white packet of pastries for them to share, like a conjurer.
And it suddenly struck me that his earlier words might have been much more informative than I had thought at the time. What would be easier for most people to overlook than a street urchin? Even the Deuxieme Bureau.
Was there a reason he befriended the urchins? Did he have a network of unseen little spies?
On the other hand, I was stubbornly not going to agree with his dismissal of the Tò Dara. He might think that a civilized French mademoiselle should not be paying attention to a Bugis myth, but however I appeared to the world in my elegant French dresses, with my maid following me like a shadow, I was not that far removed from a street urchin myself. Bian still lurked inside me, and street urchins survived by trusting their sense for danger. I’d just had a lesson in the folly of ignoring that sense with the beggar clerk who was really an agent for the security police. I wouldn’t make the same mistake dismissing the Tò Dara, even if my tutor said that other enemies were more threatening.
How many enemies did I have?
How did Monsieur Song know more of them that I did?
I gave myself a mental shake and began the walk home, barely noticing that Jade was behind me.
It looked as if it would be the most interesting Mandarin lesson ever in two days’ time, but I felt overwhelmed with everything. It threatened to become too much. It was time to concentrate on what I knew now and what I could do now.
For Nhung: even with Yi Song’s help, the Words in the Wind were never going to be a sure way to contact my sister, but Papa had already concluded an agreement with Monsieur Riossi of the Opium Regie. As part of their normal work in visiting opium dens, the Regie’s inspectors would look for women who’d been kidnapped or who were being kept as slaves.
What could I do to help?
Papa had once told me he never relied on orders transmitted by impersonal letters through the branches of the administration, especially important ones. He made a point of meeting people who would need to carry out those orders.
I should do that with the Opium Regie inspectors. As soon as possible. It was too late today, but I’d seek them out tomorrow.
And for the rest of my birth family: if I was going into the colonial offices tomorrow, then I could also ask Papa for access to the government’s internal library, where I could find the latest information from Hué on the mandarinate.
A thought struck me as I walked away from the tram station. After so long being unable to progress, suddenly, I had clear aims that would take me steps closer to rescuing Nhung and finding out what was happening with my family. There was a sense that clouds were lifting, and progress could be made, which allowed a feeling of hope, followed by a real belief.
I would do this. All that was required would be work and patience.
And above it all, I felt a tremendous relief; the weight of lies that had been crushing me was lifted.
My adoptive family knew the truth about my birth family, and they hadn’t thrown me out. Quite the reverse.
Contemplating this wonderful good fortune drove out the anger that had threatened to engulf me when I learned that the secret service spied on the Words in the Wind.
I was so bound up in these happy thoughts and the dazzling anticipation of genuine progress that I completely lost awareness of my surroundings.
Bian’s Tale – Awakening – Part 2 – second half
Here is the third episode of Bian’s Tale, and the remainder of Section 2 (Awakening).
It’s not a cliffhanger, but it does end with a twist as Bian starts to realize how much that has happened has not been what it appeared.
I’m way ahead, writing Section 5, where the dark underbelly of Saigon starts to show. Where friends seem not to be friends and progress may depend on others…
I still don’t know whether this is really for new readers or existing readers, and I’m not sure of the style. The amount of detail suggests this should be an epic. I started off trying to write something shorter than a Bite Back novel. Lol.
Blog post read volumes are interesting and strange. Bian’s Tale is gathering as many reads as I got during A Name Among The Stars, but almost no one (in comparison) is saying anything. Hint, hint. Are you enjoying it? Is it too slow? Do you like the glimpse of the different cultures? What have you liked/hated so far? Do you miss the precipitous cliffhangers? Ask me questions. Tell me what you feel.
Anyway… here is Episode 3, the second half of Section 2, Awakening.
The house we went to was not the place I’d first met Maman and Papa. That one was out beyond the city park to the west on the Rue de Tombeaux. During the week, we lived here in the narrow town house, on Boulevard Bonnard, just down from the statue of the Mekong explorer, Garnier. It was within easy reach of Papa’s office and near the center of Saigon.
As we entered the house, Emmanuela and Maman were deep in conversation about the growing commercialism of the art of Alphonse Mucha. With them distracted, I took the opportunity to hang the satchel on a hook by the door and take my secrets to hide in my bedroom.
Although I rushed back downstairs, it seemed that I would have to wait to ask Emmanuela anything about Tò Dara; the conversation had moved seamlessly to the new trend of absurdism in the Paris theater.
Maman missed these things. In fact, it wasn’t until we were well into our meal, that she steered the conversation in a direction that encouraged Emmanuela to talk about herself and her reasons for being here.
Both she and her father, Professor Orlando Cortés, were archaeologists, working for the University of Barcelona.
Despite being accredited archaeologists with acknowledged expertise in the Khmer empire, the rulers of much of ancient Indochina, it had taken them over a year to obtain permission to search for new ruins. They’d spent that time researching in the Celebes instead, and I guessed that was where Emmanuela had gathered Bugis folklore and myths.
They had had two sets of administration to deal with, and two sets of permits were necessary—one for the colony of Cochinchina, one for the protectorate of Cambodia.
The permit for Cochinchina had eventually come through. Rather than wait for the Cambodian one, they’d set out slowly up the Mekong, hoping that the second permit would overtake them.
As luck would have it, barely two months into their expedition, Professor Cortés had found evidence of a road branching away from the Mekong, and an indication that it would lead to the fabled Kattigara, an ancient port city that had been known as far away as Rome and Byzantium.
“No archaeologist could turn away from exploring that,” Emmanuela said, with a smile.
There was a problem; Kattigara appeared to lie across the border in Cambodia. No Cambodian permit had arrived.
Emmanuela had returned to Saigon, and after fruitless telegram exchanges with the administration in Cambodia had instead opted to travel all the way to Paris to get an all-region permission from the government there.
Now she was back, with the permit, but in the meantime communications had broken down with the expedition. She’d expected updates and maps waiting for her at Saigon, as agreed with her father. There was nothing. She had to admit, she had no idea where her father actually was.
I understood from the careful way that conversation avoided it, that Emmanuela had requested assistance of some kind from the administration here, and been turned down.
“Anyway, the universities have provided funds for me to re-join my father, and I shall use them to find him. I have a small expedition prepared, and I will be leaving soon.”
“On your own?” Maman said, appalled.
“No. I will have porters and a guide,” she replied calmly.
Not what Maman meant at all.
If I’d admired Emmanuela before, I was now totally in awe.
“But now, we must talk of something else,” Emmanuela said, “or we will stray into politics and government. I should delay only to apologize for putting you in a potentially awkward situation by talking to your daughter.” She actually blushed a little. “I heard the surname, of course, but when Ophélie and I introduced ourselves, I didn’t make the connection to Monsieur Beauclerc.”
“No matter,” Maman brushed it all away. “What prompted you to introduce yourself?”
Emmanuela smiled and gestured me to take over the talking for a while.
“I was in the library,” I began, “researching on the mandarinate in Hué after my lesson with Monsieur Song this morning.”
I said it that way because I knew that Maman would assume the research was something to do with my lesson. I had to suppress the guilt of more deceptions and go on—this was my chance to learn about the Tò Dara and why the captain of the Salayar had though it so important that he had to give me something.
“While I waited for the book I asked for,” I went on, “I thought it would be interesting to see if I could find out anything about a name I heard while we were on the docks this morning; something about people called the Tò Dara. Monsieur Song just said it was a myth from the Celebes, but we didn’t have time to discuss it. I asked the librarian if she knew of anything, but she didn’t. Luckily, Madame Cortés heard me and said that she knew about it.”
“That’s interesting,” Maman said. “I understand the Bugis call themselves Tò Laut, and that means clan of the sea, so we just need to know what Dara means.”
I spoke quickly, pleased I had that much knowledge. “Dara means blood, so the name is quite sinister.”
“The clan of blood,” Emmanuela confirmed and both of us turned to her expectantly.
“It means exactly that,” she said, “though you’ll never see it written down, so the library is not the place to find out about them. In the Celebes, these things are all part of the oral tradition, tales that mothers tell their children.”
“Suitable tales, I hope?” Maman said.
Emmanuela shrugged. “No worse than Grimm’s fairy tales.”
Maman frowned at that, but seemed interested enough to let her continue.
She started plainly, as if she was giving a lecture.
“It’s always been interesting to me, how cultures that have had no historical connection with each other should have myths and legends with such common themes. The Mesopotamians had lilitu, and the ancient Greeks had lamia, the Chinese had ma cà rông, and the Aztecs had cihuateteo. In Europe, we call them vampires,” she said, “and in the Celebes, the Bugis call them Tò Dara.”
My friends were always interested in scary stories, but I already had the feeling this was more than that. I felt the first shiver of goosebumps spread down my arms.
“The explanations about where these different types of vampire come from, and the advice on what to do about them varies a lot,” Emmanuela went on. “But among them all, I find the Tò Dara are the most frightening. Not because they are terrifying to look at or because of what they do, but because most people don’t know they’re there until too late.”
“Are they invisible?” Maman asked.
“In a manner of speaking.” Emmanuela said. “You see, the Tò Dara look like us, act like us. They walk among us, and only a very few people can identify them.”
Now I really did shiver. The captain of the Salayar had seen one, on the docks, right in front of me.
Maman laughed. “But vampires should be so easy to identify. They have to keep out of the sunlight, do not eat or drink like human beings, they have no heartbeat, their skin is cold, and so on.”
“The European version, perhaps,” Emmanuela said. “However, the Tò Dara do not share these weaknesses. They appear exactly like us in every respect, until they want to drink your blood. Then they suddenly grow fangs.”
“Oh.” Maman looked as if she’d bitten a lemon.
“You said very few people can see them.” I said. “How do they do that?”
Emmanuela smiled. “That’s where it gets a little vague. Some Bugis told me there is a faint scent, so faint you would not think anything of it, unless you had been taught.”
“And others?” Maman prompted.
“Well, as it was told to me, some people have a special sight. They see past the illusion, and see the Tò Dara as a hollow shell, a front with no soul, no humanity inside.”
I shuddered, visualizing the scene on the docks from the captain’s point of view. The tall Père St Cyprien in conversation with Monsieur Riossi. I imagined the priest turning, revealing that he was empty, no more than a mask.
Interested despite herself, Maman asked: “How do you kill them? Is it like vampires? A stake through the heart?”
“A little,” Emmanuela replied. “An iron dagger through the heart is recommended.”
The Bugis captain had mimed a blow to the chest as he walked away.
What had he given me?
I shuddered, and Maman saw it. “Enough, you’ll give her nightmares.”
More nightmares, she meant.
Maman changed the subject quickly. “Would you join us tomorrow at the racecourse?” he said. “It’s not a real race day. In fact, it’s a single race to celebrate the completion of the new stands.”
“I’m not sure…” began Emmanuela.
“Oh, please,” I said, and both Maman and Emmanuela laughed.
“Thank you, then,” Emmanuela said. “Yes, I would be happy to join you, and I promise, no discussions about the administration.”
“Wonderful,” Maman said, and began a conversation about the latest fashions that Emmanuela had seen in Paris.
Unable to hold myself back any more, I excused myself and rushed upstairs to my room.
The captain’s gift was wrapped in the same coarse jute fabric that the Bugis used for sails. I untied the fiber-twine bindings and pulled the brown cloth open.
Inside, heavy and glossy as a snake, lay the cold, sinuous blade of a kris knife. This was no ceremonial show weapon, either. The blade’s edges had been whetted, and the handle was made from curved wood which had become smooth and dark from use.
Its sinister, purposeful look made me shiver, and I guiltily closed the wrapping and hid it again.
For protect, he’d said, miming stabbing in the heart. Tall man Tò Dara.
I was in danger from Père St Cyprien? The French priest was a vampire?
They walk among us, Emmanuela had said.
But what if it wasn’t the priest?
What if Bác Thảo, the tall man, had been right here on the docks, invisible to me among the crowds? And he was the vampire?
And the Salayar’s captain thought I could kill him with a knife?
No. This was crazy!
But however crazy it was, my street sense was tingling. There was a danger to me, here in bright, modern Saigon. I knew it, without being able to see it exactly, or knowing from which direction it would strike.
The next morning, the crowd at the new racecourse was loud and enthusiastic. They all seemed to be talking at the same time, some of them at the tops of their voices.
I was drowsy from long hours spent the previous night poring over the mandarinate lists from Hué. Every occurrence of the name ‘Trang’ had set my heart racing. It was not that uncommon a name, but none of them had been my father.
I slipped into sleep eventually with the ledger still open on the bed, only to drift into one of those nightmares that blended my recurrent fears for my birth family with everything that had happened during the day. My family had become hollow, soulless people who stabbed at me with kris knives because I was the monster to them.
Finally, waking in the early morning, I had completed my search. My father had not re-entered the mandarinate, as far as those records went.
Of course, I could ask Papa for the more recent lists.
Of course, I could lie about why I wanted to see them.
But I had to put that decision aside for today. This was a morning for the people of Saigon to celebrate, and I had some time with Papa and Maman at the racecourse. I would be watched, simply because I was with my adoptive father. I must not let my worries show. I did not want to let my adoptive parents down.
When the Victorieuse arrived and he became governor as everyone said, the scrutiny would only get more intense. People would watch my every moment. Would that make it impossible to search for Nhung? If it turned out my family weren’t in Hué, would it be impossible to search for them too?
There was too much to think about, and yet time with Papa and Maman was in such short supply, I simply wanted to enjoy what I had, so we were smiling and talking when we arrived at the racecourse.
It did not last. Within moments, Monsieur Champin had elbowed his way through the mass of people to shake Papa’s hand and ended up standing right in my way.
“A wonderful idea, Monsieur Beauclerc, wonderful,” he boomed. He turned and gestured at the throngs of Annamese and Chinese gathered around their marquees. “With taxes on gambling and opium, we’ll be able to fund the whole of the empire in the east.”
Papa’s smile was strained, but he could hardly argue against the benefit, given how tight budgets were.
The racecourse had originally been a field near the town that the cavalry had used for challenging each other to races. Then it had become a regular weekend hobby for some, and people had gathered to watch. Inevitably, they’d started betting on races. Disputes had broken out, and Papa had decided, rather than trying to make it illegal, the colony would create its first municipal racecourse and tax the gambling. There were now steeply raked stands for spectators and an area with open-sided marquees for people to take refreshment out of the sun between races.
The oval course itself was marked out with simple white-painted wooden rails. I wondered if the rails would be strong enough – the crowd around the Chinese marquees was already spilling out. They were excited; laughing, shouting and betting on the race before we’d even seen the horses.
The Chinese marquees were hung with festive red and gold banners, sky-blue streamers and little flags. They looked much more fun than ours.
Over there, we could see my tutor, Monsieur Song, slowly making his way through the Chinese crowds. He waved at Papa, and after making a few more greetings, Papa went across to talk to him in the quieter space between the marquees.
Maman was deep in conversation with her friends, so instead I tried to speak to Emmanuela. No such luck; she was too popular with a lot of the men.
“Ophélie! Where are you going?”
I’d found two of my friends instead: Rochelle Champin and Manon Gosselin.
Rochelle was petite, with dark hair and eyes. She was a very sweet person, and about as different from the abrasive character of her father as she could be. Manon was blonde, lazy, messy, absolutely irrepressible, and simply the best friend I could wish for.
“I was trying to speak to Madame Cortés.”
“You know her?” Rochelle asked wide-eyed and a little shocked, speaking with her hand over mouth as if someone might be listening to us.
“Yes,” I said, pleased to have surprised her. “She came to lunch yesterday.”
“She’s scandalized the whole town with those culottes she wears,” Manon said, clapping her hands together. “It’s wonderful.”
“She’s wearing a dress today,” I pointed out.
“Yes, but look how she’s making up for it.”
Indeed, although it wasn’t her fault that so many men wanted to talk to her, I could see some angry, sideways glances at her. Whatever my friends and I might think of her, Emmanuela was not popular with the ladies at the racecourse.
“Well, anyway,” I shook my head. “She’ll be leaving soon. She’s setting out on an expedition to meet up with her father, Professor Cortés, somewhere along the Mekong or down in jungles near the coast. The gossip will die down.”
Or other gossip would swamp it. Gossip like what on earth was going to happen in Saigon when the envoy from Paris finally arrived.
But my friends seemed less impressed by Emmanuela’s bravery and flair than I was, and they steered us to another topic so they could start teasing me.
“He finds you interesting. I know it,” Manon said, pointing out where Alain Sévigny was standing, talking to some of his friends.
I doubted it. Alain was the elder brother of Chantal, the most popular girl of our age group, so we’d had some opportunities to meet. But he was nearly eighteen, and he was so handsome, it made my heart ache. It wasn’t as if I was the only one who thought so. I suspected my friends were teasing me to cover up their own feelings.
As it happened, we didn’t have the chance to spend a long time on that topic either.
The buzz of conversation changed and quietened, rippling out from someone who’d just come in. In a minute, everyone around us had turned and stopped to listen.
It was the Chief of Police, Meulnes, and he was agitated. He was a small, energetic man from the south of France, dark skinned, with black, wiry hair. His face was now flushed and his hair slicked down with sweat from wearing the white pith helmet the police used. He accepted a drink gratefully and downed it in one draught before speaking again.
“I have hunted them in the jungle, and I tell you, without a shadow of a doubt,” he said, shifting his weight from foot to foot. “There was a tiger in Khánh Hôi last night.”
The words made me feel cold, even in the humid heat of the overcrowded tent.
I’d always been scared of tigers. They’d been a real threat, living in the village of Ap Long. They’d taken farmers in the fields, on the paths, even from the little bamboo houses.
And stupid as my superstition was, I still avoided walking on that tiger skin in the weekend house on Rue de Tombeaux.
“Another attack? This is incredible,” one of the men said.
“My God! How many dead?” asked another.
“Four men mauled to death,” Meulnes said. He thrust his arms behind his back and squared his chest. “It’s all under control now. I’ve had squads with rifles checking every hiding place and every building in the whole area.”
“Did you find anything?”
“No tigers,” Meulnes replied with a grimace. “Beyond the signs where the men were killed in the warehouses down on the Arroyo Chinois, there was nothing.”
“How could that be?”
“They can’t just disappear!”
Meulnes shrugged, but before he could answer, another man spoke.
“They can swim,” he said. I recognized him; he was a big plantation owner, probably in town just for the opening of the racecourse. “I saw that for myself when I was up in Kon Tum province last season,” he went on. “The tiger might have swum down the Arroyo. It could be anywhere now.”
There was a bubble of speculation and more questions, cut through by a new speaker.
“No. They wouldn’t swim in the Arroyo.”
I recognized the voice, of course. It was Monsieur Gosselin, and he had that glazed, fevered look about him.
“Oh, father! No, please. I beg you. Not now,” Manon said under her breath. She pressed her knuckles against her mouth and tears suddenly gleamed in her eyes.
“Where’s your mother?” But as I said it, I saw that Madame Gosselin was already making her way through the crowd. Manon started forward as well. I went with her, unsure what I could do, but wanting to support her.
“We are blind, we colonials,” Monsieur Gosselin said, waving his finger at the crowd. “We come here so full of civilization and knowledge; so full we think it shines out of us and lights up the darkness. But it just blinds us. Blinds us. The truth is, the tiger does not need to swim the Arroyo to get away, because this is no ordinary tiger. No ordinary tiger would come into the city.”
Madame Gosselin reached his side and began to whisper urgently to him, pressing him toward the exit.
The crowd parted. Most of them knew Monsieur Gosselin. There were some embarrassed smiles, some anxious faces. Many thought he’d just spent too long here in Cochinchina, and were probably calculating when they should leave.
He turned. Maybe he was speaking to the crowd, but his eyes caught mine. In that moment, it felt as if the two of us were alone.
“A tiger demon,” he said. I heard him as clearly as if he had spoken in my ear. “Hô con quỷ. You have called it here.”
Memories of that first night of my adoption flooded my head. I’d looked out from my window at the Rue de Tombeaux. There had been the lights by the old tombs and it had been Dan, the Year of the Tiger. I’d named the lights hô con quỷ, the tiger demons from the mountains.
And I’d dreamed that by naming them, I’d had brought them to Saigon.
“Please, Ophélie,” Manon was saying. “We’ll be fine. Just let us look after him.”
I didn’t speak. I managed to lift a hand to wave goodbye and they were gone.
I found myself alone. Rochelle had been called away by her parents, as if just being close to the Gosselin family was dangerous.
Tiger demons. In Saigon. My fault.
No. I stopped myself sliding into that spiral. Whatever my rational French education argued, my instincts told me that, although there were tiger demons, it was nonsense to blame them on myself.
Were they a danger to me?
The captain of the Salayar had said that Tó Dara were what threatened me, not tiger demons.
All I wanted was for my birth family to be safe from Bác Thảo, and for me to be a good and dutiful daughter to two sets of parents.
I took a deep breath and turned back to hear what Chief Meulnes intended to do about these attacks.
“How have you left the situation in Khánh Hôi?” This was from Riossi. As well as being a director of the Opium Regie, the government regulator of the opium trade, he was also a director of Messageries Maritimes, the company that dominated the French shipping trade and ran the commercial side of the docks in Saigon. This was their base in the South China Sea. I’d seen it before; anything that threatened smooth operation of the docks had him pink-faced with fury.
“It was touch and go down there,” Meulnes answered. “I’ve had to leave most of my squads in the streets where everyone can see them; otherwise there’d be no coolies working today. Not on the docks and probably not on the building sites either. Question is, how long can I keep that up? What happens tomorrow, eh?”
“We can’t let the docks close,” Riossi said.
“I understand, but as you must realize, this is the worst possible time,” Meulnes said, and he looked around until he found the gaunt, sallow face of Colonel Durand, the regimental commander of the Colonial Marines here in Saigon. He made a stiff little bow. “Colonel, I must officially request the assistance of your troops for peacekeeping tomorrow.”
Durand’s mouth twisted downwards. “They’re not policemen. There are risks with using them like that. Would it not be better to delay the execution?”
There was a sudden silence in the whole group. This execution had been the talk of the town, amongst adults at least, but quiet talk; private talk. Not out in the open like this. Maman absolutely refused any mention of it, even in the house.
“A delay would make it look as if we’ve lost our nerve,” someone muttered.
There were pursed lips and nervous glances.
The execution had sharply divided opinion in the colony. That was partly because the condemned prisoner was a woman. But it was worse than that; it was to be a public execution, to take place right in the middle of Boulevard Charner.
It made my stomach churn at the thought. I didn’t know what she’d done, but that poor woman, to be executed in front of all the jeering crowds!
She was also Annamese, and this was all to show that French law and French penalties were to be applied throughout Cochinchina. The justice department and the police had decided a public example would help emphasize that. It was a difficult balancing act they attempted, with the potential to dissuade criminals on one hand, and on the other, to cause a riot.
Papa returned at that moment.
“I believe this is neither the time nor the place for this discussion,” he said, taking Chief Meulnes and Colonel Durand aside. “Both of you, please attend a meeting at my office immediately we finish here. We will discuss this and all aspects of public order over the next few days.”
They nodded acceptance, and everybody else was distracted by the announcement that the pre-race celebrations were about to start. The crowd split up into murmuring groups and moved toward the fence around the track.
I hung back. It was sure to be a colorful spectacle, with fireworks and lots of banging gongs and drums. But there was also a dragon dance. I couldn’t even think of that without remembering my brother Lanh. It must have been when I was seven or eight and I’d asked him to tell me stories of Sai Gon. He knew I liked my mother’s tales of how the first Annamese emperor had been descended from a dragon and so he told me how dragons sometimes danced in the streets of the city. How vividly my young imagination had painted pictures from his words, and how he’d encouraged it, until I really believed in dragons.
Would I ever see Lanh again? Any of my family?
Right now, I didn’t want to be thinking about that while every day brought the Victorieuse closer with its cargo of upheaval for Indochina and threat to my birth family.
I was so preoccupied, I didn’t notice Emmanuela until she was right beside me.
“Are you well, Ophélie?” she said. “You look upset.”
I was usually better at hiding my emotions.
“It’s silly,” I said. “I’m upset about Monsieur Gosselin…” I stopped abruptly, and suddenly, I just wanted someone I could tell the truth to. Someone older and wiser and sympathetic, who was not Maman or Papa.
Emmanuela was looking at me, her eyebrows raised.
“Please don’t say anything to my parents, Madame Cortés,” I blurted out, “I mean the Beauclercs, but…”
“Call me Emmanuela, please. I had enough of formality in Paris,” she said, taking my arm and leading me aside. “Of course, you have two sets of parents. The celebrations remind you of your birth parents, somehow?”
She was so perceptive.
“It’s the dragon dance. It reminds me of them.” I paused. I would not cry. I would not. “I’m sorry. You should take the chance to see it. It’s spectacular.”
“I will, but only if you come with me.”
She refused to go without me, and I didn’t want her to think I was just a silly young girl, upset about nothing, so I followed her. She had no trouble getting men to make way, and we ended up right on the rails.
Somehow, while the firecrackers were exploding, she got me to explain that I had believed real dragons danced in the street because my brother had told me so.
“Ah. I had a cousin who told me things like that when I was small,” she said. “I was so gullible. He told me of the xana. What would you call her? A nymph, perhaps? She was very beautiful this nymph, and she granted wishes. She lived in the great fountain of the old castle ruin that was near our village. I would come back from the ruin all covered in scratches from the espino, the thorn bushes, that grew there. My back would be burned from the sun, because I would lie on the edge and look into the fountain pool all afternoon.”
She laughed. “I never saw my beautiful nymph, but I still went.”
As she spoke, the drummers came out onto the track, spinning and kicking and beating their drums. We caught a glimpse of the dragon—just a flash of gold and red before it hid again at the far end of the field.
She kept prompting me as the dancers progressed, and I told her how I used to think that Saigon was the center of the world, the biggest city imaginable, and how the people who lived in Saigon must all be dragons who lived in stone houses.
I spoke much more freely than I normally did. There was something about the way she listened while we watched the celebrations, something about the way it felt; as if we were isolated from other people by the noise.
I had to stop myself in the end. I wanted to pour out everything—the rumors of changes in Hué, my dilemma about talking to Papa, finding Nhung, the kris knife that the captain had given me, Bác Thảo, my sense of some undefined threat, all of it. I desperately wanted someone to advise me, but that would be unfair to Emmanuela. She had her own concerns, and I should be asking her about them, not talking about mine.
Then the dragon came out where we could see it clearly. It was good enough to get a gasp from Emmanuela.
I’d been right, the dance was spectacular. The dancers made the whole dragon body ripple and twist as they chased the drummers to and fro. The body stretched half the length of the field, and seemed to fill it with bright red and gold.
Everyone loved the show, clapping and cheering when they finally left the field.
Quickly, the racecourse quietened down, and the horses started to arrive. I knew Papa would expect me to watch the race by his side, but I had time for one question that had been on my mind.
“Thank you so much for telling me about the Tò Dara yesterday,” I said. “But there was one other name like that I heard from the Bugis…”
“You are full of surprises,” Emmanuela said, laughing again. “What was this name?”
She frowned. “What a peculiar conversation you must have overheard,” she said. “In any event, that’s a Bugis name, but it refers to a Annamese myth.”
“Oh? Which one?” I asked.
I spotted Maman making her way toward us.
Emmanuela turned to follow my gaze and smiled in greeting. “The one your friend’s father, poor Monsieur Gosselin, was speaking about,” she said to me. Looking toward Maman, she was oblivious to my reaction as she continued: “You know, the legend of the hô con quỷ. Tiger demons.”
I stood there silently in shock as Maman and Emmanuela spoke of the dragon dance, unaware of my reaction.
I could explain Monsieur Gosselin’s words away. The man was ill. But the captain of the Salayar was not, and he’d thought Saigon was dangerous enough that he’d not waited to fill his hold with cargo here.
Tó Dara. Tò Harimau. Bác Thảo.
Was I completely surrounded by threats? What could I do? Who could I turn to?
I felt like I was drowning, but I wasn’t given time to do anything about it.
A touch on my arm made me jump.
“Ophélie, you know this young man, don’t you?”
Papa was at my side. And with him, Alain Sévigny.
My brain refused to function.
I knew I should say something, do something, but I couldn’t move.
Papa looked puzzled, but smoothly continued to cover up my hesitation. “Alain seems to know something about the horses, so I’ve asked him to join us for the race.”
“Oh, good,” I managed to say.
How stupid I sounded. Even Alain was looking puzzled now, but he was quickly distracted as Maman introduced Emmanuela to him.
And in the middle of everything else, the pang of ridiculous jealousy did more to clear my head than anything I could have done to myself.
There was a space reserved for us with a good view of the finishing line. Papa guided us there just in time to see the horses paraded before us.
“There, now, you see,” Alain said. “This fellow’s a grand cavalry horse. To look at him, you can see the weight of the bones, and the power in his hind quarters. But he’s too big, too muscled for the distance. The next one, however, with the blaze all the way down to his nose. That’s Lighthouse. Deep chest, but lighter body. He’s the one for this race. Sure winner.”
“You are so knowledgeable, Monsieur Sévigny,” Emmanuela said.
Alain flushed slightly.
I turned away and looked at the horses.
They’d reached the end of the stands and were circling back for a second view.
“Well, place your bets,” Papa said as they approached the starting line. “I’ll give you good odds on your horse being in the first three.”
He even had a notepad and a pen ready. No real money would change hands; he did not approve of gambling. I suspected his real reason for joking was to draw me out of myself.
I knew I needed to respond.
I thought carefully. Of the horses I had seen, one was especially beautiful. It was called Touchstone. Another had the lovely name of Dancer’s Dream. They were the two I liked.
“I don’t want to bet on being in the first three,” I said. “I want to bet on winning.”
“Mmm. More risk with that bet,” Papa pointed out.
“More return too, Monsieur Beauclerc,” Alain said, and in a stage whisper to me he went on: “If I might advise you, Mam’selle Beauclerc, put lots of money on Lighthouse to win.”
“No,” I said. “Dancer’s Dream and Touchstone.”
“But they run in the same race,” Papa said. “Only one can win.”
“I know. I can’t decide.”
“Hmmph.” Papa very deliberately wrote the names in his notebook.
Everyone laughed and we gathered on the rail to watch.
Alain stood next to me. He touched my hand to attract my attention and pointed out racing things, like the slight benefit that the horse on the inside track would gain. It was foolish that even in the heat of the morning, I thought I could sense the warmth from his body.
These thoughts were not only inappropriate for Mademoiselle Beauclerc, which I could overlook, but trivial in comparison to the larger events going on around me. This realization did not help and my hand continued to tingle, even after the horses started racing.
As it turned out, Lighthouse won.
Alain shrugged off congratulations, and he seemed to sense that I was upset.
Papa shook his head and hissed dramatically through his teeth. “You lost everything,” he said mock-sadly. “When you back two horses to win in the same race, Ophélie, that’s the most likely outcome.”
If only it was all about horses.
Why was it so difficult to find the right vegetables today?
The market churned with people this morning; bright and noisy. There was lots of smoke from small charcoal fires as food sellers fanned the smell of beef noodle soup and grilled pork across the crowds.
But I had to find the sweetest, most tender bamboo shoots or Maman’s lunch would be ruined. The stall traders couldn’t seem to understand. They weren’t usually like this.
Jade hated the market. She was muttering and cursing in Cantonese behind me. I could feel the anger like a heat radiating from her. It was like being followed around by a badly made stove.
“Măng,” I said, using the Annamese name.
The Chinese stallholder wrinkled his face in bafflement, showing his gold-lined teeth. He saw my French dress and my Annamese face, and that confused him so much he couldn’t understand what I was saying.
“Eh?” said the Tamil man in the next stall. He was chewing betel, and the red juice made it look as if he were bleeding from the mouth.
Next to him, a hunched Annamese woman was selling her farm produce. She sat on the edge of the road, surrounded by woven baskets of her wares.
“Go,” she said in Trade, waving me away. “Busy-busy.”
“Mam’selle, cannot,” Jade said. “Go back now. Late.”
I could never do anything without dragging her along like a sea anchor. Imagine what I could achieve without her. And what had I ever done to deserve the way she treated me? The frustration of it all boiled over.
“Why do you hate me, Jade?” I said, over my shoulder.
“You fight against the will of heaven,” she said, sounding like the priests at the temple. “The child must bear the burden of the parents. If the will of heaven is for you spend your life in the gutter, then that is what must be. You cannot escape, not even by being sold. To try is only to bring your bad joss with you and spread it to others.”
Joss. Luck, fate, karma.
I lived a life that was partly French now. I was educated. I should be able to laugh at the word, but it chilled me.
And what was Jade doing speaking to me like that?
I turned around, but there was no one following behind me. All I could see were the indifferent faces of the crowd, jostling their way through the bustling Chinese market.
And at that moment I saw her, as I always prayed I would one day.
She was bending down to judge the ripeness of some fruit from a stall three rows away, her hair plaited in her special knot and lying down her left shoulder on her blue shirt.
“Nhung!” I ran through the market. People didn’t have time to get out of my way, and I bounced and twisted through the crowd. I lost sight of her. The people were too tall.
Workers delivering sacks of fruit and vegetables shouldered me out of their way. Women balancing baskets of fish and eels on their heads blocked my view. Stallholders shouted out prices and waved samples of their wares in my face.
She wasn’t at the fruit stall when I got there.
Ignoring the shouts from the stallholder, I climbed onto his cart and looked around wildly over a sea of blue and white tunics and straw hats.
People were starting to notice me. Tall, shadowy figures formed into groups and began to move through the crowds to where I was.
There! I saw Nhung again and I dived back into the crowd.
Five stalls away, then three. How was it she couldn’t hear me calling?
I was breathless by the time I caught her.
“Nhung,” I panted, touching her arm. She turned.
It wasn’t her. The strange woman’s mouth was full of blood. Where her eyes should have been, there was nothing but darkness.
I woke with my pillow damp from my tears.
∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞
I can’t back two horses in the same race. And I can’t do everything at the same time for everybody, or I will achieve nothing.
Every possible path felt like the most bitter betrayals of one side or another. Or everybody.
Sitting in my room, I tried to think clearly.
My most achievable aim was to track down Nhung. I could go to the Secretary General’s office and ask about the census of domestic servants. If that didn’t work, I could reveal only a tiny bit of the truth and ask for Papa’s help.
But Nhung was safe, living as a maid. My birth parents would not be safe if they were sent back to Saigon.
As I walked downstairs to breakfast, I finally resolved that the next step I had to take was for me to ask Papa to allow me to inspect the government’s documents on the Hué mandarinate.
I would make up an interest about the working of the Emperor’s court. Only if the documents showed my father was there would I need to take it to the next step and start confessing this nest of lies. I would need to start soon. The Victorieuse was closer every day, and not all my wishing would hold it back so much as an hour. It had probably visited Hué already. The mandarinate might be being dismantled right now.
Nhung, my dear sister, I’m so sorry. You have to wait. This is my fault for not doing enough, quickly enough. I promise I will find you as soon as I can, but I must look to the lives of our parents first.
It was too late to do anything this morning; Papa was ready to go to the office. I would start tonight when he came home.
All the rest, the threats to me, vampires and tiger demons; what could I do, really? I would find a way to carry the kris knife with me, hidden in a bag. I would try and find out more about these monsters and why they threatened me. I had to override the growing fears of my intuition. What could threaten me in the bright, open boulevards of modern Saigon?
However I worked it around, all my plans and reasoning sounded pitiful and desperate and inadequate to me.
“You slept late. Are you all right?” Maman asked as I sat at table.
“Yes, thank you, I’m fine really. I just didn’t sleep well last night.”
“So much going on,” she said, patting my hand. “The new racecourse. Your birthday coming. This humid weather while the monsoon is delayed. The Governor’s Ball to look forward to. It’s hardly surprising you’re sleeping badly.”
“Have you thought about your birthday present?” she asked. “Your father suggested a pony, but I think he was joking.”
“Of course he was.” I tried to smile. “I’m still thinking. It’s important.”
I will beg for your forgiveness when I confess my lies, I thought, and turned my head so she couldn’t see the shame in my face. Forgiveness would be my most special gift.
But too much to ask. Far too much.
I could hear the door to Papa’s study open, and he called out that he was leaving for the office. Maman stepped into the hall with him. I heard them talking quietly about a telegram from France that had just arrived.
Something was making them concerned. I couldn’t hear what it was about, but I could hear the tone of their voices.
I couldn’t use that concern as another excuse to delay. However that first step turned out, I had to take it tonight. I couldn’t put it off any longer.
As for today, it would feel endless, I knew. And that feeling of slowness would last right until the time came for me to start asking my questions of Papa. Then it would feel as if everything had happened too fast.
Monsieur Song had told me that the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, had said that only unhappiness comes from thinking too much about what had been and what might be. I needed to live today in the present.
It was Maman’s coffee morning at the Café La Ronde. My friends would be there as well. I wanted Maman to enjoy her day, not worry over me. I needed to let simple pleasures fill my time; to be Ophélie, dutiful, demure and appropriate daughter of the Beauclercs.
However much I wanted to be Bian, and to think about my plans, my failings, my premonitions and my nightmares.
∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞
Half an hour later, we took a rickshaw. Maman told the man who pulled it to take a longer route, up to the Secretary General’s office, along Rue d’Espagne and down Blanchy, but whichever way we went, we had to cross the wide expanse of Boulevard Charner, and I couldn’t help but look down the length at what I knew would be there.
I could see the pale uniforms of Colonel Durand’s Marines already forming lines in front of the courts, and beyond them, the gathering of the crowds who’d come to witness the execution. They were like a restless sea, still relatively quiet now, but building even as I looked, and full of foreboding.
The guillotine had been set up on a raised wooden platform during the night. It was much larger than I’d imagined. The whole apparatus gave off a sense of ominous finality that reached right down the boulevard, and drew my eyes to it.
As we passed, they were testing to make sure the blade was falling freely.
It thudded against the stops and I flinched at the thought of what that would mean in a short while.
Despite my resolution about filling my day with simple pleasures, I started to ask: “Maman, what crimes justify such an execution—”
“Hush, Ophélie,” Maman said, taking my hand. “Ladies do not want to know about these matters. You must not discuss it, or even think about it.”
I had tried asking before, with the same result.
But as the rickshaw completed the crossing of the boulevard, I could not help but take one last glance down at the gathering crowd.
They were like a sea; a sea starting to surge against what held it back, and even from the top end of Boulevard Charner I could hear the chilling anger rising in the multitude of voices.
Maman squeezed my hand and spoke brightly as if nothing was happening. “Now, we will need to make plans soon. We’re having cousins from France coming to visit. They’ll be on the steamer that should arrive this week.”
I answered in kind. “That’ll be interesting, Maman. Are they touring, or will they be staying with us?”
“They’ll be staying at our town house until they arrange their own accommodation. They’re not on a tour; he’s been posted here by his company for three months to review their Far Eastern operations.”
“Oh. What are their names?”
“Yves and Blanche Fontaudin. Blanche is my cousin. She’s from the branch of the family based in Toulouse. Unfortunately, I was only really familiar with the Bordeaux side of my family. All I know about them is that Yves works in the clothing industry.”
“Will Blanche know all about the latest Paris fashions then?”
Maman laughed. “There’s more to clothing than fashions, but she’ll know more than us, that’s for certain.”
We started to talk about the new styles that Emmanuela had described, and that conversation lasted till we arrived at the Café La Ronde.
The café had tables spread out along the street in the shade of the scarlet-flowered flame trees. Where the shade was patchy, they’d grouped wide green parasols, except in the very center, where there was a small fountain which sparkled in the sunlight.
Maman turned to the right and joined her friends.
I stood in the sun for a second, enjoying the cool water of the fountain with the tips of my fingers.
The table of daughters was to the left. I looked across, out of the corner of my eye.
There were four girls there, heads together and voices lowered, dressed in the latest Paris fashions for young ladies. The adjustment for Saigon’s climate was limited; the cloth paler and lighter, without shawls or capes. All the cuts were, to my eye, a bit severe, but thankfully without the frills and ruffles of last year. Bonnets and hats had also become more restrained.
Thankfully, my clothes would not make me stand out. As the only Annamese girl adopted into the French society of Saigon, I didn’t need anything else to make me unusual.
In truth, my early acceptance was probably partly thanks to Papa’s position in the government. But over time, I’d felt that the color of my skin mattered less. In fact, I was not really much darker than some girls whose families came from the Mediterranean coast of France.
Still, I could never quite forget that I was different from the others.
Nearest to me at the table were Rochelle Champin and Manon Gosselin. I had no worries about their welcome.
The other two were Phèdre Riossi and Chantal Sévigny.
Black-haired Phèdre was the daughter of the unpleasant Monsieur Riossi; the man with the eyes that followed me around. She was as spare as her father was fleshy, but shared his Corsican olive skin. She wore her hair with an unfashionable fringe like a curtain she could hide behind. I’d always found her odd and moody.
Beside her sat Chantal. Since the Revolution, we hadn’t had French queens, but no-one had thought to tell Chantal.
As always, Chantal was turned out in the prettiest dress, this one an embroidered pale green that went well with her golden hair. She’d kept her fingerless, white lace gloves on, against the custom here in Saigon. Her pale complexion and bright blue eyes made some people compare her to porcelain, but from my experience, porcelain didn’t have the right sharp edges to properly describe Chantal.
How did one family produce both Alain and Chantal?
I was pleased to see that Manon seemed to have recovered from yesterday at the racecourse: she saw me and waved enthusiastically. “Ophélie,” she called, bouncing on her chair. “Come, sit with us.”
I caught a glimpse of Madame Gosselin frowning. Yes, young ladies were not supposed to wave and call like that, however good it made me feel.
I walked across and took the offered chair gratefully, with a smile and a greeting for them all.
In contrast to Manon’s welcome, the atmosphere at the table was subdued, with an underlying tension.
“Well,” Chantal said, after quiet greetings were completed. “Perhaps now we can learn something about what changes the Victorieuse brings?”
I had a strong feeling that this was not the topic they’d been furtively talking about when I’d arrived at the café.
“You all know the Beauclerc household rules,” I said, trying to make light of the questions. “No rumors are discussed, ever.”
I’d told them that often enough, but the imminent arrival of orders from Paris about the naval ship had raised the tension enough for Chantal to keep pressing, with the quiet encouragement of the others.
“We’ve had enough of rumors, we want to know,” she said. “Surely the man who’s going to be the next governor must have some idea of what’s happening?” Chantal arched an eyebrow at me.
“The dispatches are secret until they are delivered by the navy.” I shrugged. “The alternative would be to summon him to Paris first, which is impractical, or send details by telegraph, which is not safe.”
“But surely!” Rochelle said. “There’s so much at stake. They have to realize that in Paris. All our families are so concerned…”
She was right. Obviously the people most affected were in the colonial administration, but changes would ripple out to everyone in Indochina.
I still couldn’t do anything about it. It was frustrating, but if my friends had a better idea of what it meant to my families, both of them, perhaps they wouldn’t press me so often.
A waiter brought me a coffee which gave me a moment, and then there was a welcome distraction provided by another arrival at the café; Alain Sévigny.
He walked in and stopped to greet his mother and her friends.
I was careful not to look over there, especially when Manon nudged me. I did notice, from the corner of my eye, just how good he looked in his casual suit. But then, he was the sort of man who would look relaxed and well-dressed in any clothes. His friends, even those who were older than him, looked like boys borrowing their father’s jackets and trousers in comparison.
Only Phèdre was uninterested. One of the few things she’d ever said to me in private was to claim she thought Alain’s face looked cruel. That was ridiculous. It was nothing more than a hint of coolness, which many successful men showed.
Anyway, Papa warned me against judging people on their looks.
Chantal did not appreciate that her brother had become the center of attention. She liked it even less when he came across to say hello to us as well.
As etiquette dictated, especially with the mothers looking on, he began with his sister, greeted all of us, and did not stay long.
Rochelle and Manon were very friendly in their responses.
Phèdre dipped her head and peered through that fringe, muttering in answer.
Almost immediately we’d said our hellos, his raffish friends came to collect him and he left, wishing us a pleasant morning.
Everything as dictated by polite society. I wondered if Madame Sévigny or Maman had noted that he’d stood closest to my chair and rested his hand on the back.
Rochelle murmured. “See? He looked at you for longer than any of the rest of us.”
Not for the first time I wondered whether I was at a disadvantage. I understood the rules of etiquette and courtship, the peculiar signals you were allowed to give in French society, and the way that young ladies and gentlemen were expected to practice. But they made no sense to me. There seemed a difference between being born to them and adopting them.
Alain’s gaze had lingered on me, perhaps.
It was frustrating; what exactly was I to make of it? It was one of those things I thought Annamese society did better. But I was expected to follow French rules, and Rochelle’s teasing needed a response.
“Nonsense,” I replied. “He was here only to be polite, and he was. You and Manon, however, were very forward with him.”
Manon laughed. Chantal looked up sharply.
“What were you thinking of when you came in,” Manon changed the subject hurriedly, “standing with your fingers in the fountain.”
“That you had your heads together like conspirators,” I said to the group as a whole. “I wasn’t sure you wanted to be interrupted.”
Manon giggled and Rochelle blushed. Phèdre peered at me, her eyebrows raised. Was she surprised I had noticed? Anyway, I knew I was right, there had been something they were discussing and my instinct said they wouldn’t have been discussing it if their parents had been listening.
Was this another puzzle of French society rules and expectations?
I didn’t want to be singled out as different. I didn’t want to be unable to make friends among French people of my own age.
Would they tell me what this secret was?
How should I react if they did?
“Do you know this ideogram?” Chantal said, bringing out a piece of paper with one of her pencil sketches on it. “It’s the French sign for justice.”
It was an outline of the guillotine, cleverly drawn to look like a Chinese character.
“I don’t think it’s a matter for joking,” I said.
“Because it’s a woman?” Rochelle grimaced as she looked down at the paper.
“Because a person will die today, put to death in our name.” Turning away, I ordered another coffee from the waiter.
“That makes it sound as if we’re responsible,” Phèdre was saying, “but when you say ‘in our name’, you mean in the name of every citizen.”
“You can’t hide behind that,” Manon said.
“We passed Charner on the way here.” I interrupted before they could start a futile argument about responsibility. “People were gathering there already. They seem angry.”
“We did too,” Rochelle said. “The locals really seem to have picked up on this.”
“Are they against it?” asked Phèdre.
“No.” Rochelle shook her head. “It didn’t look like that at all. Quite the opposite. It looked as if they wanted to kill her themselves. It looked dangerous but they have the army there. It won’t get out of hand, will it?”
“They wouldn’t let us out of our houses if there was any danger of a riot.” Manon dismissed it with a shrug. “I don’t even know what she did, but it must have been awful.”
“Something about kidnapping, I think. Horrible.”
“We’re not supposed to even ask about it,” Phèdre said. She rolled her eyes and the others nodded.
All of us had been told it wasn’t a subject we should show any interest in.
Like a magician with a card trick, Chantal flipped the guillotine sketch over, revealing a government pamphlet on the other side.
“These posters about it are all over the market and docks,” she said, “but I can’t read them.”
Manon and Rochelle stared at the pamphlet as if it were a scorpion. Taking a pamphlet on the execution was something young ladies, duly warned off by their parents, would simply not do. Rochelle’s eyes flicked over to her mother sitting on the other side of the café.
“We shouldn’t,” she said.
Phèdre sneered, but Chantal held up one hand to stop her.
“You can always go for a walk, Rochelle. Honestly, we wouldn’t think any less of you.”
Rochelle blushed and dropped her eyes. “I was just saying.”
“So why can’t we read about it? Apart from the fact we can’t actually read it.” Chantal waved her hand languidly over the pamphlet, her eyes fixed on me.
“It’s in Mandarin, isn’t it?” Manon said. “I can’t read Mandarin.”
“Ophélie,” Chantal murmured, “You read Mandarin, don’t you?”
I nodded unhappily. Too late, I saw where this was heading.
“No-one will know.” Chantal tossed her head. She slid the pamphlet across the table. “Ophélie?” she said slyly, her voice lifting at the end in a way that made me think of a fishing hook.
I sighed. I did want to remain friends. Even, in a strange way, with Chantal. “I’m not that good at reading Mandarin,” I said, “but I’ll try.”
We all leaned forward around the table; five conspirators now.
“Let me see.” I scanned the heading. “Her name is Madame Cao. She’s aged 52.” I peered at the public clock on the building across the road. “She’s to be executed on the hour.”
Only minutes left to live. What’s going through her mind?
I tried to concentrate on the words and not think of the person behind them.
“She’s a widow and…um…you know these aren’t the sort of words I get taught. I think this is saying she is or she used to be a prostitute. Poor woman.” I frowned. “And an owner of some brothels.”
“That’s not all they’re saying she’s guilty of, is it?” Rochelle asked.
That would hardly have been enough. Protected as we were, we still knew there were places that soldiers and sailors went for women. You couldn’t execute people for running them.
“No. Her crimes…” I stopped again.
That can’t be right. Surely not.
“What? What does it say?”
“It says she’s been convicted of kidnapping.” My voice dropped and my heart began to beat more quickly. “Kidnapping over a hundred girls from small towns and distant farms, smuggling them into Khánh Hôi and selling them into prostitution.”
I followed the text further. A sour taste filled my mouth. “It says there were auctions. Children as young as nine put up on the block and sold.”
“Oh, God,” said Rochelle, muffling it with a hand over her mouth.
Manon was staring down at her lap, blinking. Even Chantal looked pale.
“Kidnapped? It definitely says kidnapped?” Phèdre’s question cut through the shock.
I checked the characters. “That’s what it says.”
“Well, they would say that wouldn’t they?” she went on.
“What do you mean?” Chantal said.
“I bet some of those girls were sold by their parents. I heard farmers sell their daughters to become maids. Now they’re being asked by the police, of course they’ll say the children were kidnapped. I bet some of them even knew what would happen.”
“Phèdre! How can you say that?” Manon said.
“It’s just something these people do. I suppose it’s understandable when times are hard and girls can’t do as much work in the fields as boys. Family doesn’t mean the same thing to these people as it does to us.” Phèdre waved her hand, imitating one of Chantal’s gestures. “Present company excepted, naturally.”
I couldn’t raise my eyes.
Bình tâm. Bình tâm. It helped to speak to myself in my own language. Keep calm. Keep calm.
She didn’t mean it. Surely.
And the growing dread kept me translating, looking.
No! I don’t want to…
But I could not stop.
The pamphlet was cheaply printed, and dominated by the text I’d already read. There was a small blurry picture in the bottom right-hand corner.
A pain blossomed in my chest.
It could be anybody, couldn’t it? I was just imagining I recognized her.
Beneath the picture was the woman’s full name, in Chinese and Western writing, and in the Chinese style, with surname first.
Cao, Kim Lein.
It was as if I’d been hit with a whip. I forgot Phèdre and the others. I leaped up, ignoring the startled questions and I ran, gathering my dress as best I could, my elegant boots threatening to break with every desperate pace. Maman’s call followed me, but I barely heard it.
Kim is a common name.
There were tens of thousands of women named Kim in Cochinchina. It couldn’t be Aunty Kim, because that would mean I’d been living a lie within a lie. It would mean that Nhung suspected, all that time ago, what was going to happen to her, and she said nothing, because she thought my opportunity was worth more than her sacrifice.
Kim is a common name.
It would mean that Minh’s mother knew, snatching him away from us that day in Ap Long. Don’t talk to them she would have told him. Don’t catch their bad luck.
And my birth parents, not born into that poverty, not able to even comprehend that people would do such a thing.
But not Nhung. She’d known.
Nhung undoing her hair and hiding her face. Beautiful, gentle Nhung. Never say that, little sister. Never say you hate me, whatever happens. Promise me. Saying nothing, hiding her face in shame at what she had to become, just so that I could have my chance at a better life.
As I ran, the truth froze inside me like a glacier, squeezing my chest until I thought my heart was going to burst.
I had to find Nhung. Papa would rescue her, wherever she was, whatever had been done to her. But only Kim could tell us where she was. I had to ask her.
I heard the crowd long before I saw them. A terrible, seething noise like a vast, angry animal. I turned the corner and Boulevard Charner was blocked with people, as solid as a wall.
Colonel Durand’s Marines had formed a square surrounding the tall, stark outline of the guillotine, high on the platform. There was a long board behind the guillotine, and a knot of people there, so I couldn’t see what they were doing. Figures in colonial white uniforms stood facing a man on the platform, who was reading from a sheet of paper. No-one could possibly hear him.
Around the guillotine and the officials, there stood a double line of Marines. I could only see their red faces and white helmets above the crowd that had gathered to witness French justice.
The courts had wanted to send a message to the people of Cochinchina with this execution and it had worked, in a way. The pamphlets posted all over the city had created a lurid picture of her crimes. The people of Saigon had responded far more angrily than they’d anticipated.
Whatever poisons of frustration and anger they held in their lives had suddenly crystalized into a single hatred, focused on this one person. Few of them could have been personally affected by these crimes, but it ceased to matter. She stood as a symbol for everything wrong that had been done to them, and the crowd heaved against the line of soldiers, howling abuse at the condemned.
“Witch,” they yelled. “Demon. Whore.”
Other words; worse, some of them I didn’t know, harsh words in all the languages and dialects used in Saigon, thrown like rocks at the woman on the platform.
I was tossed from side to side, fighting to get through. Sometimes they saw my clothes and fell back, surprised to see a French woman was in the crowd with them. Mostly, they didn’t notice me at all. My dress was torn, my hair pulled. Fists and elbows struck my face, intentionally or not. I tasted blood in my mouth.
“Keep clear, keep clear,” the officers behind the line called out, marching up and down, their hands gripping their ceremonial swords or running anxiously over their pistol holsters, as if to reassure themselves. “Steady, men, hold steady there.”
The soldiers themselves grunted with effort as the crowd pushed and surged against their lines. There was movement on the platform. The man with the paper had finished. The noise redoubled.
I squeezed through to the front and, like a cork coming out of a bottle, I was hurled against the line of soldiers. My face slammed into an unyielding chest and a brass button cut my cheek. I pushed back to create a tiny space.
“I have to get through,” I screamed up at the Marine.
“No closer than this. No further, mam’selle.”
“You don’t understand. I have to speak to her! She knows. She knows where my sister is.”
It was as if I was speaking another language. He wasn’t listening, or he couldn’t hear.
“No further, mam’selle,” he repeated. His eyes were focused on the crowd behind me, but as I was pushed against him again, he staggered and was forced to use one arm to bar my way.
He looked down, and I could see the puzzlement in his face. What was this Annamese girl doing, speaking French and dressed as a Frenchwoman in torn clothing? Why was she struggling to get closer to an execution?
The noise reached a peak. It had become a mindless, baying sound, beyond words or thoughts.
I twisted my body, bent my legs. I was much smaller than him and not trying to keep in line. I slipped out of his grasp, through the gap between him and his neighbor, past the second line. I sprinted forward to the platform.
“Mam’selle, no,” they shouted after me, horrified, unable to leave their lines.
I was just in time. Not for my purpose, but in time to see the swift fall of the dark blade. In time to hear the hiss of the descent suddenly ended with utter, thudding finality.
An officer caught me and started to pull me back. It was too late.
Unaware I was right below him, the executioner reached down into the basket and lifted up the head by the hair for the crowd. Her eyes were still open, glazed, looking right through me. Her face twitched spasmodically and blood poured from her cleanly severed neck, but there was no mistaking the features of the woman I’d known as Aunty Kim.
Here is the second episode of Bian’s Tale. I will put episodes up at least until the 75% point, or where ever the episodes overtake the writing. Having the feeling that the episodes are catching me up should provide some necessary incentive for me to write faster. Bian’s Tale is supposed to be with my editor by Christmas.
The book is clearly not written to be issued in episodes, so you will find no major cliffhanger at the end. It’s merely about the right length (9k words or approximately half of Section 2). Episode 1 was an entire section (Section 1 – Innocence) dealing with Bian as a young child. We meet her again in Section 2 (Awakening) about 5 years later, a young woman caught between two worlds, trapped by the lies told when she was adopted and torn in loyalties between her Annamese birth family and her French adopting family. (I use the name Annamese instead of the more correct Annamite that the French of the time would have used – one of many decisions about language I’ve taken and will list in the novel).
Apart from the opening chapters, this part has changed a lot in the re-writes.
I also promised to explain in a bit more depth why I said that I’m not crystal clear who I’m writing this for. There are two obvious targets – readers who have not read anything of mine and readers who have read Bite Back and would enjoy the background tale of one of the major characters.
New readers need the complete introduction into the world of Athanate, Were and Adept. Existing readers could find that tedious. Concentrating on new readers would allow me to try to appeal to a younger demographic, but make it ‘Young Adult’ could turn existing readers off. A whole companion series simply to fill in Bian’s background would be excessive, and yet there’s such potential to tell a story that begins in a very different age.
And so on. Almost every aspect of the story should/could be different depending on which way I decided to write it. So I decided to write it for both and make everything much harder, and basically a compromise.
New readers attracted into a story about vampires, witches and werewolves are going to have to wait for them to turn up. Existing readers can entertain themselves by knowing that the paranormal is there, and wondering exactly how it’s going to manifest. Younger readers will be frustrated by Bian’s lack of power at this stage in her life, existing readers will know how she ends up and (I hope) enjoy the slow ratchet of abilities over several books until Bian emerges as the snarking, katana-wielding, predatory woman we enjoy in Bite Back.
Everyone needs to be swept along by the story while it happens. If the reader thinks about the story being slow or confusing, I’ve failed.
Anyway… here is Episode 2, the first half of Section 2, Awakening.
Saigon at dawn, the old-timers said, is like waking from an opium dream.
Great dragons, formed from the mist off the rice fields, flowed down onto the dark river and raised phantom heads to stare threateningly at the stirring city, with its wide, leafy boulevards and square, pale buildings looming out of the darkness. In the center of the unending landscape of steamy mangrove swamps and flooded paddy fields of Cochinchina, it was Saigon’s regular formality that seemed like the strange mirage; insubstantial as dreams.
As Papa and I walked along the Quai du Commerce, the east began to bleed gold into the sky and rob the night of its substance. The mist dragons dispersed. Saigon was allowed to become real for another day.
Our heels clicked at a leisurely pace on the quay’s wide stone slabs. He wore his usual white linen suit, ready for work. I was in a slim, elegant dress, pale coffee in color. It was the fashion to be as narrow-waisted as a wasp, but Maman said fourteen was too young to use the corset. Instead, I wore a short jacket to emphasize my shape. My hair was pinned up under a pretty bonnet.
It was early for the promenade, but today, I was not concerned about the time, or about fashion. I forced my face to remain calm and composed, but my stomach was more cramped than if I’d been allowed the corset, and for every measured step we took, it felt like my heart beat a dozen times.
The dawn had dispelled the river mists, but guilt and fear lay across my shoulders like a phantom cloak that only I could see.
It was five years since I’d been adopted; my whole world had changed, and I had changed with it. I felt as much French as Annamese, and as much the child of my adoptive parents as of my birth parents.
That was partly the source of the guilt: I was deceiving my adoptive parents because of my fears for my birth parents.
And the fear was well-founded: there was a dagger aimed at all of us.
It took the form of a ship, a French naval corvette called Victorieuse, that was en route from Paris.
Every three or four months, a ship would come with important dispatches for the administration of all French interests in the Far East – the protectorates of Tonkin, Annam, Laos and Cambodia, the leased territory of Guangzhou Bay in China, and the colony of Cochinchina.
But this time, the ship also bore a high ranking envoy with his staff, and it was accompanied by a troop carrier with a battalion of Colonial Troops. No official explanations had been received.
Since the Victorieuse had set out, every ship into Saigon harbor, every telegraph, every conversation had brought more rumors. Saigon was in a fever of speculation. It seemed the future of the French Far East hung in the balance, and something fundamental was about to happen.
Had there been some threat we’d not heard about from Britain or Siam? China? Was there to be an annexation of new territory?
Of course, Saigon was in telegraphic communication with Paris, but those cables passed though British hands, and the British weren’t to be trusted. All truly secret matters arrived on naval ships, just never with such a combination of unexplained troops and senior administrators.
Papa looked aloof from the uncertainty, but he was not. Maman and I could see. We knew the toll this was taking on him, and there was no discussion of rumors allowed in the house.
Mainly my fears arose because the most persistent rumor was about Hué, the imperial capital of Annam, where my father and mother had fled. People were openly saying that the mandarinate was going to be replaced by a council of ministers reporting to a Frenchman, and the mandarins released would be ordered back to assist in the administration of whichever province they had come from.
If my father had been successful in re-entering the mandarinate, they would send him back to Saigon, and Bác Thảo would know. There would be no hiding this time—a poor man can hide where a mandarin cannot.
I’d been having horrible nightmares where Bác Thảo’s gangs would flow through Saigon like rats after a monsoon flood, and when they left, my father, mother and brothers would have disappeared.
To make my dilemma more barbed, I knew Papa had enough power in the colonial administration to stop my father being sent back to Saigon. All I had to do was confess to him that my parents had lied when Papa and Maman adopted me.
I believed Papa would understand, and he was fair-minded enough that he would do what was necessary to ensure my birth family would be allowed to stay in Hué. They would be shamed, and whatever status they’d achieved in Hué would be destroyed, but at least they’d be alive. But would Papa and Maman still want me when they realized they had been lied to? No. How could they? It would be the scandal of the year. I would be thrown out.
Which all meant that I should not take this path of confession unless I was absolutely sure there was no alternative. It was possible, for instance, that my father hadn’t been able to re-enter the mandarinate. Or that people in Hué knew more of what was actually happening there—that no such proposal to send him back was being considered.
So, in my guilt and fear and doubt, I had hatched a plan to find out as much as I could about what was happening in Hué, and whether my father had indeed become a mandarin once again. All it had needed to progress was for me to tell a lie to Papa. Yet another lie.
I’d rearranged my lessons, and I had asked that we could have a walk together along the docks before he started work. We’d had little time together recently, and I let him believe that was the reason. In reality, I hoped to get a few minutes alone here, where there were ships fresh in from Hué and people who might be encouraged to talk.
It was a risk. Bác Thảo remained a danger to me, and if he were to piece together news of an Annamese girl asking about a re-appointed mandarin in Hué along with his knowledge of the disappearance of an ex-mandarin from Cochinchina, it might be no great leap for him to work out what had happened.
Everything seemed to be a risk.
Unaware of the turmoil in my thoughts, Papa was enjoying the only quiet he would have in the day, spending that time with his deceitful daughter.
We exchanged murmured greetings with the few passers-by. Papa walked with his hands held behind his back, his head up, savoring this peaceful moment.
“And what then, Ophélie,” he said, “do you consider his best achievement?”
We were speaking of the Duke of Magenta. News of his death had arrived yesterday on the telegraph and both Papa and Maman were saddened.
They would not think that the duke’s best achievement was his Crimean war record, that much I could guess, even though that would be the banner in La Poste, Saigon’s main newspaper. My answer was important to Papa, so I put my inner agitation aside and thought carefully.
“His service as president of the Republic,” I said. “The balance he kept between the republicans and the monarchists.”
“Precisely.” Papa was pleased. “And the grace with which he took his leave of the political arena,” he added. “Always remember that, too. Except when you die in office, it is the nature of the world that most political careers end in failure. Too often the manner of leaving is all that remains in people’s minds.”
He was probably thinking on his own position here in the colony.
It had been my parents’ plan that the Beauclercs would take me to live in France shortly after my adoption, so I would escape from the threat of Bác Thảo. There had been some delays, and then some more. Months became a year. And a second year. With every passing year, there had been another, yet more vital reason for Papa to stay, and so here we had remained.
For the last eighteen months, Papa had effectively been running the colony while the actual governor was ill.
It was hard work and a great responsibility, but there had been benefits. He’d been able to start many of the important projects he’d always advocated: schools and hospitals here in Cochinchina, and planning for exhibitions of Far Eastern culture, history and industry in France. Papa wanted a display of Indochina at the centennial Exposition Universelle in Paris which would finally convince the French population at home of the wonderful opportunities that existed for full cooperation with Annamese and Chinese. His admiration for the people here, and his sense of the shared potential, had become his great passion.
Many people in France still needed convincing.
We turned, without speaking, at La Ronde, the great traffic circle at the central point of the docks, which marked the end of the Quai du Commerce and the beginning of the Quai de la Marine, the naval yard.
It wasn’t only that the tall, ironclad sides of naval steamships were uninteresting in their uniformity. Neither Papa nor I cared to pass in front of the government’s opium factory, which sat so squat and dark, hard against the naval maintenance stores and in the shadow of the immense coal bunkers the Navy kept.
Papa thought the opium trade was a necessary evil. He said it was a pragmatic compromise that served a greater purpose, not to mention the second largest source of income for Cochinchina, after rice.
As for me, the last few years might have made me appear more French than Annamese, but I believed opium was wrong. That opinion had started back in Ap Long, with Minh’s father, and the problems his addiction had caused. Nothing I’d learned since then, from the evidence of addiction in Saigon to my history lessons on the two Opium Wars with China, had made the drug seem more acceptable.
Papa knew how I felt, so we retraced our steps on the Quai du Commerce, to enjoy the more pleasing surroundings and each other’s company.
And as I’d deceitfully anticipated, that didn’t last.
“Beauclerc! The man himself. What good luck!”
Luck had nothing to do with it.
The two men who’d waylaid us were junior colleagues in the administration. Given his importance, Papa’s days were set out in meetings weeks in advance. There were always officials in the administration or colonials who needed to speak to him urgently. There was nowhere we went in Saigon that this did not happen, and at the docks, it was probably more likely than most.
If it went according to my plan, Papa would decide they had to continue their discussion at the office, and I would have some time alone, because I’d also arranged for my morning lesson to begin down here.
After making a polite greeting, I dutifully moved a few steps away to let them discuss business.
We had been walking alongside a bulky windjammer, a cargo sailing ship, steel-hulled and four-masted; the Margareta, out of Hamburg. The quayside boards had been chalked up showing its cargo was commercial steamship coal. Customs officers had just completed their inspection and the Margareta’s captain would now be cleared to trade. Saigon was the busiest port in the South China Seas, with a dozen steamships docked on any given day, and he’d have buyers for his coal before lunch. Already the ‘black women’, the women and girls who made their living unloading coal basket by basket, were lining up.
Four other men joined Papa’s group.
No! If there were too many, and not all in the administration, Papa would not take them to the office.
I skirted around them, and strolled on, as if unconcerned, but in truth my heart was in my mouth. It was so hard to arrange moments when I was unaccompanied. Moments when I could do things and ask questions that would not need to be explained with yet more lies.
What could I do now?
The Margareta was big; a hundred metres long, and it dwarfed the next ship, a sharp-prowed wooden pinisi out of the Celebes. The pinisi was a quarter of the size of the windjammer, and it had only two masts. Its name was the Salayar. The quayside boards left the cargo unstated—they were here to buy. But much more importantly for me, they confirmed the Salayar’s last port of call was Hué.
This wasn’t one of the ships I’d been looking for. I knew, at the far end of the docks, there was a Chinese steamer that had brought a diplomatic delegation all the way from Canton, and which had paused in Hué to allow the diplomats to meet the Emperor. Just being able to speak in Mandarin to the crew might get me some answers.
But I couldn’t go down there while Papa was still standing beside the Margareta, and glancing back showed no movement in the group around him.
I bit my lip. I had lied and deceived Papa, and now it might all be for nothing. I couldn’t bear to go home again without learning anything. The mandarins could be recalled any day, and I had to know what to do.
I strolled alongside the Salayar, trying to hide my desperation under a veneer of idle curiosity.
The tall, raised quay was level with the deck. I could see into the ship: the stowed sails made of coarse-woven brown jute; the twin rudders; the dark ironwood planking, decking caulked with coconut fiber and gum; the sharply raked stem and stern, which gave it that wicked prow, like the thrust of a fencer’s blade.
The Salayar would have shipped spices to Hué’s markets; the smell still clung to the ship and tickled my nose.
On the return, they’d be carrying Chinese silks from Hué and maybe they’d be looking to buy cheaper fabrics here in Saigon. And opium, always opium.
I grimaced at the thought, but I had no time to be squeamish. An opportunity was opening up right before me.
The small, ragged crew were stirring angrily on the deck, listening to an argument between the customs official and their grizzled captain standing on the quay.
Tò Laut, these people called themselves—the clan of the sea. Bugis was what we called them in Saigon, or sea gypsies. I remembered them well from my early childhood living on a sampan in the floating villages of Arroyo Chinois. To an Annamese child, they were colorful and exciting visitors with exactly the right air of wickedness to make them fascinating.
To the French, maybe they were less fascinating. Pirates, some people called them, even though they still welcomed the trade these small craft brought.
They weren’t precisely made welcome on the Saigon dockside, but that wasn’t what the argument was about.
Though officially it was frowned upon, it was common for customs officials to solicit bribes from ship captains in return for preferential treatment. Being among the first to have their cargos released, or to be cleared to buy and load new cargo, could be worth the cost of greasing a palm or two.
It seemed that the Bugis captain had been moved down the list and was angrily refusing to pay a bribe to regain his place. If I could put him in my debt by helping him, he might agree to give me news from Hué in return. Bugis hated debts and obligations.
All I needed was a bit of luck and boldness, and to put aside my demure French demeanor.
“Is there a problem, Monsieur?” I asked the port official. He turned to me. A short, strong man with a neat beard, shaped like a spade. I didn’t recognize the man himself, but I knew his kind. A petty clerk in France, all chance of progress there crushed beneath the stifling bureaucracy. Here in Saigon, he was a big man with a good job, a comfortable house and servants, and probably an Annamese mistress as well.
He bristled at my question, as I expected. As a young girl, it was not my place to involve myself. Papa would be annoyed if he saw me, and his colleagues would be shocked. I hated the thought of embarrassing him, but I had to take any chance of getting news from Hué.
“Nothing to concern yourself with, mam’selle,” the officer said dismissively. “The captain here is confused about the sequence of inspections.”
He paused, looking around. “You ought not to be out here alone, mam’selle,” he added. “Where is your escort?”
I had to act quickly before he found someone to take me away—for my own good, of course.
“Oh, the inspection sequence,” I said innocently, bending to peer at the chalked numbers on the quayside boards. “I see. This number has been rubbed out and changed.”
I straightened up and added, “Perhaps my Papa could help. Monsieur Beauclerc. He’s just over there.” I waved my hand in Papa’s direction. “I’ll run and fetch him.”
I held my breath, knowing he would recognize Papa and praying I was right in believing that official interference was the last thing this man wanted. Papa would not be pleased if I dragged him into this.
The official glared at me. “It’s not worth the discussion,” he muttered, and waved the closest cargo inspector aboard. The Salayar was a small ship; only one would be needed. “Mam’selle.” He nodded stiffly and called to his other inspectors, directing them on to the next ship, a steamer out of France, where he’d probably still collect his fee for expediting.
“Monsieur,” I murmured at his back, breathing a sigh of relief.
The captain of the Salayar had to follow the inspector aboard, but he spared an unreadable glance for me. I quickly touched my mouth and ear, the sign I’d learned when my family had lived on our sampan. Want to talk.
He blinked, and made a little upward movement with his head. Wait.
He acknowledged the debt. Now I must wait and hope the risk I had taken would pay off.
I returned to Papa’s group, which he was trying to disperse.
Monsieur Therriot was reluctant to go. “…but I’ve been trying so long to get this funding for the Mekong Navigation Association. It’s a trifling amount in comparison to the benefits—”
“In comparison to the supposed benefits, which you cannot prove,” interrupted Monsieur Champin. Competition for development funds made enemies of them, and made Champin rude.
Papa held his hands up to calm them. “I’ve made your proposals, which, as you know, exceed our planned resources and have had to be referred. I will not anticipate the response.” He shrugged. “Dispatches are coming from Paris. Perhaps there will be something in them for you both.”
A nervous shuffle passed through the group at the mention of the dispatches.
The delays in communication and the reluctance to use the telegraph meant no one knew exactly what was happening in the halls of power in Paris until actual directives arrived. People could be promoted, recalled, posted elsewhere. Commercial matters could be sponsored or rejected. Projects might be started or ended—anything. Politics in France was disconnected with the realities of the Far East. French policy in Indochina, they said, was really an argument between the Ministère de la Marine, the French Admiralty, and the Quai d’Orsay, the French foreign ministry.
No wonder it was a time of anxiety for the colonials. For us.
“Whatever else is in them, they must require Governor Laurent to stand down,” Champin said. “It’s not reasonable to expect him to continue in his state of health.”
“The man’s at the end of his strength,” another added. “The dispatches will surely order his return, to convalesce.”
“And confirm our friend here in his place.” Therriot rocked to and fro on his feet, smiling broadly at Papa and touching him lightly on the arm.
Papa shook his head, unwilling to engage in this speculation.
“But the Victorieuse is already late,” Champin said. “Now I hear that’s because she’s gone north first. Why? Why the delay?”
“Of simple necessity, the ship must travel both up and down the coastline,” Papa said. “A naval captain has many factors in his decisions. I see nothing to concern us in his choice to visit Tonkin and Annam first.”
“So still, one must await the judgment of Paris.” Therriot made a joke of it. “And Saigon is the fairest, is it not?”
There was strained laughter.
“It’s a sea change,” broke in Monsieur Gosselin. I knew him well; he was the father of my best friend, Manon. His eyes were fever-bright in his pale face this morning. “I feel it. A great change. All of us…change.” He lost his thread and frowned in confusion. That happened to him often recently. Manon and her mother were worried. If he had been in the administration, he would have been recalled long ago, but he had always been able to convince the merchant firm he worked for to let him remain in Saigon.
The others were split between embarrassment and amusement at Gosselin’s lapse, but at least it served as a break. Papa excused himself for a moment and rejoined me.
“I’m sorry, Ophélie, that was not edifying.” He took me by the arm and led me a few steps away from the group.
“You’re owned a little by everyone.” I quoted one of his own phrases back at him. I was pleased when it made him smile, and I stamped down on the guilt from all my deceptions.
“I must take Monsieur Therriot to the office.” He looked around. “Monsieur Song is not here yet?”
He continued looking until he spotted a Chinese woman walking toward us from Boulevard Charner. “Ah! Jade has arrived.”
Our senior maid, the Chinese woman I’d called Aunty in that first meeting with the Beauclercs, was my constant shadow in Saigon whenever I was not with Papa or Maman. It was an arrangement which neither of us enjoyed, but imposed on us by social expectations.
Jade stopped well short of where we stood. Papa looked as if he was going to call her forward, but I stopped him.
“No,” I said. “Don’t worry, Monsieur Song will be here soon, and I’m perfectly safe. Jade prefers to keep her distance.”
“Well, I suppose it will be alright.” He nodded and took a deep breath. “This is a better place for a lesson than some stuffy room. Remind me, what is today’s subject for discussion in Mandarin?”
“The docks, shipping and trade of the colony.”
“Excellent. If perhaps a little dry.”
Therriot was beginning to look impatient, but Papa gestured him to wait. He guided me to a bench and we perched on the edge.
Papa leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees.
“You hide it so well, but I can tell you’re upset by all these rumors and speculations.” He held his hand up to stop me denying it.
“We must find something else for you to think about, and, after all, it’s your birthday next week,” he said, and smiled briefly. “Your French birthday, anyway.”
Birthdays were not celebrated in Annamese culture, and in fact, I had no idea what day I’d been born. My adoptive parents had insisted that the French part of me needed an annual celebration.
“Ophélie, you must know what joy you’ve brought to Thérèse and me.” His face was suddenly serious. “We were so worried to start with. What a change for you. What a difficult decision for your family. What if you’d hated us? And yet, here you are; look at you. You are so wonderfully French as well as Annamese. It’s more than we could have dreamed. You’ve been the most dutiful daughter we could ever have imagined.”
“It’s not duty, Papa.” I wasn’t lying; I had come to love both sets of parents equally.
I had to bite my lip. I would not cry.
What would they think when they found out I’d been part of a deception? Surely they would hate me?
But not knowing my thoughts, he smiled again. It lightened his face and I wished he would smile more often.
“We may have even less time together after the Victorieuse arrives. Thérèse and I think we should make the most of this birthday.” He took my hands in his. “You are mature enough to know your mind. Whatever you want, if it’s within our power, that’ll be your gift.”
My heart skipped a beat. I knew what I wanted.
I couldn’t ask about my family until I knew what was happening in Hué. But I had family in Saigon: my sister, Nhung.
In all the time since I’d been adopted, I’d found no trace of her. Every time I met a new family in Saigon, I questioned them about their maids. No one knew any maid of that name or description. It was slow, frustrating work trying to discover information without making anyone suspicious.
I couldn’t tell Papa the whole truth, but if I told him enough of it…
If anyone could find Nhung, it was Papa.
I couldn’t ask them to adopt her, but if she was simply a maid in the same house, how much happier we both could be.
“Well?” Papa interrupted.
This was so important, and so risky. I would have to think it through. And of course, I might need to time it with other truths that I had to tell him.
“I need a little time, please.”
“I can see you’ve got some ideas, though.” He laughed, then stood and straightened his jacket. His hand touched my shoulder.
“So solemn! Perhaps a pony?” he said. “Ah! See, a smile! That’s like a rainbow—a sign of great good luck and happiness.” He laughed again. “Well, enough for now. My regards to Monsieur Song.”
He walked away with a wave, collecting Therriot on the way.
Yes, I had great good luck and happiness. In all of Cochinchina, was there a girl as fortunate as I was? A despicable, undeserving girl, who lied to the loving family who’d adopted her, and who lived in comfort in the same city where her sister served as a maid.
My heart felt as if it would break in two. I rocked myself.
I am so lucky. I am so lucky. I am so lucky.
I waited anxiously, scanning the deck of the Salayar and the crowded quay in turn, worried Monsieur Song would arrive before the inspection was finished.
Behind me, people had gathered at the quayside cafés for coffee and hot, fresh croissants. The scents and quiet murmur of voices drifted across. The city was waking. In minutes, it would resume its daily routine; the frantic, invigorating urgency of morning business, which would then pause over a long lunch and resume more sedately in the afternoon, before finally transforming into the renowned nightlife, so I’d heard, which lasted until close to dawn.
In front of me, the brief inspection of the Salayar’s hold was finally completed. The inspector walked down the narrow gangplank and away.
I forced my self-pity aside. However it made me feel, I had to try and make some progress.
That was difficult.
The ship was barely thirty metres away, but it might as well have been a mile. It would be unthinkable for a young lady to go on board a Bugis ship. Some gentleman from the crowd in the cafés would run up to ‘save’ me before I got half way up the gangplank. It would be a scandal. Jade would report it to Papa and Maman. Difficult questions would be asked. And far worse, the crew might be imprisoned for trying to ‘lure’ me on board.
I was about to get up and at least walk closer when the crew members emerged and jumped down onto the quay, the captain first among them.
The others set off at a trot toward the market.
The captain sauntered over to sit on the raised rim of a nearby circular flowerbed, one foot folded casually underneath him. He was close enough to speak, but not close enough to attract attention. He made a big show of getting his pipe out, knocking it against the bricks and tamping tobacco into the bowl. His face was polished by the sun and wind, as dark and glossy as the wood of his deck, and about as readable.
He didn’t speak.
I knew he wouldn’t, unless I did. Bugis approached you, and waited—it was simply their way. If I did not speak, he would feel he’d done what he could and discharged his debt.
Start. Just start.
“Good winds, Salayar,” I said quietly in Trade. It was a patois, not really a language at all, but it was spoken up and down the coast; more Chinese words in the north, more Malay and Javanese in the south. Everyone had a chance of understanding some of what was said, and my family had needed to use it a lot when we’d lived on the sampan. I hoped I could remember enough of it.
He grunted in surprise at my using Trade. “Winds good no man,” he replied in the same language. “Sea good no man. Good come work-work and luck-luck, uh.”
He lit his pipe and shifted his weight. “We buy quick. We leave. Quiet, uh. Low-low. Night come, no ship find Salayar.”
I frowned. What was he talking about? He was sounding like a smuggler. Did he think I wanted something smuggled?
“Opium, uh?” I said.
“Huh,” he jerked his chin up. “Can.” Which could mean he had before, or he would in the future, maybe, or that he was actually shipping opium now. A Bugis speaking Trade could make evasion an art form.
Maybe he saw something of my reaction in my face.
“Got cloth,” he said. “Got Hué silk lot-lot. Buy rice Saigon market. Buy lot medicine. Saigon good-good Chinese medicine. Cheap-cheap rice.”
I relaxed and nodded.
“We give clothes like-like us,” he said. “You wear, uh. Cut hair. Dirt on face. Come quiet-quiet. Hide in hold. Secret place. No man see. No man catch.”
I gasped. He thought I was trying to escape; that I was being held in Saigon by some cruel French master.
There were Annamese women who dressed in the French style and were mistresses, though never called that in polite society. They were demimondaine. Half of this world, half of another.
“No,” I said, falling back into French in my shock. “Thank you, but that isn’t what I want.”
“Huh.” He understood enough of that and looked hugely relieved, taking a deep draught of smoke from his pipe and leaning back. “What want? Hué silk I got. Tò Laut carving I got. Good.”
I shook my head.
“What talk Hué?” I asked. I couldn’t remember the Trade words for news or Emperor or mandarin. How was I going to ask?
“News, uh?” He laughed, providing me the word. “News yellow girl in white clothes, speak Trade.”
Fear spiked through me. News about me had barter value too. This was all going wrong, but I couldn’t give up now. I shook my head again. “No talk me. Look for family.”
His eyes swung round and looked shrewdly at me before he deliberately turned away again.
“Family, uh?” He puffed another cloud into the morning air and shrugged. “Hué big-big.”
“Emperor?” I tried the French word and he blinked. “Man begin work mandarin. Work for Emperor?” I mixed Trade and French.
His eyebrows rose in surprise, but he shook his head. “Mandarin no come dock. Man work mandarin come get bribe.”
“Know, uh. But…” I tried to explain myself. “Man come dock, talk. Who do what, who go up, who go down.” They must pick up bits of gossip here and there. Otherwise, I had wasted my effort and possibly started another little rumor running—about the Annamese girl in French clothes who spoke bad Trade on the dockside in Saigon and asked about someone in her family becoming a mandarin. At least I hadn’t given away the name of Trang.
He shook his head again.
I wanted to grind my teeth, but I had no time for frustration. If there was nothing about my family, maybe there was something about the new administration changes.
“What news change-change? No more mandarin Hué, send home?”
“Uh.” He made that upward gesture with his chin. “Mandarin go home soon.”
The rumor was true. Or at least the people in Hué believed it.
Maybe he’d expected me to be happy at the news. Although I kept my face as neutral as possible, something told him I wasn’t.
He said something I didn’t understand, then seeing the confusion, he tried again in broken French. “All mandarin work Emperor, French make…” He mimed writing on his palm.
Lists! Of course! The French ‘advisors’ to the Emperor would know everyone who worked in the court; they’d even know everyone who had applied to work there.
But I held back the sudden hope.
“List belong Hué,” I said, mixing French and Trade again, and miming writing on my hand. “No see here Saigon.”
“Ah.” He made a fist with his left hand. “Hué,” he said. Then he put his right hand over it, so the fingers reached all around. “Saigon, uh. List belong Hué come Saigon. Saigon see. Sure-sure.”
It might be true. Cochinchina was a full colony, Hué just a protectorate. If official government documents came here, they would go to Papa’s office, but there might be copies in the central library. That’d be the first place to check, rather than coming up with lies for Papa about why I wanted to see list of administrators from Hué.
I’d be able to visit the library right after my lesson, if I hurried.
“Thank you,” I said in French.
Something had come from this morning’s deception. Something I could actually do that could confirm what had happened to my family.
He nodded distractedly at my thanks. He was looking past me, frowning up the quay at something.
“Secret, uh?” I said hopefully in Trade, pointing at myself.
“Huh.” He wasn’t paying attention. I turned to look up the quay to see what he was looking at.
Not far away, I could see the tall, angular figure of the priest, Père St Cyprien, was talking to the fleshy Monsieur Riossi, the last of the group that had ambushed Papa. I liked neither of them. The priest had the perpetually sallow face and bruised eyes of someone who slept badly at night. I knew the things that kept me awake, and I couldn’t help wondering what it was that disturbed him. As for Riossi, his eyes seemed to follow me around when I was unlucky enough to be in the same room with him.
The pair of them were deep in conversation, waving their hands for emphasis, but slowly coming closer.
“Tò Dara,” muttered the Salayar’s captain, and trotted back to his ship, his pipe trailing aromatic smoke over his shoulder. “Bad-bad.”
What was that all about?
I wanted to call after him and find out. But young ladies wouldn’t do that, and at that moment I saw Monsieur Song striding toward me from the Signal Point at the end of the quay. Slipping quickly past the priest and Riossi, I waved and walked briskly to meet him.
My lǎoshi, my tutor in Mandarin, was Yi Song.
He was a merchant who traded in silks, perfumes and medicines from a modest shop in Cholon, which was the Chinese district of Saigon. He lived in a rambling, airy house, built around peaceful courtyards with water gardens, where scarlet carp drifted beneath the white water lilies and fragrant yellow lotuses.
He spoke several dialects of Chinese, which wasn’t unusual, but no other trader I had met also spoke French and Annamese. He even knew some Arabic and Malay, and probably more that I didn’t know of.
He dressed plainly, without the embroidered robes or formal hats common to high ranking Chinese men all around the South China Sea. He also shaved, trimmed his nails and didn’t dye his teeth black, all against the fashions of Chinese society in Cochinchina. About the only concession to Chinese fashion he made was to braid his hair in a queue which hung half way down his back.
His eccentricity extended to his family. His wives and his daughter, Qingzhao, didn’t have bound feet. I had even heard them argue with him. I believed it was regarded as something of a scandal in Cholon.
However, despite Song so clearly setting himself apart from them, the Chinese merchants of Saigon all deferred to him.
My friends were sure that must be because he was in the Tong, the sinister Chinese secret society. They were eager to tell me that one day, my tutor would kidnap me, and sell me as a slave in China, or worse, somewhere barbaric like Russia, or even Australia.
Let them think what they wanted.
Monsieur Song and Papa shared a vision of Cochinchina. There was such a potential here. Annamese and Chinese and French between them had created the beginnings of a society which would transform the East.
They were not blind. There were huge faults on all sides and much to repair. It would take years of work. And they would need people who were at ease, in language and customs, between all the elements that made up that society.
When circumstances had changed after my adoption, Papa had given up the idea of going back to France and pushing for changes there. He’d replaced that with making changes here instead. It seemed natural for me to fall into that plan and have Monsieur Song tutor me in Mandarin, Chinese culture and philosophy.
If Papa became Governor Beauclerc, and I had not destroyed his trust with my deceptions, I would become part of the mélange of East and West that he could point to.
I wanted, very much, to be able to offer him that.
Maman didn’t exactly approve of Monsieur Song, but she couldn’t really argue that he was the best teacher for me, and my lessons were coming on well.
And as to those lessons themselves, I enjoyed them, but on the other hand, Monsieur Song tolerated nothing less than my best efforts. I had to put aside the excitement of talking to the Salayar’s captain, and my eagerness to go hunting lists of Hué mandarins in the library. It was time to concentrate on speaking Mandarin or I’d be in trouble.
We began to walk, Jade following at a distance.
Greetings out of the way, he switched immediately to Mandarin, starting with short, sharp questions about the docks, ships and crews. Where I didn’t know a word or phrase, he would tell me and then make me use it in several new sentences. By the time we had rounded the point and walked as far as the Bank of Indochina, I was panicking from the relentless pace of the lesson, sure that the language was going to slip out of my grasp at any moment and I would be left unable to understand a single thing. He always seemed to be able to keep me in that state.
“Good,” he said, stopping for a moment in front of the Bank to look at all the people walking in and out. Then he turned on his heel. “Now, we will talk about finance and trade.”
I groaned silently. It was going to be an even longer walk back.
We were discussing the dangers of indebtedness when we returned to La Ronde. It was much busier now; a constant, noisy swirl of people jostling in all directions.
“But you are a businessman,” I said. “You own your business, and you must have borrowed money at some stage. Or perhaps you pay for goods at the end of the month, even though they are delivered at the beginning. That’s a form of loan.”
“Yes, for practicality, most traders operate like that. For commerce, that is necessary. For my personal life, well,” he paused thoughtfully, “I would not want to be in debt to anyone who would lend me money.”
What? Did I misunderstand the Mandarin phrase? He wouldn’t…
“Lǎoshī! You’re teasing me.”
His face was impassive, but his eyes gave him away.
We came to a halt.
“An acceptable lesson,” Song said, switching back to French.
He looked around until he located Jade, who would accompany me back to the house. She was waiting in the shadow of an awning that a chandler had erected over his shop front.
“Here,” Monsieur Song produced a small book from his pocket and gave it to me. “Yuan style essays for you to read. Search for the underlying layers of meaning.”
At least it was a slim volume. Lessons with Song were scary but enjoyable, however, reading Ming dynasty literature was simply boring.
“I must return to my business,” he said. “Next time, I am minded to try something different again.”
He paused for a moment, stroking his chin. “The lesson will be conducted by Qingzhao at the house in Cholon. She speaks more quickly and with less emphasis than me. This will be good practice for you.”
“I look forward to it,” I replied.
What he really meant was she would be more difficult to understand. Then again, I didn’t think she would make me so frantic to keep up with what she said, the way he did. Qingzhao was a little distant with me, but maybe we’d even talk of something more interesting than finance and trade.
A smile touched the corners of his lips. “I will check afterwards. I do not expect you to spend all your time gossiping.”
“Yes, Lǎoshi!” Had he just read my mind?
I bit my lip. With his knowledge of languages, here was actually something he might be able to answer for me. “May I ask a question?”
He slipped his hands into the sleeves of his silk jacket and folded his arms. “Yes.”
“I heard a word on the docks. I think it might be Trade or Bugis. I wondered if you knew it. The word is dara.”
He looked silently at me for a long moment, only the slightest widening of his eyes betraying surprise. “Short words turn up in many languages, meaning different things, and Trade is a mixture of all languages around the South China Sea. It might mean a dove. It would help if you remembered any other words that were said at the same time.”
If the Bugis called themselves Tò Laut, meaning the clan of the sea, then I didn’t believe Tò Dara meant the clan of the dove, given the way the Salayar’s captain had said it.
“Tò Dara,” I said.
Song frowned. “Most interesting,” he said, eventually. “Bugis, then. The word dara means blood in their language. The phrase is the name of an old ghost myth of the Celebes.” He glanced across at the throngs of workers along the docks. “I must go. Remember, your next lesson with Qingzhao is not for gossip. Not for ghost stories, either.”
He turned and strode away, his long paces eating up the distance to the tram stop, his queue swinging like a pendulum across his back.
As I watched, he stopped. There were some street urchins gathered as they usually did on the docks. Monsieur Song gave them something, as he often did—small pastries or coins from his pocket. He spoke a few words to them, and they solemnly bowed to each other before he continued to the tram.
It made me smile, and it was yet another thing that made him unusual. Most Chinese merchants would only chase the boys away.
In all the time he’d been tutoring me, I’d didn’t think I’d ever quite surprised him as I had with the question about Tò Dara. That was interesting, but there was no time to waste thinking about it. I wasn’t late yet, but it would take fifteen minutes to get to the library, and then however long it took to find if there were documents that listed the mandarins in service to the Emperor before I could hurry home.
“Done,” a voice speaking Trade barked in my ear. “Paid.”
I’d been so distracted, I’d not noticed the whirl of Bugis that flowed around me in the crowds of people on the promenade. It was a half dozen of the crew of the Salayar.
Something pressed against my stomach and for one awful moment I thought I’d been stabbed. My hands instinctively clutched at the object, and I was left holding something hard and weighty, wrapped in coarse jute cloth.
“No owe now.” It was the Salayar’s captain, speaking as he walked away, flanked by his ragged crew. He turned briefly, walking backwards, and jabbed his chest, just over his heart. “Use here. For protect. Saigon bad. Got Tò Harimau. Got Tò Dara. Tall man. Bad-bad.”
Tall man. His words chilled me; the same name my mother had used instead of saying Bác Thảo.
That couldn’t be right.
“Wait,” I called, but the Salayar had already loosened its moorings in preparation, and the six of them had to leap from the quayside to the deck.
By the time I made my way through the crowds to the spot, they’d poled themselves clear and the current was pulling the bow around.
Immediately, the crew set to raising their lateen sails.
I was shocked to see the Salayar was still riding high in the water. They hadn’t bought all their intended load of rice and medicine. Something they’d found out this morning meant more to them than their profit for the journey.
Tò Dara? Ghost stories? Bác Thảo?
Maybe tall man was just a coincidence and it wasn’t Bác Thảo he meant. Bác Thảo himself wouldn’t be at the docks early in the morning, would he?
I cast my mind back to earlier. The priest and Monsieur Riossi had been standing there. Riossi was not tall.
Père St Cyprien?
No. Surely not.
And what was Tò Harimau?
The chances were, I’d never see the Salayar again to ask.
Done. Paid. No owe now, he’d said. Bugis didn’t like debts, and it seemed he felt his information about lists of mandarins in Hué hadn’t been as valuable as my help with the customs officer.
So what had he given me?
I was about to undo the bindings when I realized that Jade had worked her way through the crowd to join me.
“What they do?” she demanded.
I held the Salayar gift next to Song’s book and shrugged. “They jostled me accidentally and said something that I didn’t understand.”
“Bugis,” she spat. “Scum.”
At least she didn’t seem to notice the package, or assumed it was part of what Monsieur Song had given me.
Her eyes were angry as she looked out at the Salayar as it picked up speed on the river. She looked at me the same way, as if she knew there’d been something happening without being able to work out what it was.
Jade didn’t seem to approve of anything, not Monsieur Song, not me, and certainly not Bugis sailors on the dock.
I’d long ago given up trying to change her opinion about anything, so we didn’t speak as we returned to La Ronde and took a rickshaw up Rue Blanchy to the library.
My mind was a commotion anyway, split now between the urgency of trying to find news of my father in Hué, and seeking out the meaning of the Salayar captain’s parting words.
What on earth was going on in Saigon?
A girl brought up on a sampan in Arroyo Chinois and in the hard scrabble of life of Ap Long develops a sense of awareness, a feeling for danger. That sense had been dormant for some time, but I found it returning now. The hairs on my neck prickled.
I found myself anxious to examine the strange gift I’d received, but that would have to wait until I could smuggle the gift into my room at home, away from Jade’s prying eyes. Still, it weighed heavily in my hands as I prepared to search the library for news of my family.
The ornate longcase clock on the library wall told me I had barely ten minutes left before I had to go home.
Yes, the head librarian had said. The government in Saigon received lists of mandarinate appointments from Hué, but only sent them to the library when their own shelves were full. No, they weren’t in the general reading section, they were down in the archive.
She’d organized to have them brought up, but the assistant would have to find them.
During my wait, I wasn’t having much luck with ghost stories from the Celebes either, and in my hurry, dropped a heavy book I’d taken from the shelves onto the desk.
The only other occupant of the library’s reading room looked up and frowned at the noise.
“My apologies, Madame,” I murmured.
She was examining the French Cartographic Society’s maps of the area between Saigon and Phnom Penh, and comparing it to sketches in a hand-written notebook.
That was uncommon.
But none of my business, and anyway, uncommon was probably the same thing she thought of me, an Annamese girl in French clothing, struggling with an oversized compendium on the mythology of the Celebes.
Her gaze passed over the book and came up at my face.
She had the disturbingly intense look of one of the Andalusian flamenco dancers that I’d seen staring out from the painted portraits in the gallery at the Governor’s mansion. Her black hair had probably been pinned up neatly a few hours ago, but clearly resented the restraint, and locks had escaped to frame her face.
The moment passed. She went back to her maps and I skimmed my book.
My trouble was that there was too much. The Bugis island of Sulawesi was a melting pot of cultures and they’d each brought their own myths and borrowed from everyone else. But nowhere did I see any mention of Tò Dara.
With five minutes left, I hurriedly put the books back and returned to the counter at the front to see what had come from the archives.
“This is the compilation of civil administration postings from Hué,” the librarian said, sliding a leather folio binder to me; thick, black and dusty. “You’ll have to apply to the Governor’s office if you need something more recent.”
“Thank you, Madame,” I said. The binding held years of appointments, each year in a booklet, stitched together along the edge. The most recent was four years ago. It was just possible my father would be included in it.
I flipped pages. The book had list upon list; some translated, some still in Mandarin. There were candidates for examinations, results of examinations, sponsors and appointments.
Anyone could become a mandarin in theory, but first you had to pass the difficult examinations. Then you had to have a sponsor in whatever department you wanted to work in. My father had already passed the examinations, of course, but finding a sponsor would be the hard part.
That narrowed it down, but it would still take hours to search through.
I looked up. “Is it possible to borrow this, please? Just for a few days.”
The librarian looked surprised, but filled out the form, which I signed.
It was getting late. Not just for me to be home for lunch, but for the library to close as well. However, finding this document had given me an idea. “Is there something similar for maids in Cochinchina? Or at least Saigon? A list of domestic servants in French households?”
She blew her cheeks out. “No. Of course, they try to make an accounting in the census.” She shrugged expressively. “Perhaps you could ask at the department of the census in the Secretary General’s office.”
“One last quick thing, please, Madame.”
Madame was unimpressed. Her lunch and afternoon nap were calling her.
“I’m looking for a reference book about the myths of the Celebes.”
“Myths?” she said, frowning. “Superstitions?”
“Yes. Something about ghosts that are called Tò Dara.”
The librarian looked blankly at me.
“You will not find that here, Mam’selle,” someone behind me said.
It was the lady from the reading room, passing on her way out. Her head was cocked to one side and her eyebrows raised as if there was something very strange in asking about Tò Dara.
From her soft accent she was Spanish. She wore a somber green skirt and matching short waistcoat, with a thin spiral of pale embroidery at the sides. Brown boots, with buckles and a pattern tooled into the face, showed beneath the hem of her dress and her white blouse puffed out around the waistcoat. It was an unusual and dramatic style; a little wild as if to complement her escaping hair I’d noticed earlier.
She looked to be only in her twenties, but had an air of great confidence about her.
“Emmanuela Cortés.” She juggled a leather satchel onto her left hand and offered her right.
I shook it awkwardly, unused to that form of greeting. “Ophélie Beauclerc,” I said. “Your clothes are quite wonderful, Madame.”
Her lips thinned. “Como una vaquera. For comfort.” She glanced at the librarian. “Come, I think we are outstaying our welcome.”
We were ushered out into the hallway.
As soon as we started walking, I saw that she was actually wearing some sort of culottes, a divided skirt, as if for horseback riding. That was what her Spanish comment must have meant. I’d heard of divided skirts, but this was the first I’d ever seen. My dress suddenly felt so staid. I had the idea that a divided skirt would be regarded as scandalous in French society, but for a moment I wanted to be outrageous and daring and wear one too. Of course, in my position as the Beauclerc’s daughter, I could not.
And as if to remind me of that, Jade was waiting in the hall. She stood up and joined us, looking suspiciously at Emmanuela, who just smiled back.
“Ay! Adelante,” Emmanuela said, as we stood on the steps outside the library. “So, you’re looking for stories of the Tò Dara?”
“Yes, I only heard it today. I was curious.”
“And now I am, too. It’s not a name I’ve heard outside of little coastal villages in the Celebes. How does a young lady in Saigon hear such a name?”
“Oh, it was just a comment made by a crew of Bugis on the quay this morning. They jostled me and called out some words I didn’t understand.”
“How strange. Are you sure they were speaking to you?”
At that moment, we were interrupted.
“Ophélie!” A Malabar carriage came to a halt on the street in front of us. It was Maman. “There you are.”
She told the coachman to wait and stepped down.
“Maman, may I introduce Madame Emmanuela Cortés. Madame Cortés, my mother, Madame Beauclerc.”
“Delighted,” Maman said. “Do you two know each other?”
Emmanuela’s face had paled slightly and her easy use of French slipped a little. “We are just meeting in the library, Madame,” she said. “Acquaintances only in passing. I should not keep you.”
Maman could see my face fall.
“Do you have an engagement for lunch?” she said to Emmanuela. “Or would you care to join us?”
“I think, perhaps…”
Such an invitation to a stranger, even in the relaxed society of Saigon, was rare and it was difficult to turn down gracefully. Emmanuela had some problem with it, though I couldn’t think why.
Maman clearly knew. “I am aware of your argument with the Saigon administration, Madame Cortés, and I assure you that my husband will not be home for lunch, nor will I discuss the matter with you, or with him.” She gave that little upward tilt of the head that she did so often. “Come, let’s put that all aside. You’ve just come from Paris, I understand. I would so like to speak of things not to do with Saigon, and we’re always eager to hear news from France. Let’s talk of fashions. Art. Music. Archaeology even. Anything but politics and government.”
Emmanuela suppressed a smile of relief and bobbed her head. “Thank you, Madame. Then I would be very pleased to join you.”
“Come.” Maman turned to get back in the carriage.
“Let me carry your satchel,” I offered Emmanuela, adding quickly: “May I put my things in there, please?”
She looked quizzically at me, but let me take her satchel, and I slipped the ledger from Hué, Song’s book and the Salayar captain’s gift inside, where no one would see them and ask me awkward questions.
There has to be a slight interlude, before I get back onto writing the serial I recently promised.
However… I see many readers have visited the site, so I need to post something. I took the old first version of the first section of Bian’s Tale off the blog recently. It’s a bit of a cheat to post it again, but this book has been three years in the writing, and there may be readers who didn’t see this the first time around. It has also changed and some may be interested to see what it looks like now. This is the 4th version / major revision, and this section the least affected by rewrites.
Here’s the link to the original post, if you’re interested in the comments that were made when I first posted it: Comments from original posting
I’ve no single reason why this book has taken me so long. There are sub-reasons – the language, the research about Saigon in 1890, the growth of Bian’s character (including a gap ‘off-screen’ where she assimilates 19th C French culture), the difficulty of building a character in an Urban Fantasy book before the paranormal shows up, and so on. It does also get quite dark in the middle sections. One of the most fundamental problems has been that I’m not crystal clear who I’m writing this for. I think that sounds like crazy writer stuff, but if you want me to elaborate, ask and I will.
This section is 6k words long. If people want it, I will post the second and third sections (in parts – they are a bit long for single posts). I am approaching the end of the 5th, out of 6 sections in all. The sections are called Innocence, Awakening, The Right Path, Unraveling, Darkness Falls (or Shadowfall), and Revenge (tbc). Each section is represented by a Chinese ideogram, hence the uncertainty as I discuss the possible section names with a lady who can actually write the old-school, formal ideograms.
It will be published in full in 2018.
Part 1- Innocence
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 in Sai Gon, in Nam Kỳ, about one hundred and thirty years ago. You now call the place of my birth Hô Chí 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.
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 forever.
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 forever.
As a child, I heard stories of the ma cà rông.
In the West, those stories would have been about the vampire.
They are wrong.
I am Athanate; I take blood to sustain me.
I am not a demon. I am not an animated corpse.
I have a soul.
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 leaped up.
“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 clever 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’d chased us out of 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. But I was the one who had climbed the tree, who’d plucked the big, juicy fruit. 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 and not nine years old.
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, Bian. It’s nothing, just dust in my eyes.”
“I love you really, Nhung.”
“I know. And I love you, too. Now, you’re too old to be carried like this and I’m too tired. You must walk; we’re nearly there.”
She put me down and, as evening fell, we walked together into the sprawling village where we lived.
Nhung had known another world—one outside of my imagining at that time—but I had been born on a sampan, a small wooden boat, in a floating village. I accepted the stink, the noise and the crowding of shelters as simply the way things were.
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 knew Sai Gon, 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 river, 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.
He put his pots down. “You have an aunty come to visit,” he said in a low voice, fingers twisting around each other.
“An aunty?” I looked up at Nhung. She untied her hair and let it fall across her face.
“Minh, take the pots. Come away. Now.” His mother called him back.
She didn’t like to speak to my parents, but she had been kind to me and Nhung before.
Maybe her husband was smoking opium again. Minh told me that always put her in a bad mood when he wasted what little money they had.
“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 in Ap Long, 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 the world I’d known 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. Only the bits of catfish left over, for sure, but tasty all the same.
We children sat 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. I sat between Tuan, my younger brother, and Nhung.
A small lamp in the middle of the floor was the only light, but it was bright enough for me to see Aunty Kim’s face clearly, and 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 an 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, though. 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. Maybe a bit longer than that.
“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 all of what she said. I was certain I understood the words, but they didn’t make sense. She could only be talking about 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.
“Her French is good,” said my mother. “And she can barter with the market sellers in Cantonese, Han and Tamil, even Trade—”
“She hasn’t worked in a house before,” interrupted 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 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. But that would be a cost, not a fee.”
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 Bác Thảo had heard of my father. Before men came asking for him and we had to escape from Khánh Hôi 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.
Bác Thảo 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. The 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 again, with the old smell of fish guts and sweat. What had happened?
I reached out to 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, past Khánh Hôi and into Arroyo Chinois with the fishermen and rice sellers. Sampans covered the face of the creek there, every day. As we had needed to many times before, we walked from boat to boat to reach the quay. But today, we greeted no one. My family slunk away from the docks like dogs, our straw hats pressed down over our faces.
The whole family except for Nhung, who I couldn’t see, not even in any of the other boats.
“Don’t look around,” hissed my mother. “Keep your eyes down.”
Everyone seemed scared, and that scared me.
I was frightened by what I didn’t understand. I wasn’t scared of Bác Thảo. 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 Bác Thảo 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 through 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.
It was so noisy, I put my hands over my ears.
We passed through the market. People flowed like an impatient, shouting river between the stalls and the shops. Great-wheeled bullock carts forced the torrent to divide and added the squeal of their wooden axles to the clamor.
I was swept along, Lanh’s hand gripping my shoulder.
It wasn’t like Ap Long, where we knew everyone and we might stop to talk. Here, everyone was talking and none of them to us. No-one seemed to see us. I was scared that if I fell, they’d just walk over me.
It seemed to go on forever. Even where there were no shops, there were buildings being built. Dust billowed around us.
My parents made us hurry, and eventually we came to a quiet road lined by funny buildings with no windows. They had little arches that went nowhere and walls in the shape of a half moon, all guarded by statues of strange-looking animals.
“What are they?” I whispered to Lanh.
“The houses of the dead,” he replied. “Don’t look at them, or they’ll follow you home.”
That was silly. Everyone knew only hungry ghosts that hadn’t received proper attention from their families went walking, and these places looked well kept.
Still, I looked straight ahead.
And where was home now? I didn’t dare ask my parents yet.
About noon, we were back surrounded by people. The streets here were narrow and the buildings all short. This was Cholon, Lanh said. I could feel my parents weren’t so worried any more, but still no one would tell me anything.
We stopped at a house, 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 Chinese 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 cups.
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 old man lived in a stone house, but his tongue and his teeth seemed quite normal, not like a dragon at all. Despite that disappointment, I thought I liked him.
My parents went out, leaving us to wait.
Tuan and Lanh argued about what we were doing here and when Nhung would join us. I opened a sack and sniffed some spice which burned my nose and made my eyes water. The old men laughed and closed the sacks.
One of them taught us a board game, Xiangqi. I watched Tuan 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 wasn’t.
They brought food—noodles and fish soup, and pork as well. Pork! We sat at the back of a stone house in Cholon 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 spoke while we ate, and afterwards too. Here, we knew things had changed. I was worried, but it wasn’t so scary as long as mother and father were with us. They wouldn’t let anything bad happen.
“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 Khánh Hôi to go to Ap Long?”
“Yes, we left because Bác Thảo was looking for us and he has ears in the water.”
“Hush, Bian, do not say that name.” My mother glanced out into the street. “Say…say the tall man.”
“The tall man,” said my father, “is very bad. He found us in Khánh Hôi 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 money—money for papers and food. 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. You must both stay.”
My mother began weeping.
“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. I couldn’t let them punish her.
“No, Bian Hwa, it is not your fault. The tall 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.
“We must not lie,” said my mother, wiping her eyes fiercely. “This day of all days. Nhung will work in Sai Gon as a maid. She will be safe.” She moved closer to me. “Bian, you are too young to work as a maid and too young for the journey up the country.” She paused; she looked so sad and angry at the same time. “Much more than that we want you to be happy, and free of the tall man. We want you to be truly free. 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?”
“The Cholon district of Sai Gon, in Nam Kỳ,” he replied proudly.
“No! Our leaders are exiled; our rulers are French. We are not supposed to even leave this place unless they give us permission. Forget Nam Kỳ, all of you. Forget the puppet Emperor. That world is 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 shook his head sorrowfully. “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.”
Lanh was still angry but kept his face blank as he lowered his eyes dutifully.
“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. In time, you will go far away and learn so many things. You will have a good life, free of the tall man. Don’t you want that?”
I cried. I didn’t want to go far away and learn things. I wanted to go home and I didn’t know where that was anymore.
“But how?” said Lanh.
“We knew the tall man was getting closer, and that gave us just enough time to prepare. We’ve made an agreement with a good Frenchman and his wife,” replied my mother. “An important man in the government. They are a rich family with no children. They want to adopt a girl before they go back to France.”
“Bian,” she hugged me again, tears shining on her cheeks, “you will have a new mother and father, and you will live well in a big stone house and see so many beautiful things. You will be happy, won’t you?”
My name is Bian Hwa Trang. 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 Kỳ; 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 civil service fell, taking my father and many others with him into disgrace.
A trial was held. It was a mockery.
A charge was laid against my father’s sponsor that he had stolen the government funds for building the Emperor’s mausoleum. He was an honorable man, and he committed suicide to protect his family and friends. That was sufficient for his enemies. The man and his supporters had been effectively destroyed; they ceased to care. The charges were allowed to lapse. 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 became the stuff of legend—an emperor’s ransom. It had been hidden, the whispers said, and the location known only to a trusted few.
I’m sure that gave my father no more than bitter amusement, until a chance comment, a cruel aside when he was seen by his former colleagues working 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. He worked as a humble fisherman in Khánh Hôi, biding his time before he collected it.
Bác Thảo’s men came searching through the floating townships for my father.
Lord of the gangs in Khánh Hôi, fierce as a tiger, cruel as death, Bác Thảo ruled the river community, the dock workers and the army of people employed in the construction of the new French Saigon.
There was never any chance that we would not be betrayed, and my parents knew it.
I must have been about six. 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 Lanh 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 Bác Thảo tracked us down the second time were famine years. As the eldest children, Lanh and Nhung took the brunt of the extra work and ate no more than Tuan 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. And as a child, I never cried again, except in the darkness, with no one as my witness.
I knelt on the wooden floor. It was very hard.
Zacharie and Thérèse Beauclerc, Papa and Maman, sat on a curving cane seat, big enough for a whole family. Papa and Maman, I said their names over to myself. I mustn’t get it wrong. My father and mother would be shamed if I did. They sat on the other cane seats. I had said goodbye to Lanh and Tuan at the stone house in Cholon. I had not cried. I would not cry. I would not.
My parents had bought me the áo dài, the floating, paneled tunic and narrow trousers I saw women in Saigon wear. It was the most beautiful, delicate clothing I had ever worn, like being dressed in butterflies. I stayed very still, frightened I might damage it.
My parents had hired some clothes before we came. They sat, almost strangers to me in their finery, and spoke quietly in French with Papa and Maman.
This house looked as if it was not made of stone, but of wood: a dark teak, waxed and polished till it shone in the light of the lamps. The whole building sat on a slight hill, and at the back it rested on stilts, like the fishermen sometimes made their houses.
White gauze sheets behind me, even softer and lighter than the áo dài, kept insects out of the room and let cool air trickle in, scented with frangipani blossom.
Opposite me, upright against the wall, stood two large elephant tusks. A brass gong, like they had at the temples, hung between them. It was so fine that the room reflected in the wavy surface, the lights undulating across it as I moved my head.
The other walls had weapons fixed on them, and vases and drums stood in front. So many things in the way. Maybe the house was smaller than it looked from outside and there was nowhere else to keep all these things.
But the worst was the tiger skin which lay in the middle of the floor. Its mouth was open in a snarl and its glassy eyes were fixed on me. It scared me. It became the soul of everything that threatened me at that moment. I tried not to look at it while Papa and Maman asked questions, and my mother and father replied. They spoke of journeys and the trouble in the north, and the words flowed around me.
A woman came in with a jar of cool water and poured more for all of us. She was Chinese. Her hair was plaited, pinned against her head with a shiny clip, and she was dressed in a stiff, white tunic and blue trousers.
“Thank you, Aunty,” I whispered.
She barely looked at me. Her eyes gleamed beneath low lids like pebbles on the river bed. Her face stayed blank. She gave her head a tiny shake and returned the way she’d come.
Maman spoke of lessons and teachers. My mother kept her eyes down. She had taught me herself. I could speak French. I could read and write a little, too. That was more than any of my friends.
Then Maman asked about my belongings. There was a silence, before my father said: “We agreed that it would be better to start again with nothing.”
The talking was over. My father and mother stood. My mother was trembling. I got up too, edging round the tiger. There was an ache that seemed to fill my chest. Surely they could see it?
No! Don’t go. Not yet. Just a little more time, a little more. Please.
But we were shuffling awkwardly towards the door, and I didn’t dare speak what I felt.
Other people came and held the door open for them.
Was I allowed to hug them?
It was too late. They were outside.
Papa gave my mother a parcel wrapped in red. Then he came back inside and took my hand. I stood there between Maman and Papa. The door closed.
The first part of my life was over.
We sat back down on the big cane seat.
Fear squeezed my throat, but there were words I had been told to say. “I am so very happy, Maman, Papa.”
They each took a hand. Their hands were soft and warm.
“We know this is hard for you,” said Maman. “It will get better. This will all seem like a dream.”
Papa patted my hand. “We think it will be best to start some things straight away.” He cleared his throat. “It will help if you have a French name. So from now, we will call you Ophélie. Ophélie Beauclerc. There, isn’t that a pretty name?”
It was pretty, but I thought there was nothing wrong with my name.
“We understand your parents’ decision,” said Maman. “He is lucky to have the job in Thanh Hóa after all the troubles he has had, but we agree, it is no place for a young girl. Those Can Vuong people are still making mischief and there are those awful Black Flag bandits. Do you understand?”
My father had no job to go to in Thanh Hóa. The troubles he had described were not the real ones he had. I knew lies were wrong, and even though these were to keep me out of the reach of Bác Thảo, lies feed on themselves.
My father was going to Hué, to see if the passing of time and the evidence of his hardships would soften hearts. He was seeking to join the Emperor’s service again, despite everything.
“Anyway, we’ll be perfectly safe here.” Maman paused. “Now, this has been a big day. You must be tired. It’s time you were in bed.”
I hadn’t had time to realize there was something more to be afraid of. I didn’t know what to do with anything.
I had a room just for sleeping. It had a bed. I knew what a bed was. I knew people in stone houses slept in beds. How? Was there a trick to it? What was the white tent above the bed? There was a mirror on a table against the wall. A glass mirror, perfect and cold, reflecting my frightened eyes. There was a tall, empty wooden box standing on its side. A lamp that I must not light. A pot that I understood I was meant to piss and shit in. And the window that I must keep open sometimes and closed at other times.
Too much. Things crowded on me until I felt sick with panic, my hand frozen on the iron latch for the shutters, looking out into the darkness.
That was worse.
Maman’s touch was gentle on my shoulders.
“What’s the matter, Ophélie?”
“Lights,” I said. Lights flickered in the night. One moment they looked close enough to reach out and touch, the next, distant. The ghosts had followed me home from the houses of the dead.
“The lights? What are they making you think of?”
I didn’t want to talk to her about the houses of the dead. To name something is to give it life.
“The mountain people,” I said instead. Too late, I realized I didn’t want to talk about this either, because of the tiger on the floor in the big room, but Maman was waiting and the words spilled from me. “They are hô con quỷ. Tiger demons. In the day, they are people and they walk with us. But in the night, they change into tigers. They sit in the dark and watch you, and you can only see them by the light in their eyes.”
I had heard this from Minh’s father, who had lived many years in Dankia, in the foothills, and he had seen them with his own eyes.
“Of course, but we’re a long way from the mountains here, and anyway, I think they’re just fireflies near the old Khmer tombs.” Maman closed the shutter and pulled me back into the room.
“Well, enough,” she said, and helped me strip off the áo dài and put on a simple cotton dress. The dress was too big.
A dress just to sleep in?
I got into bed as Maman told me. It felt very high off the floor. She untied the loose knot in the white gauze tent and lowered it around the bed, tucking it in. She explained that it was a net to keep mosquitos from biting me. But what if I tore it, trying to get out? I watched silently as she put the áo dài away in the tall box. The cupboard, she told me, for all my clothes.
Clothes? To fill the…cupboard?
She paused as she lowered the wick on the lamp.
“I hope we’ll be so happy, Ophélie.” She thought for a moment, then undid a corner of the net to lean in and kiss me on the forehead. The smell of fruits and flowers lingered after she’d put out the lamp and closed the door.
I lay rigid, unable to move at first.
It was too quiet. The bed was too soft. The bedhead was made of sandalwood, and its subtle fragrance gradually took over from the scent of Maman and the smoke from the lamp’s wick. It smelled too different. And I’d never slept alone, never slept more than an arm’s reach from my family.
I hugged myself, forced myself to move a tiny bit until I was rocking quietly to and fro.
I am so lucky. I am so lucky. I am so lucky.
Slowly, I calmed. How could I be upset, lying here in such luxury, when Nhung was also alone, somewhere new and unfamiliar, learning to be a maid?
The rest of the family would be far away soon, but Nhung would still be here in Saigon, somewhere close.
I would find Nhung.
Yes, I would be a good daughter to Papa and Maman, and learn things and be happy, or my parents would be shamed. But I would find Nhung too.
It would take time; my world had gotten so much bigger than Ap Long, and so much more frightening.
Eventually, I slept.
I dreamed of the lights beyond my window, but they were not ghosts. I had not called the ghosts. It was Dan, the Year of the Tiger, and they were tigers’ eyes, watching me from the velvet night, and they did not blink. I had named them hô con quỷ, tiger demons, and I had called them here to Saigon.
And then I dreamed of the Mother of Waters, the wide yellow-brown river that swept everything away.